- Reinventing Childhood After World War II. edited by Paula S. Fass and Michael Grossberg
In Reinventing Childhood After World War II, seven established scholars of children’s history explore the interconnected trajectories of parenting, childhood, and the state from the immediate postwar years to the present day. Focusing primarily on the United States, Reinventing Childhood examines what the authors contend are two distinct periods of children’s history: the immediate postwar era from 1945 through the mid-1970s, and the decades from the late 1970s onward. Casting a comparative eye at the cohorts who parented, set public policy, and were raised during these two periods, the authors argue persuasively that broader societal transformation from the mid-1960s through the 1970s gave rise to fundamental shifts in American childrearing, state policy, and children’s experience.
“Baby boom” children, the chapters in this volume suggest, enjoyed numerous advantages. Growing up at a time when the “child-centered family” was enshrined as an increasingly democratic ideal, boomers experienced the protection of extended schooling along with greater social independence and personal autonomy. With larger families the norm, children had more siblings and neighbors with whom to spend their leisure hours, riding bikes or playing outdoors after school. Yet Cold War children’s social lives were largely segregated by race and gender and were marked by conformist social hierarchies, as Stephen Mintz writes in a chapter on children’s culture and play. Moreover, the broader culture’s emphasis on family was sometimes attained at the expense of parents. As Mary Ann Mason explains in her analysis of changes in parental custody laws, the common wisdom of the 1950s and early 1960s was that children were almost always better off in intact families, even if parents had to sacrifice their own happiness in the process.
Sometime between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s, the authors of Reinventing Childhood contend, both American parenting and children’s culture took a noteworthy turn. Focusing primarily on middle-class experience, the authors suggest that parents began both to worry more intensely about [End Page 520] their children’s safety and to hold them to increasingly rigid expectations of educational achievement so as to insure that they would get into the “right” colleges and universities on their way to adult success. As Stephen Lassonde explains in a chapter on changing notions of the demarcation between childhood and adulthood, these parents came to fear age-boundary transgressions (such as the premature sexualization of youth) while simultaneously pushing their children to excel early in school. Paula Fass contends similarly, in a chapter on intergenerational family relations, that the same “baby boomers” who enjoyed relatively high degrees of childhood autonomy set stricter limits on their own children’s freedom, behavior, and activities. In effect, Fass claims, a generation of parents who had actively fought against the rigid hierarchies of the 1950s helped to create the era of organized childhood in the 1980s and 90s. In the legal sphere, Michael Grossberg makes a similar argument, explaining that the Supreme Court advanced children’s rights in several significant court cases of the 1950s and 1960s but by the 1980s had largely set aside this liberationist impulse in favor of the rights of adult caretakers and children’s need for greater protection.
Why did intergenerational relations shift in these ways? The essays in Reinventing Childhood suggest numerous factors: economic uncertainty after a long and relatively uninterrupted period of postwar prosperity; the ongoing revision of the welfare state; rising concerns about the decline of American society (often expressed through fears of violence and predation); the transformation of communities as more mothers of young children entered the paid workforce, parents had fewer children, and divorce rates rose; the expansion of child-directed consumerism; and global economic forces that increased middle-class parents’ anxiety about their children’s future prospects.
Reinventing Childhood is a fairly slim volume aimed primarily toward undergraduates. As such, it emphasizes general trends and addresses some of them more fully than others. One might wish, for...