The way we think about the skills kids need—and even how they should play—is deeply tied to the characteristics we expect them to need as adults.

Boys fishing in a bayou, Schriever, LA, 1940 via Library of Congress

There’s a debate among education and childrearing experts over what virtues to promote in the next generation. Some, particularly among those focused on low-income kids, often emphasize “grit”—the ability to persevere through adversity. Others put more emphasis on cultivating individual passions and ambition.

The way we think about the skills kids need is deeply tied to the characteristics we expect them to need as adults. Daniel T. Rodgers explains how economic and social shifts for the white, northern middle class in the nineteenth century led to radical changes in children’s literature, classroom management, and advice for parents.

At the start of the nineteenth century, Rodgers writes, middle-class white children in the northern states received upbringings that would look almost haphazard to later generations. Parents, schools, and employers of juvenile workers jumped between harsh discipline and impulsive indulgence. Children “oscillated between long stretches of fear-induced obedience and bursts of outright rebellion,” Rodgers writes.

This changed around 1830, just as the region was entering a moment of rapid economic growth. Rodgers argues that the education and child-rearing experts who introduced new ways of raising children were motivated by a deep distrust of destabilizing growth and social confusion.

“To the child shapers the evidence of disorder often seemed omnipresent,” Rodgers writes. “In the swelling and often riotous populations of the cities, in the scrambling of social relations and the overheated competition for place and advancement.”

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Schools transformed rapidly, from traditional mixed-age schools to age-segregated classrooms. The new system allowed teachers to closely supervise children, who could now recite age-appropriate lessons in unison rather than working independently most of the time.

At the same time, child-rearing manuals shifted from encouraging vigorous discipline and demanding strict obedience to calling for orderly, habit-forming lessons in “industry, duty, and restraint,” Rodgers writes. Storybooks for children centered on similar themes. Pointedly avoiding dramatic, adventurous story lines, they created heroes who resisted temptation and embraced everyday responsibilities.

By the later years of the nineteenth century, the economic situation was different, and so were adults’ fears for children. As factories and large offices replaced farms and shops, systemization and drab discipline looked to many in the middle class like a greater threat than instability.

In the schools, reformers like Francis W. Parker sought to replace memory drills with child-centered education. Children’s fiction now featured “youngsters who leapt aboard runaway trains, thwarted bank robberies, melted adult hearts, and redeemed aged misers,” Rodgers writes. And one popular late-nineteenth century pediatric manual suggested that parents “let every child, before going to bed, hold a high court of revelry… devoted to romp, to dance, to shout, to sing, to riot, and to play.”

Today, whether that sounds like good advice or like a dangerous invitation to chaotic, risky behavior, probably depends on how we feel about the society and workforce our kids need to prepare for.

 

This feature is written by Livia Gershon & originally appeared in JSTOR Daily.

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