The Social Determination of Childhood and Adolescence

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What a difference a hundred years makes. The promise of a golden era of childhood and adolescence with which we began the 20th century has not been kept. To the contrary, at the end of this period, we now mourn what Neil Postman has called the "disappearance of childhood." It is particularly ironic that, as we leave the teen centuries, we have all but forsaken the teen years.

This century began with the celebration of the stages of childhood innocence and adolescent immaturity, with an appreciation for the wide range of normal youthful behavior, and with the provision of ample spaces for children and youth. At the end of this era, the stages of innocence and immaturity are challenged, the range of normality for children and youth has narrowed, and space for young people has shrunk. During the same period, the stages of adulthood have been heralded, the range of normality for grown-ups has vastly expanded, and adult recreational spaces multiplied exponentially. A century that began with the pre-eminence of pediatrics ends with the veneration of geriatrics.

This extraordinary change in our generational positions mirrors the equally dramatic social, economic, political, and technological alterations that have been the hallmark of the 20th century. While it is not possible to detail these changes here, I would like to try to elaborate briefly on the generational reversals with regard to stages, normality, and space. For purposes of discussion, and ease of presentation, I will present the differences more starkly than they are in fact. Also, while I am presenting the contemporary scene as less favorable to children and youth than the earlier time, I neither want to mythologize the past nor demonize the present. There were many awful things done to children and youth in earlier times, and there are many good things happening to children and youth today.

Nonetheless, it does seem to be the case that, in the United States at any rate, the needs of adults are now weighted more heavily than those of children and youth. Just the reverse seemed to be the case at the start of the century.

The Stages of Development

Many different historical forces converged to give prominence to the stages of childhood and adolescence around the turn of the century. Charles Darwin's theory of our human, as opposed to our divine, origins allowed us to interpret children's behavior from a natural, rather than from a moral, perspective. Sigmund Freud's theory of infantile sexuality, which stressed the importance of the early years for personality formation, added to the prominence accorded this age period. The separation of the social sciences from philosophy and the emergence of child psychology as a scientific discipline also made their contribution. The publication of G. Stanley Hall's two-volume work Adolescence in 1904 and his founding of the Journal of Genetic Psychology served to formalize this field of investigation.

In the early decades of this century, a number of writers elaborated for parents the stages and phases of child development. But it was John Dewey who translated this developmental material into an overall progressive philosophy of education. The essence of Dewey's position derived from his functionalism. Education had to be practical, to prepare young people for the society they are living in now, not for the societies of long ago. Moreover, he insisted that education should be developmentally appropriate, geared to children's interests, abilities, and levels of understanding. Like the Founding Fathers, Dewey believed that education was essential for preparing individuals to live in a democracy. This added to the importance attributed to the student years.

The significance attributed to childhood and adolescence was reinforced by the invention of the intelligence test by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905. Testing quickly caught on in America after Lewis M. Terman translated the Binet Scales and published them as the Stanford-Binet. Group tests of intelligence were soon developed and used both in the schools and the armed services. One consequence of group and individual mental testing was the finding that the IQ peaked at age 18 (reiterated by the psychologist David Wechsler as recently as 1958). This added to the importance attributed to the years of childhood and adolescence and to the dismissal of the adult years--now regarded as a period of waning mental powers and creativity. In the first half of this century, therefore, childhood and adolescence were regarded as more important than adulthood.

After World War II, however, the imbalance of the weights accorded childhood and adulthood was progressively reversed. The causes were many. The 1960s social movements, in behalf of equality for African-Americans, women, and other minorities, were inappropriately extended to children and youth. This group too was regarded as being deprived of its human rights and opportunities. Implicit in this assumption was the belief that children were competent enough, and adolescents sophisticated enough, to demand these rights. As a result, the legal system changed its emphasis from protecting children to protecting children's rights. In schools, for example, this often resulted in the dismissal of truant officers for not using due process.

The recent advent of child-friendly technologies, such as television, VCRs, and computer games, added to a new perception of child competence. The increased number of sexually active teens (in response to the new social acceptance of premarital sex) along with extensive teenage drug use (coincident with the introduction of rock music) gave credence to a new perception of adolescent sophistication. The schools have accepted these new perceptions of competence and sophistication and are committed to sex and drug education even at the elementary school level.

The social sciences have added their weight to these altered perceptions. Many contemporary child psychologists challenge the validity of developmental stages and have devised experimental techniques to demonstrate that children can do things earlier than the developmentalists had described. Psychiatrists, too, now dispute the views of Freud and Erik Erikson and argue, for example, that adolescence is a transition period no different from any other.

These new perceptions of childhood competence and adolescent sophistication are reinforced by the growing number of divorced, two-parent-working, and single-parent families that are constrained to place children in one or another form of child care or, in the case of adolescents, to leave them home alone. Parents have to assume that young people are mature enough to cope with these experiences. Schools have also accommodated to these new family configurations. Full-day kindergartens are a child-care initiative, as are before- and after-school programs in both elementary and secondary schools.

On the other side of the ledger, a new appreciation of adult development is well under way. Psychologists acknowledge that they made a mistake when they argued that intelligence peaked at age 18. It was a problem of sampling. In fact, they now say, some facets of intelligence continue to increase through the 60s, and there may be a second period of creativity in the 80s. As the life span lengthens, there is a growing appreciation of the stages of adulthood as described in best-selling books such as Gail Sheehy's Passages (1976) and Judith Viorst's Necessary Losses (1986). In addition to works on "midlife crises," there are now books on the stages of divorce, of remarriage, and of death. It is distressing that as we have come to recognize and to appreciate the stages of adult development, we seem ready to deny them to children and youth.

The Breadth of Normality

A similar shift can be observed with respect to normality. At the end of the 19th century, a new image of childhood appeared. It was the result of many social forces, including the new humanitarian ethos and the secularization of society. The exploitation of children was looked upon as an evil, and the belief in the child as embodying "original" sin was abandoned. Children came to be seen as mischievous but harmless. Adolescents were regarded as immature and involved in challenging escapades--regarded as a testing of adult authority normal to that age period. As a consequence of these views, both children and adolescents were allowed a great deal of latitude in their behavior.

On the other hand, adult behavior in the early decades of this century was extremely constrained. There were social taboos against premarital sex, against divorce, against working mothers, and against single parenting. The moral restraints reached an extreme with the passage of Prohibition and all of its amoral consequences. There was also censorship in the guise of the Hayes Office, which ensured that profanity was kept off the radio and nudity and overt sexual activity off the motion picture screen. Up until midcentury, adults were afforded only a narrow latitude of behavior.

After midcentury, however, the balance with respect to normality reversed as well. For many different reasons, we have progressively narrowed the range of normality for children and adolescents. In part, this was the result of new diagnostic methods that were more sensitive than those used in the past. In part, it was the new acceptance of children with special needs within our classrooms, and in part, it is the increasingly stringent demands for academic achievement. The positive benefits of providing for children with special needs have been more than offset by a focus on diagnosing deviance. And this has been made even more unfortunate by the movement away from an understanding and appreciation of normal development.

A personal illustration may help to make the point. When I first entered the profession, more than 30 years ago, I began as a school psychologist in Boston, working for the state of Massachusetts. In one 1st grade classroom I visited, I noticed a boy running about, talking to his friends and teasing the girls. I told the teacher I thought he was, using the terminology of that day, "hyperactive" and in need of evaluation. She laughed and replied, "Oh, no. He's all boy, he'll get over it." Today when I visit a 1st grade classroom and observe similar behavior, I am told the child has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and might have to be put on Ritalin. Certainly, some children do have ADHD and may benefit from Ritalin, but too many children are being misdiagnosed.

The range of normality has been narrowed for adolescents as well. Increasingly, youthful offenders are being tried and incarcerated as adults. In some states, the age of statutory rape has been lowered. The range of normality has narrowed in other facets of adolescent life as well. Young people who attended trade and technical schools were, in the early decades of this century, accorded considerable respect and admiration. Today, thanks to the enormous value placed upon academic achievement, those young people who attend vocational schools are derogatorily called "vokies."

If the range of normality has narrowed for children, it has expanded for adults. Many behaviors that were once taboo are now acceptable. Premarital sex is now socially acceptable and the stuff of TV programs such as "Friends" and "Seinfeld." Likewise, divorce is socially acceptable and commonplace. Two-parent-working families and single parents (there are now 13 million) are the rule rather than the exception. Two people living together without marriage (cohabitation) is the fast-growing living arrangement in our society. The range of normality for adults has expanded just as that for children and youth has narrowed.

The Provision of Space

We can observe similar changes with respect to space. At the beginning of the century, there were many spaces for children. Basements, for example, were often the preserve of the young and were a place where they could play pingpong, build models, or just hang out and read comic books. Vacant lots were plentiful, and young people congregated there to play their own games of marbles, kick-the-can, or hide-and-seek. These neighborhood spaces were safe, and parents did not hesitate to tell their children to "go out and play." For adolescents, there were malt shops and soda fountains as well as large movie theaters with dark balconies where young people could begin their initial sexual explorations.

For adults, there were many fewer spaces. Most families did their serious shopping "downtown" in the department stores. While there were ballparks and bowling alleys and movie theaters, these were spaces that adults often shared with young people and that were not exclusively their own. For many parents, the home and the backyard were their major spaces for everyday living and recreation.

Once again, things have changed since the middle of this century. In our fast-developing communities, vacant lots are often hard to come by. Now, many houses are built without basements or with basements that are outfitted as "family rooms." If there is a spare room, it is often a computer or exercise room shared by all. The prevalence of fast cars and roadways, along with worries about abduction, have made parents fearful of allowing children to go out on their own. In response to these considerations, children are often sent to lessons or to participate in organized team sports where there is always adult supervision. In our elementary schools, playgrounds are used less today than in the past, in part because of insurance concerns and in part because of the belief that the time is better spent in instruction.

The spaces for adolescents have vanished as well. Malt shops and soda fountains in drugstores are a thing of the past, as are large movie theaters. And though malls have proliferated, young people are not always welcome in these spaces. There are fewer and fewer places for young people just to congregate with friends, a necessary and developmentally important adolescent activity.

At the same time, there has been an explosion of space for adults. The availability of affordable cars and superhighways has made national travel easy and convenient. Malls have proliferated, and there are now too many places to shop. New restaurants, health clubs, tennis clubs, and golf courses are being built to accommodate the growing number of adults who participate in these activities. In addition, huge arenas are being built around the country to house the ever-growing number of adults who attend a variety of sports events. In sum, the spaces for adults are expanding while those for children are shrinking.

The social determination of childhood and adolescence is evident in the reversed fortunes of the two generations over the past century. On every measure that we have--health, education, and welfare--children and adolescents are doing less well today than they did even a quarter of a century ago. To be sure, the scene is not entirely dismal. There is much greater acceptance today, than there was in the past, of children with disabilities, and of children from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Our schools now make special provisions for these children, which they did not do even a quarter of a century ago. Nonetheless, the overall picture is bleak and one that seems to benefit adults over children and youth.

It is not necessary to give up all of the gains that we have made as adults to even the balance between the generations. All that is needed is the will. It would not be that difficult to reinvent the stages of childhood and adolescence, to broaden the range of normality for children and youth, and to provide new, safe spaces for the young to play and to congregate. Now that we grown-ups have realized the benefits of recognizing the stages of adulthood, we should find it in our hearts to once again value the stagewise development of children and youth.

Vol. 18, Issue 24, Page 48-50

Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as The Social Determination of Childhood and Adolescence
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