A conversation with childhood historian Paula Fass
If you’re reading this, you were once a child. We won’t all become parents, or get married, or live to a ripe old age, but we’ve all experienced childhood. And yet, for all its universality, it is by no means a fixed idea or immutable reality. Our very notions of childhood—the nature of the experience, what expectations and privileges attend to it, how long it lasts—these things have changed with time and circumstance, and differ across cultures.
One illustration of this obvious yet easily overlooked fact dates to the founding of the American colonies and was offered to me by Berkeley historian Paula Fass. “If you think about when the colonies first came into being,” she said, “there was a real confrontation between the native peoples, who were partial hunter-gatherers, and the immigrants from Europe, who were agricultural. And what you see is that the native people thought the Europeans were abusing their children. They thought that, in a sense, [the children] weren’t given enough of a childhood, that there was an overemphasis on control and discipline. And of course one of the reasons you needed to control and discipline [children] is [that] you expected them to work for you in the fields.”
Past president of the Society for the History of Children and Youth and editor (most recently of The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World), Professor Fass has devoted much of her academic career to bringing this kind of historical perspective to the subject of childhood. Granted, her own books have focused primarily on childhood in modern America. They include The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s, Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education, and Kidnapped: A History of Child Abduction in America.
The last title, in particular, gets at something that greatly concerns Fass about the current state of childrearing in America; namely, the high level of anxiety parents bring to the enterprise. She believes that this anxiety is often attached to the specter of children being abducted by strangers, a fear fueled in no small part by a sensationalist media and blown out of all proportion to the statistical realities of the crime.
An admittedly “overanxious mother” herself, Fass nevertheless believes parents should fight the inclination (and societal expectation) to be overprotective. Not to do so, she feels, is to risk undermining children’s self-confidence and perhaps even depriving a generation of the very qualities Americans so purport to value: things like boldness and initiative.
In January, I sat down with Professor Fass in her Dwinelle Hall office to discuss some of these views. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation. It begins with a joke.
California: Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two women are sitting on a park bench, feeding the pigeons, silently watching the passersby. After a while, one says, “Oy!” There’s a long pause, and the other one, too, says “Oy!” Another pause, and the first one throws up her hands and says, “But enough about the children.” So, I guess the point of the joke is that we never stop worrying about our kids.
Paula Fass: I actually took the joke a little bit differently. I took it as, “The children aren’t paying enough attention.” Maybe because you have the “oy.” But it sounded to me like, “He never calls me. He’s a doctor, she’s a professor, but they never call.” And that’s interesting, because what you were saying suggests that parents are concerned with their children’s future, they’re still hovering over what’s happening to them—”Oh god, I can’t get them off my mind, I’m still worrying about them and they’re 30 years old. They don’t have a job, they’re not married.”—as opposed to the obligation idea that initially came to my mind. There was a time, in the not so distant past, when the children’s obligation to the parents was quite as important as the parents’ obligation to the children. Parents had expectations about their children. Certainly working-class families in the early 20th century could expect that their children would work and contribute to the family purse. That has really changed today, especially with white middle-class families; it’s now this one-way street of parental obligations to the children.
That trend began in the early 20th century for several reasons, starting with interventions by the state. There is the monitoring of certain issues, like child abuse, and laws that say children can’t be abused. And we all agree to that. But, remember, there were social workers in the early 20th century who considered putting children to work to be a kind of abuse, so the very expectations that immigrants and working-class families had for their children could initially be described as abuse. Especially in the late 19th century, as antagonism toward child labor grew in society as a whole.
Number two was schooling. As schooling became obligatory, parents lost the right to make various kinds of determinations over their children’s education. Take sex ed, which continues to be an issue today.
The third is child-rearing advice. There’s always been a certain kind of child-rearing advice that mothers and grandmothers passed on. And in the 19th century, ministers and ladies’ magazines wrote about childhood. But in the 20th century, it’s scientific childhood advice defined by pediatric and psychological experts who now intervene and say, “This is what you must do and what you can’t do.”
And there’s one more thing: Once you pass social security laws, and certainly Medicare, then the sense of obligation toward a parent gets removed from the children. It’s taken over by the state or by an insurance plan. The kind of interaction that had earlier been expected, that when parents got older they would live with their children, doesn’t happen anymore.
So, from a historical point of view, the superworrying about children is a very recent phenomenon. Before the 20th century, the main worry for your children was that they would die young.
So if parents’ expectations have been changed by these social structures, in what ways have those same changes altered the experience of childhood?
There are so many. Children no longer see themselves as part of a working organism, which is what the family was. The family was dominant in a way that it isn’t today. Whereas the child’s peer groups in the 18th and 19th centuries would largely be their siblings (of which there were many more), or people within the community, school now introduces children from other families and communities, creating a very different kind of peer orientation. Another change is the absence of grandparents in children’s immediate environment. It used to be that grandparents often lived with the family. Most children today think of their grandparents as people who give them all sorts of tchotchkes, toys and goodies, and foods their parents might not want them to eat. But the idea that the grandmother would educate you, and educate in fundamental ways—well, people don’t think about that anymore.
So, children today have much more influence from the outside, including from media and advertising. And the child’s understanding of the role of the family begins to shrink, whereas the parent’s understanding of their responsibility for and control over the child grows. So you can see that there begins to be serious potential for conflict, and in the past 30 years this has become more severe. Until then it was at least understood that it was the mother’s role to be home until the child went to school. Not anymore. Now mothers go out of the home to work shortly after the child is born. Children go to childcare or nursery school. At the same time, all these child-rearing experts come into play, and they all emphasize that early period as fundamental to cognitive growth and to emotional stability. And that, if you ask me, is the most significant reason for the growing anxiety of mothers.
Today we seem to worry more about things like cognitive development as opposed to, say, emotional and behavioral development, and social concerns like juvenile delinquency.
Yes, which raises an issue for me, at least as a historian, which is that we worry more and more about our own children, but less and less about anyone else’s children. That really bothers me. It’s this loss of [the] sense that the next generation is our next generation, and that we have an investment in them as a whole—not just the one or two that we reproduce ourselves.
Earlier in the 20th century there was the sense that we had obligations to worry about the children who become criminals, and obligations to worry about parents who lose their children because they’re poor and live in tenements. Those kinds of issues were covered in magazines and people became agitated about them, and women became involved in reform movements. Today, we just worry about the one or two that are ours. We have been ordered, in some ways, by the media to become more and more conscious of and feel a sense of being utterly responsible to our own children. But the others? “Well, it’s too bad.” And obviously when I hear reactions to Newtown, like “It hurts me, but thank God my child is OK. And therefore I’m going to go out and buy a gun to protect my child.”… I think this is something that the media has been complicit in.
They’ve used sensational examples, like child kidnapping and child murder, to make parents more and more fearful for their own children. But in fact our children, as we all really should know, are much safer than they were in the past and much better taken care of, and I have news for readers—they are better schooled, too. Our children are in a lot better shape, and yet we have been led to this terrible sense of anxiety, which I think is very malicious. I’m not sure how to deal with it except to talk to parents about how it would be a good thing for them to get involved with the children of their communities. Their children will benefit, and they’ll benefit because they won’t be so anxious all the time.
You wrote a book about the history of child abductions in America. Kidnapped. My own sense of the risks posed by strangers—someone snatching my kid—is that it’s not going to happen, but, if it did, I’d never forgive myself. I wouldn’t survive it.
Right, that’s your obligation and your responsibility. This is how the subject has been framed.
So how do you weigh the benefit against—the enormous benefit, I would say—of giving your children more room to explore and be independent, against the tiny risk that something will go horribly wrong?
You know, having children is one hell of a risk—from the get-go! And that’s part of the excitement. Excitement and risk go together. If you didn’t get it quite right, you would never forgive yourself. But you took a risk. I remember when I was pregnant, thinking, if there’s something wrong with this child, I will spend the rest of my life having to deal with what’s wrong. Even before the child is born, there is this risk. We as contemporary parents are refusing to deal with risk more and more. We’re even becoming more risk-averse about knowing the gender of our child. We are starting to create these designer children. That scares me. Because then you really are possessing your children. And that possession of your child is like the ownership of a slave. You choose your slave for what they’re going to provide! You buy them on the basis of qualities. Diabolical. It’s nothing but a replication of yourself, of your desire entirely.
I think that’s a useful way to think about it. There’s this tendency to want to control and the tendency to want to let go, but the controlling instinct can easily run amok.
We are taught control. It’s how we succeed. So that the very parents that are successful are the ones that control their work, control themselves by dieting and running—all kinds of control. And that’s also where the “Tiger Mother” ethic comes in. We want to make sure our children get the best education and that they’re prepared to compete in a global economy. It reminds me of nothing so much as the ’50s and ’60s, when women were there to help their husbands with their careers. It was more than one person creating a career. That fell away as women started their own careers. But today it’s like parents are there to help their children. We’ve transferred it.
And there is some genuine concern. Our schools do not, at least in obvious ways that you can put on a chart, compete with schools in Finland and Korea. But one of the things that has made Americans so interesting is inventiveness and creativity and imagination, and we have encouraged those things in our children. I don’t think we should give that up. If we’re going to have an edge against China, that’s going to continue to be it. We need to encourage ourselves to be more trusting of our children, of their future and their possibility.
So we should just give our kids more freedom?
More important than the freedom in some ways is the ability for them to prove their own competence. And children are like radar—if they don’t think you feel they are competent, they are not going to feel competent. All the self-esteem building in the world isn’t going to do it. Because they know that it’s fake. “Oh, you’re wonderful. You’re terrific.” They can tell the difference between being told that when they’ve actually achieved something, versus just being told that to build their self-esteem.
I think a lot of us look back and sort of idolize the so-called Greatest Generation. We point to their resourcefulness, these kids who had been made to work early, who were very independent minded and who knew how to do things—tinker with cars, build radios, etc. But we don’t seem to have internalized that in the current generation.
But we have to find our own way of thinking. And here, I’m going to stand up for young people, because they are resourceful. Our kids teach us all about the computer, for example. They poke around in computers the same way an earlier generation tinkered with cars and machinery. Let them do it. Let them demonstrate that confidence. It may not be in the way that we did it. They have to adapt to a new world. They should adapt to a new world! Americans became resourceful because everything was a new challenge. I think it would help us, and [the children], a lot to give them the respect they genuinely deserve. Let’s not hold them back too much from that. And let’s not expect them to replicate us. They have a new set of challenges, and if anyone is going to adapt to globalization, they will!
To what extent is the current parental anxiety a function of affluence?
Some of the anxiety we have about globalization and our children has more to do with our concern that they maintain our class position than with our concern for them. We don’t want to be the parents of kids who didn’t maintain our affluence and status. We push them to do that. And that’s not new. But we should recognize that that’s what we’re doing, that it’s less about the kids than it is a concern for us. So to go back to your joke—maybe those mothers are embarrassed that their children don’t have the same size houses they have. Ambition is part of what we’re worried about. We’re worried they won’t have that drive to succeed—and our worrying in some ways undermines that. They have to find their own ambition. It doesn’t have to be material. A lot of young people are moving towards spiritual goals because they want to fulfill their ambition—not ours. I think we are in a new world, and whenever we are in that situation, the chafing between generations becomes very prominent. New generations have to adapt, and parents don’t know how to help them.
How far back does our notion of a “generation gap” go?
The phrase that was used to mean generation gap was “culture lag.” Sociologists used it in the 1920s, when things were moving so quickly [that] there was a kind of disconnect between generations. And the ’20s, of course, was a very innovative decade.
And so the idea of culture lag, and then later a generation gap—do you think it’s a technological phenomenon? Back in the 1890s or 1790s, was there any sense of a generation gap then?
Well, there was some in the United States, if you want to talk specifically about the 1790s, because that was right after the American Revolution and the Constitution, which had come into effect in 1789. So there was a lot of concern that this is a new generation, that they need to be brought up differently, because of the kinds of things that were required of them to make the social experiment successful. The newness of America has always put an emphasis on the rapidity of change, and on our lack of preparation for change. By the 1830s and 1840s you have the early Industrial Revolution. Then there was the Civil War. We’ve constantly had to adapt.
So maybe we didn’t have the term “generation gap,” but there have long been challenges to doing things the old way. The kind of traditionalism common among Europeans was rare in the U.S. It would have been true for the elite and their children, who felt they had this kind of respect and obligation. And it would have been true among immigrants who came from Europe. But most American parents and children had a looser relationship. Parents knew that children had to make it on their own, whether that meant going out West or becoming entrepreneurs.
Is it your sense that the generation gap widens and narrows over time? It seems to me, for example, that youth culture of the ’20s and ’60s were particularly prominent.
Both of them were in-your-face. I’ve written about the ’20s. The youth were intentionally notorious, and the families worried about them a lot. And there was a big visible change. If you look at clothing or appearance, there’s a visible change in the ’20s just as there was in the ’60s. I always tell my students, take a look at the photographs in the Free Speech Cafe. They are wearing ties and jackets. The women are wearing dresses and nylons and high heels. The big transition takes place right after that, where the informalization of appearance happened and suddenly there were jeans and beards and long hair. This physical manifestation of the difference between generations can be very hard. That’s what I mean by in-your-face. Young people were basically saying, “We know we are a new generation. And you are old fogies.” So yes, there are certain moments when you see that much more dramatically.
Do you remember the punk generation and the tattoos and the piercings? It never became the dominant imagery, but that was also a manifestation of extreme difference and the awareness of that difference. Now, what we’re talking about is generational consciousness. I would definitely say that the ’60s and the ’20s had generational consciousness. That’s true. Whether our parenting today will produce that generational consciousness in our children is unknown. These children seem to be so well taken care of. Maybe they don’t even want to resist it! It’s nice for them.
I thought when Obama was elected that there might be some generational consciousness forming around him, that here is a young black family in the White House. But it didn’t. And I think it didn’t partially because there was this terrible economy. Both the ’20s and the ’60s were prosperous periods. It’s important to remember that when young people have defined themselves, it has been during periods that seemed easier economically. The ’30s, which were not a prosperous period, did not produce that kind of rebellious generation.
You’ve been teaching long enough to have watched generations come and go. What’s your sense of the kids today?
I’ll talk to you about the undergrads I’ve taught most recently, at Rutgers, where I taught the last two falls. Rutgers, like Berkeley, is a public university in a generally prosperous state. These were students who seemed definitely not to have a sense of themselves as a generation. They seemed to feel sorry for themselves, almost as if they had taken on their parents’ anxieties. I was very upset after teaching those two semesters, finding that my students didn’t have a sense of, “We’re going to go forth, we’re going to create new things, we’re going to be different and better than our parents.” It felt more like, “I’m going to keep my nose to the grindstone and get my grades up, because I need to go to graduate school.” They felt like old people in the classroom. My generation said, “Never trust anyone over 30.” Well, these people are still going to be students when they’re 30.
The other thing that I’ve noticed is that women students today are terribly worried about how they’re going to organize their lives. They feel the pressure of wanting careers and wanting to have children and they come to me for advice. I’ve had many students, many undergraduates be very concerned about how to combine the two. On the one hand, they’re expected to have careers and go to work, and they’re going to have to work just to maintain the lifestyle they’re accustomed to. But they also want to have children and wonder how they’re going to manage it. That’s an anxiety they have.
So here’s a generation that’s come out of the ’60s generation that said, “We’re going to redo the world,” and their children have this anxiety about being able to fulfill the objective presented to them: the liberationist objective. That’s not a generation seeing itself in alternative terms. Based on that, I can’t talk about what the current generation stands for, how they’re going to make their mark.
There’s a part of that that almost feels like what my advice to my own kids should be is, “Don’t worry about college. If you want to go, great. If you want to take a year off and travel, good. If you want to just never go to college … “.
College is no assurance for anything, even though we are taught that [it is].
There’s no one path, right?
Absolutely correct. And one of the things I think is really important is that kids learn how to deal with failure. And if we don’t let them learn how to deal with failure, they are not going to learn how to succeed. They have to learn how to drop out, if that’s necessary, or fail at something and cope with it. Because it will develop their strengths, just like they needed to be able to fall [in order] to walk. They have to do that. We don’t want them to fall off a building, so we’re there to hold them, but if they fall on the floor, they fall on the floor. They’ve done that forever.
But there, too, I think modern parents try to minimize every single risk and protect kids at every turn. We’ve gotten so successful at that, but perhaps there comes a time when we have to say, we’re too successful now.
That’s a good way to say it. We have gotten very good at protecting our children with various laws and schools and all of those things—with protective gear like car seats, etc. Good, we’ve done a lot of protection! But there are some things you cannot foresee, and there are certain things that you should allow to happen as your children develop and grow. I wish someone had said it to me, because I was an older parent and well-educated and, God almighty, I had studied all these parenting manuals, which, by the way, I never used. I had studied them and seen all the contradictions in them, and the faddishness, and I said to hell with it. The only thing I took away in terms of child rearing is that I needed to figure out what my kid is all about. Learning about my kid rather than following some expert advice. So that was good—but I didn’t have anyone to say to me, “You can’t control it all.”
Kids are very smart. I think it’s a terrible mistake to underestimate them. And sometimes I think some of these kids humor us when we are anxious. They keep a certain aspect of themselves private. And that way it’s in their control, not our control. They learn to create, if they’re shrewd and smart, their own autonomy.
When my daughter was born, I made a terrible mistake. I said she was a blank slate. But then she taught me. She was not blank, she was not going to allow me to control her, and she had something to say about it. What was going on was an interaction, not my imposition on her. That we were learning from one another and that we were teaching each other. Even emotionally, you learn things about yourself as you interact with your children. It’s from the beginning a two-way street, to a really surprising degree.