April 1919 — exactly a century ago, on the nose — marked the end of President Woodrow Wilson’s “Children’s Year,” a national campaign to improve infant and maternal health, provide more social services to needy families, increase school enrollments, and further reduce Americans’ reliance on child labor (which had been declining steadily for two decades).
At the time, the typical American childhood included a lot more sickness (and 1 in 10 babies died in childbirth), a lot less schooling, and a lot more manual labor than it does today. In 1919, roughly a million 10- to 15-year-olds, or roughly 8% of the age group, spent their days working on farms, in factories, or on the street. Close to 80% of children ages 5 to 17 were enrolled in school, but their numbers dwindled in the later grades — only about a quarter of 14- to 17-year-olds attended high school, and only about 1 in 10 graduated (Snyder, 1993; Yarrow, 2009).
As federal initiatives go, the Children’s Year looks to have been fairly productive. A national commission met in Washington, D.C., followed by a series of regional meetings meant to rally public and political support for efforts to help the most vulnerable children. In turn, most states proceeded to create child welfare agencies, while, across the country, millions of women mobilized to collect data on children’s health and advocate for better education and recreational activities for kids.
No doubt, the lives of American children have changed dramatically since then. However, it’s tricky to compare the experience of childhood today with that of previous generations. For example, historians argue that it wasn’t until the early 20th century, as a large middle class began to coalesce, that Americans began to conceive of childhood as the sort of special, happy stage of life that we now take to be the norm. Nor did Americans think of the teen years as a distinct phase of childhood at all until high school enrollments took off in the 1920s and ’30s.
For that matter, contemporary childhoods can look very different depending on the era you define as your point as reference. For instance, in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2016), the political scientist Robert Putnam measures today’s childhoods not against the standards of 1919 but, rather, against his own childhood in the 1950s, a time when rich and poor families lived in the same neighborhood and most poor and working-class kids counted on growing up to be better off than their parents. From that vantage point — and having pored over a massive amount of data on changes in the labor market, residential patterns, family life, and student performance over the last five or six decades — Putnam sees a fracturing of childhood along economic lines, with the lives of rich and poor kids divided by a deep and ever-expanding opportunity gap.
But whatever our point of comparison, one thing is certain about childhood today: American children of all backgrounds now spend much more time in school than at any time in the past — not just dramatically more time than in 1919 but also, given rising trends in high school attendance and graduation, significantly more time than just a few years ago. As the sociologist Annette Lareau points out in this issue, educators have always played an exceptionally important role in children’s lives. Today more than ever.
Putnam, R.D. (2016). Our kids: The American dream in crisis. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Snyder, T.D. (Ed.). (1993). 120 years of American education: A statistical portrait. Collingdale, PA: DIANE Publishing.
Yarrow, A.L (2009). History of U.S. children’s policy. Washington, DC: First Focus. https://firstfocus.org/resources/report/history-u-s-childrens-policy.
Citation: Heller, R. (2019). The editor’s note: Childhood, then and now. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (7), 4.