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The American Style in Traditionalist Parenting

November 8th, 2021 | 10 min read

By Brandon McGinley

Paula S. Fass. The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. $19.95, 352 pp.

Perhaps more than anything else, Paula S. Fass’s learned and engaging history of American parenting, The End of American Childhood, is a meditation on tradition. This is, after all, the very nature of parenting and childhood, which is the fulcrum between generations; a chance to preserve customs or to correct course. It is the place where one generation’s anxieties and hopes, and indeed its very self-understanding as a people and a civilization, become reified — or amended or rejected — in the next.

The book is a casual review of a vast topic, one to which Fass, professor emerita at Berkeley, has dedicated her entire career: She has served as president of the Society for the History of Children and Youth and recently edited The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. The ease with which she navigates her expertise is impressive; one is aware that she is leaving vast tracts of her knowledge unexplored, and yet what she chooses to explain, and how she chooses to explain it, feels natural, clear, and complete.

The challenge that Fass implicitly poses to the reader, though, and especially to the self-identified traditionalist, is this: What really is “traditional?” Which tradition are we talking about? And do we really understand the content of the traditions we claim to be upholding? Fass’s account of the history of American parenting confounds an easy dichotomy between tradition and innovation, or conservatism and progressivism: She ultimately laments the loss of a distinctively American kind of childhood that is at once, like the country itself, revolutionary and yet deeply rooted in the human experience.

Most of the history of American parenting and childhood tracks intuitively with trends in American history. Fass’s five chronological chapters, followed by a sixth of contemporary analysis, cover the eager republicanism of the young nation, the public response to the crises of war and freedmen and immigration, the emergence of an overconfident “science” of childrearing, the distinctly American innovation of adolescence, and the tumult of the last half of the twentieth century.

The hopes of the early republic were unbounded, and so were its children — at least compared to their Old World ancestors and contemporaries. While modern criticism has tended to recast the frontier as more brutal than romantic, Fass’s study of first-hand accounts (she is especially taken by Ulysses Grant’s autobiography) reveals that labor was hard but often seen by children as a liberating opportunity to develop one’s skills and distinctive character. Readers will recognize this revision of the revisionists as a conservative move, presenting 10-year-olds hauling firewood as confident and self-possessed, trained to make their own way in a dynamic economy and society, rather than miserable and exploited.

And yet, Fass observes that the prevailing ideology of childhood that encouraged this early maturation was undeniably progressive: A republican country needed republican children, and so independence, assertiveness, and a rough equality with parents from a young age were prized and nurtured. This was a self-conscious break from middle-class European norms, which at that time regarded childhood as a precious time of innocence, weakness, and unquestionable subordination to parents — especially the father. While American dads retained significant authority, it became customary, as a kind of training in republican citizenship, for them to listen to their growing children at least as much as they lectured them.

Needless to say, this adds complexity to attempts by Christian (and especially Catholic) traditionalists to reclaim an older style of parenting for the modern age. The early introduction of chores (and sometimes more serious labor) and latchkey responsibility, so prized by many of today’s traditionalists, was a distinctly American innovation that rejected Old World customs. Further, while traditionalists attempt to marry this more “free range” style of childhood to a reassertion of parental authority, historically this kind of freedom was associated, again quite intentionally in keeping with revolutionary anti-monarchy ideology, with the relaxing of such authority. If adults in society were no longer subjects but citizens, then so should be children in the home.

This is a reminder of the extent to which, in a secular age, all traditionalism is a kind of reclamation project. The traditions that we try to bring to life are, in most cases, comatose or quite dead, and figuring out what they were really like — and applying that to the present — is a forensic task. Modern traditionalism is neither Old World nor frontier nor American-republican nor, as we are about to see, turn-of-the-century nor post-war. The new traditionalism is, in that very American way, also something brand new.

If the first part of the nineteenth century was marked by a boundless social-economic-spiritual optimism, the first part of the twentieth maintained the optimism while dropping the supernatural view. A 1900 essay in Ladies Home Journal put it this way: The American “no longer regards his child as an animal to be tamed by beating, or as a possible saint, but as the heir to all the good things of time. … The future is the kingdom of which these young people are taught that they will be the legitimate rulers.” (emphasis added) It is one (anonymous) essay in one magazine, but the confident foreclosure of a supernatural end, and implicitly of grace, is striking. And the means by which that end — becoming the rightful rulers of the temporal order — was to be achieved was scientific expertise.

In the twentieth century, then, we see children being prepared for a destiny at once expanded and constrained: expanded to include the entire global order, rather than just the continental frontier, but constrained by the myopic “optimism” of scientific materialism. As the class of parenting gurus expanded — almost all disciples of Darwin, Freud, and Dewey — so did parental anxiety about whether they were raising their children “correctly.” In this period we can see the precursors to the present moment: The “managed child,” whose every step from baby bonnet to mortarboard is planned by anxious parents, is in many ways the heir to this countertradition in American parenting.

The rise of Dr. Benjamin Spock in the post-war era provides, on Fass’s account, not a new and permissive progressivism but a return to the dominant American tradition of liberty, trust, and early maturity. Spock aimed to relieve parental anxiety by appealing to instinct and natural affection rather than scientific formulas. The world wars had taken the shine of the optimism of scientism, but it was replaced by a different (and better, Fass and I concur) kind of optimism in the ability of the growing child to develop his own personality — and, importantly, to find a place for that personality in the social and economic order, thereby enriching it.

There was something different this time, though: The demanding material conditions of the early republic had been replaced by an easy and broadly shared prosperity. It was, of course, precisely this social and economic stability that gave parents confidence that their children’s lives did not need to be channelized to ensure future success. But this also meant that childhood “no longer led easily to maturity through work and responsibility.” Fass continues:

Work as a goal had not only disappeared as a natural part of childhood, but even household chores receded, as middle-class mothers took over almost all household tasks so that their offspring could freely enjoy a childhood defined by play and school. Children…could play together, but the assumption of a parental role, so common in the nineteenth century, was now no longer part of growing up.

The Spockian system tried to build on an American tradition whose material and spiritual foundations — the necessity of work and, more importantly, the conviction that work properly understood is elevating, even for growing children — had been removed. The result, at least on some tellings, was the aimless indulgence of the counterculture. But the irony, once again, was that the intention was not to remake American parenting for the modern world, but to rediscover a deep tradition that had been undone by modern “expertise.”

The chapter on the latter half of the twentieth century is the weakest, not so much because it’s wrongheaded but because space constraints make it so obviously and radically incomplete. The birth control pill, for instance, is discussed here and there, but not in the sustained way it deserves. And yet, of course only implicitly, Fass recognizes that it is the essential component to the factors that have brought an end to American childhood: choice and control.

For Fass, “the fundamental, unspoken, reality of parenting in our time [is] that giving birth is now a choice for most middle-class women, a choice with great potential consequences.” She continues, delivering a restrained but searing description of the modern situation:

Unlike any previous time in history, child bearing is no longer seen to be part of the natural order, and having children today is a choice that may also involve a variety of other choices. … The choice to parent at all, and how best to do so, is thus viewed as both subject to manipulation and freighted with consequences. Once the child is born, parents are confronted with a difficult balancing act about work and home that makes them eager to be as much in control as possible. It is the striving for control, not a new emotionalism, that differentiates family life today from that fifty or one hundred years ago. (emphasis added)

And that is the end of American childhood. We now live with the expectation — indeed the absolutely unquestioned assumption — that the very passing-on of human life should not be a solemn cooperation with nature but an expression of autonomy over which we have complete dominion. (Thus we speak with grave concern about “unplanned pregnancies.” Just wait until all pregnancies unassisted by fertility consultants are similarly suspect.) That distinctly American and, I agree with Fass, distinctly good combination of discipline and liberation, labor and love, requires a certain detachment in parents — not detachment from caring about their children’s well-being, but detachment from fear and anxiety over the inability to control for every aspect of that well-being. It requires a prudent but confident trust in one’s children, but most of all it requires an abiding trust in the Lord who watches over them. Only then, with confidence in providence, can we relinquish the control that stifles joy and personality and optimism — in ourselves and in our children.

And so it’s not about reenacting the parenting of a previous age. The conditions that made 1950s (or 1850s) parenting possible no longer obtain. Now we are faced with new challenges, most of all a completely justified civilizational pessimism that makes the “managed child” approach all the more appealing, because parents want their children to be channeled from the start on one of the few reliable paths to security. But all that does is reify our anxieties and further vindicate our pessimism; it is a feedback loop, a spiral, a suicide pact.

The beauty of the dominant American tradition of parenting and childhood, rather, is that it boldly embraces life. It is not tremulous, calculating, or neurotic. It does not obsess over risk or uncertainty on the one hand, nor perfection and scrupulous order on the other. At its best, in different ages and under different conditions it nurtures that which is good in itself — honest work, hard play, abiding love — and lets the results work themselves out. The Christian, whose hope is in heaven rather than college or career, and whose trust is in the Lord rather than experts or pundits, is uniquely positioned to be able to revive and reform American childhood for a new age.

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