Caring for children has always aroused parental anxiety. According to Apollonius Rhodius’sArgonautica (third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1780), Thetis and Peleus separated because Peleus disapproved of his wife’s attempts to render their son Achilles immortal. Peleus feared that her efforts would kill this child, as she had their first six; she thought that he was ignoring her maternal concern to protect the infant. Stearns sees particular worries among twentieth century parents, though, resulting from changed perceptions of the nature of childhood. Viewed in the nineteenth century as resilient and self-sufficient, children in the twentieth century came to be regarded as vulnerable. For example, boys no longer were plucky; now they feared the dark. They had nightmares. Boys and girls alike were sensitive and so had to be shielded from any disturbing emotions, thus requiring parents to mask grief or anger.
Stearns finds various reasons for this later perception of children. One is the declining birthrate. He argues, not totally convincingly, that children became more precious because after 1900 in the United States there were fewer of them. More persuasively, he notes that the very scientific advances that have dramatically reduced childhood mortality and illness have heightened parental concerns. Before the discovery of germs by Louis Pasteur in the late nineteenth century, cleanliness was simply linked to respectability. After Pasteur, dirt was seen as dangerous. Knowledge of the importance of genes raised fears that a child might be tainted from conception—a secular recasting of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.
Physicians kept discovering and devising new childhood illnesses. In the early twentieth century, bad posture was linked to moral laxness and danger to internal organs. This matter seemed serious enough for colleges to introduce posture-training courses. Psychologists also contributed to parental anxiety. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) had stressed the importance of early childhood in molding character. Stearns quotes the 1929 edition of the United States’ Children’s Bureau publication Infant Care, which claimed that the individual’s future mental and physical health depended mainly on what happened in the first year, particularly the first few months, of life. A revealing indication of just how vulnerable children now appear to be is the requirement in some sex education classes that high school students carry around a raw egg that represents an infant.
Media also have added to parental anxiety about children’s vulnerability. Stearns cites reports of thirty thousand deaths annually from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) during a period when the correct figure was five thousand to six thousand. Parents read and heard that fifty thousand children were abducted annually; in fact, only two hundred to three hundred were. In 1982 newspapers carried stories about poisoned Halloween candy. No such candy was ever found, but these reports led to dramatic changes in the way Halloween is celebrated, with parents accompanying those children who are still allowed to canvas neighborhoods and with many churches and other organizations offering alternatives to old-fashioned trick-or-treating. Sex-abuse scares abounded in the 1980’s; many accusations proved false.
Modern life has, Stearns concedes, added real dangers to childhood. The twentieth century witnessed the introduction of a host of mechanical devices that make life easier—and more risky—from power tools to garbage disposals to cars. Electricity poses new threats, such as that of children sticking their fingers into power outlets. Urbanization has led to high-rise apartment living and, hence, to the danger of falling out of a tenth-story window.
Adding to modern anxiety are socioeconomic changes which have forced parents to confront these risks on their own. In New York City in 1921, 1,054 children died from various accidents. In previous centuries, servants, grandparents, and siblings had all shouldered some responsibility for child care. In the twentieth century the numbers of the first and last of these declined, and grandparents often lived hundreds of miles away. Even when they lived next door, they were sometimes seen as old-fashioned and their advice shunned.
Concerns for real and imagined childhood dangers have led to changes in parental behavior (and increased anxiety) in discipline, education, work, and entertainment. In the first area, guilt had been an important tool in nineteenth century efforts to promote good behavior. The twentieth century rejected this approach. The child’s statement “You’re making me feel guilty” became an accusation rather than an apology. Stearns quotes Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Sidonie Gruenberg, writing for the Child Study Association of...
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