By Paula S. Fass.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. xi + 352 pp. Cloth $29.95.
Paula Fass’s book, The End of American Childhood, is an impressively ambitious synthesis of change and continuity in American peculiarities of childhood [End Page 291] ideals and intergenerational social contracts. Gathering a vast scope of secondary sources as well as expert and cultural commentary, popular culture sources, and personal memoir, Fass accomplishes a feat of cultural history.
Outside observers have remarked upon American children’s independence for centuries now. Fass traces American distinctiveness to a situation in the early republic. She shows how, along with Enlightenment ideology, available land to which Anglo American young people could expand, an absence of controlling inheritance laws, and the labor requirements imposed upon youth resulted in a situation in which “authoritarian controls over children gave way to a more relaxed relationship between the generations” (4). Paternal authority further eroded, Fass observes, with the advance of industrialization; growing ideological commitment to female moral authority in the family; evolution toward democratic, child-centered family ideals; and expanded roles for the state and credentialed experts. Fass interrogates professional advice to parents, so important to the experience of twentieth-century mothers, noting its propensity to be both helpful and anxiety provoking.
Fass makes important contributions to the literature in moving beyond parenting per se into other ways in which Americans dedicated resources to and sought to shape the country’s youth. Emphasis on public schooling and the uniquely American high school experience were pivotal. Fass shows how schooling was instrumental in shaping immigrant identities as well as inter-generational tensions and opportunities among immigrants. More generally, high school, initially “an aspirational institution,” defined adolescent experiences, extended childhood, and formed youth cultures (152). Education became increasingly important as the twentieth century progressed, and Fass spends considerable time exploring the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 to make this point, seguing then into the further extension of youth represented by increased college attendance. This, along with consumer culture, offered expanded opportunities for “generational self expression” so evident in the baby boom generation (203).
As children have spent more time in educational institutions, the role of work in their lives has declined. The mastery of work in the early republic, Fass cogently argues, was integral to the youthful development of competency. But modern ideas of childhood emphasized children’s “right to play,” along with the right to be educated and to have attention paid to the developmental needs of increasingly elaborated stages of childhood and youth. With these changing expectations, the allocation of family resources shifted accordingly, and Fass appropriately keeps her eye on demographic and family economy transformations. [End Page 292]
In the book’s final chapter, Fass captures the intense anxiety that has beset recent generations of parents and their children: “schooling, work, and sexuality” have been redefined (258). She considers changes such as mothers’ increased labor force participation and the phenomenon of so many children living in single-parent households. Fass contextualizes all of this with respect to globalization, economic uncertainty, and the historical change she has been documenting. Contemporary parents find themselves in the odd position of “giving children, even older children, what they believe is autonomy without a real sense of responsibility” (240).
Fass is not the first person to point out that the markers of adulthood to which young people’s identities used to be pointing—economic independence, marriage, home ownership—seem increasingly out of reach. The oft-repeated American sentiment that Fass quotes from an 1827 publication, that young people are “born to higher destinies than their fathers,” hangs by a thread today (14). But Fass adds historical context to this discussion, putting today’s pessimism and negativity about youth and parenting in a larger historical picture.
Fass is at her best in her cogent analysis of the changing nature of inter-generational contracts as defined in American ideals regarding educational institutions and parenting. The book also engages in a lively way with memoir, in which we see actual maturation...