Oh, To Be Young and American
Childhood is frequently a solemn business for those inside it.
At the beginning of this comprehensive and overarching narrative of the history of children in America, Steven Mintz outlines several myths about childhood that offer food for thought and a reason for this book’s very existence. The major myth he proposes to dismantle: “We cling to a fantasy that once upon a time, childhood and youth were years of carefree adventure, despite the fact that for most young people in the past, growing up was anything but easy.” So, does he succeed at this revisionist project? And most importantly, is the result worth the investment of your precious book-reading hours?
A History of American Childhood
(The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)
The beginning chapters, about children’s lives during the colonial era, are fascinatingly detailed and interesting. Mintz compares Puritan childlife, full of work, to the world of Native American tribes, where children were coddled and allowed to play. He posits that some Indian captives may have refused to return to their Puritan villages because life was no fun for them there. After reading his descriptions of the clothing which Puritan children were forced to wear, including clothes that forced their spines straight and made crawling impossible (Puritans thought crawling was abhorrent), one can hardly blame them.
And in general, the parts of the book that are the most interesting are the anecdotes about specific children’s lives. An example is the story about Claudette Colvin, nestled in the chapter dealing with civil rights and Brown v. Board of Education. Colvin, an African-American, was in eleventh grade in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to move to the back of the bus and was arrested for it. Sound familiar? Colvin performed this act of civil disobedience before Rosa Parks’ famous one. The reason we’ve never heard about her: “Montgomery’s black leaders were looking for a symbol around which to organize antisegregation protests,” Mintz says, “and decided that Claudette was not appropriate.” (She was a rebellious teenager who got pregnant right after the incident.)
But when the narrative goes from specific to general, things get less fascinating. The chapter on the life of immigrant children seems obvious. Conclusions drawn include the information that generational conflict arose when second-generation kids wanted to assimilate, and their parents wished them to remain attuned to the culture of their homeland. These concepts will be familiar to most who have read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior or Julia Alvarez’ How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and the book doesn’t add much extra material.
The closer the book gets to the end of the story, the more general and obvious the conclusions that it draws. Any reader of the popular press is aware of the current central cultural debates over the raising of children—how much to schedule their activities; how to punish them when they do wrong; how to shield them (or not) from the events of the world; how to prepare them to be sexual beings (or not). The chapter that covers school shootings revolves mostly around media-friendly teenage “issues” like Columbine and the Spur Posse. These over-reported incidents are not necessarily representative of the way teenagers live nowadays. These chapters, then, made me wonder whether the author has also skewed earlier sections towards stereotypical situations or examples. Not being as educated in the history of these eras, I have less capacity to critique, but am left wondering.
In the prologue, Mintz postulates: “Americans are deeply ambivalent about children. Adults envy young people their youth, vitality, and physical attractiveness. But they also resent children’s intrusions on their time and resources, and frequently fear their passions and drives.” This is a deeply interesting hypothesis, and he does bring it into play in the section about sex education and control of children by the law. But you’re left wondering why such an interesting subject was not necessarily explored throughout the book.
For a reader who picks up this book with little or no knowledge of the history of childhood in America, the read will remain fascinating for much of its length. If you’ve read any sort of previous tome (for example, on immigrant children in urban centers, or the Lowell mill girls, or railroad transients in the Depression), be warned: The respective chapters will feel like a recap.