March 04, 2016

Young girl on a bike

No more training wheels! Credit: Jeremy Hiebert / Flickr Creative Commons

When Ulysses S. Grant was ten, he was in charge of selling his family’s horses.

And that type of responsibility wasn’t rare for 19th century children. According to Paula Fass, author of The End of American Childhood, kids in pre-industrial America were expected to be responsible, creative, and most important of all, independent.

And Fass says that this style of parenting still shapes the way we raise our kids now:

“In the US, what has differentiated us… is that we’ve put a huge emphasis on the independence of children and stressed their resourcefulness. And I think that today, one of the things we’re struggling with is how to maintain that emphasis on independence and to encourage creativity and resourcefulness at a time when more and more parents are trying to micromanage their children.”

The reasons why Americans raised their kids to be independent are multifaceted.

Fass points to the early democratic ideals of America and the immense expanses of land as the two primary causes.

American childhood changed with increasing education, and a focus on high school to help prepare more technical workers. By the 1930s, over half of American kids went to high school.

By that point, Fass says, the umbrella of childhood began to extend beyond anything imagined by the Victorians. Fourteen and fifteen-year-olds were now considered children, instead of young adults.

Still, the ideals of American parenting, focusing on independence and creativity, have remained largely consistent.

The challenge now, according to Fass, is integrating that independence and creativity with a set of concerns. She’s worried about children being overmanaged.

“Children in this society have been brought up in a variety of parenting styles for a very long time,” she notes. “And children are tremendously resourceful. One of the things I think we need to do… is to trust ourselves more and trust our children more. Obviously we’re responding to a variety of matters that are out there, but they’re no larger than the matters faced by a settler in the 1840s.”

History of Childhood, Education, Paula Fass

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