Twenty-Seventh Annual Lecture

How Americans Raise their Children: Generational Relations over 200 Years

November 14, 2013, 5:00-7:00pm
Lecture at the GHI - Directions

Speaker: Paula S. Fass (University of California, Berkeley)
Comment: Till Kössler (Ruhr University of Bochum)

Please RSVP (acceptance only) by November 7. Tel: 202.387.3355 - Fax: 202.387.6437

  • Event Report

    The 27th Annual Lecture of the German Historical Institute was delivered by Paula Fass, who spoke on the topic "How Americans Raise their Children: Generational Relations over 200 Years." Professor Fass's lecture examined the question of whether American patterns of child rearing have differed from European ones. Americans, Fass argued, were more open to endowing their children with greater independence and flexibility. This did not mean that American parents were more indulgent toward their children or that American children had a more leisurely childhood. On the contrary, American children were often put to work early, because the abundance of land in conjunction with a labor shortage made children's work both desirable and necessary. The era of the early American Republic thus established a paradigm of American childrearing that could be and was subsequently invoked even after general social conditions had been transformed.

    By the second half of the nineteenth century, children were kept in schools more instead of being put to work at a young age. This led to calls to recreate the earlier vision of American child rearing, which had stressed independence, a sense of future opportunity, and democratic participation. In her lecture, Professor Fass examined four examples of such calls, beginning with Charles Loring Brace's campaign to save the growing army of street children by means of the "orphan trains" to the West. The children were to be placed in rural families, where work would promote disciplined independence. As her next example, Fass discussed John Dewey's proposition that schools were to become laboratories of a restored democracy. A new active engagement in the classroom was to provide the impetus for the development of independence that had been supplied by work experience in the early Republic. Fifty years later, Dr. Benjamin Spock advanced a similar argument about parental childrearing. By the Second World War, American mothers were faced with several childrearing paradigms, all of which shared a vision of child management in which mothers carefully supervised children's emotions and behavior. In response, Dr. Spock raised the question of how America's children would be able to develop independence and self-confidence in the world of intensive parenting, elaborate schooling, and declining children's responsibility. In contrast to the child management method, Spock encouraged mothers to take a more relaxed approach that acknowledged children's autonomy. As her last example, Fass examined the recent debate about Chinese "tiger mothers," French mamans, and American mommies, which have raised the recurring question about whether there is anything that can be salvaged from the early Republic's recipe of American childrearing.

    Paula Fass's lecture was followed by a comment by Till Kössler, who advanced three main lines of critique. First, he argued that there was a plurality of European visions of childhood and childrearing. In many European countries, there were frequent clashes between secular and religious conceptions of childrearing. Second, Kössler argued that European and American visions of childrearing were frequently entangled. For instance, French colonies de vacances and German Landschulheime were European equivalents of the U.S. orphan trains. Likewise, after 1945 American movies and television programs made media images of American families commonplace in Europe. Third, Kössler advanced the argument that liberal and democratic visions of childrearing were characterized by ambivalence and contradictions. Recent research has argued that enlightenment pedagogy was not purely emancipatory but also had many repressive elements; some advocates of liberal and democratic childrearing simultaneously promoted eugenics. In conclusion, Kössler proposed that future research must historicize the notion of democratic childrearing and bring the American and European experiences of childhood closer together.

    Lecture and comment were followed by lively discussion and a dinner reception. Both the lecture and commentary will be published in the spring 2014 issue of the GHI Bulletin.


  • Invitation
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    Twenty-Seventh Annual Lecture