Endangered Children: Dependence, Neglect, and Abuse in American History

Endangered Children: Dependence, Neglect, and Abuse in American History – Review

E. Anthony Rotundo

By LeRoy Ashby (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997. xiii plus 258pp. $28.95).

E. Anthony Rotundo Phillips Academy

Twenty years ago, family history was a new and fashionable field. As an academic specialty, it drew excited attention and bred its own new journals. Now, fashionable attention is directed elsewhere and the cachet of the moment belongs to other fields. Yet family history is still thriving in its own quiet way, and the questions it asks are no less important than they were twenty years ago.

Evidence of this endurance is the ongoing Twayne’s History of American Childhood Series and these two new volumes which Twayne has just issued. Although they are different in nature (one focuses on a particular problem in childhood over the span of U.S. history, the other ranges broadly across American childhood within a segment of forty years), each book is a synthetic work. In both cases, the task of synthesis proves immense, and that immensity is testimony that this subfield of family history is lively and growing.

LeRoy Ashby’s Endangered Children: Dependence, Neglect, and Abuse in American History describes changing social responses to children in need. Neither a jeremiad nor a whiggish tale of progress, Ashby’s account is really a lament over repeated mistakes and enduring biases. After sketching colonial policies toward dependent children, Ashby traces the emergence and persistence of a few solutions to the problems of needy children: congregate institutions (orphanages, poorhouses); foster care; adoption; and direct aid (“relief” or “welfare”). Over the course of two centuries, these solutions have fallen in and out of favor, never satisfying the middle-class people who propose them or the impoverished people whom they mean to serve – and yet never fading from consideration.

Ashby traces these shifting initiatives and dissatisfactions through six periods (antebellum, late nineteenth century, Progressive Era, 1920-1960, 1960-1980, 1980 to the present), and, in doing so, he writes a second history: the story of the relationship between the affluent people who try to help needy children and the families and children who are in need. Ashby attributes the repetitive ebb and flow of the same unavailing solutions to persistent misunderstanding by middle-class “child-savers.” They have insisted on seeing the cause of dependence, neglect, and abuse in the moral deficiencies of parents or in the failure of those parents to provide stable, safe environments for their children. This perception, as Ashby makes clear, is misguided, for the underlying cause of these endangerments to children is not parental failure, but economic poverty. Even in the unusual times when some middle-class reformers correctly identified this root problem (the Progressive Era, the 1930s, the 1960s and ’70s), their attempts to address the problem have been undermined by their failure to convince the entire body politic of the importance of poverty and by their own inability to shed their moral condescensions toward the poor.

Aside from the sheer accomplishment of synthesizing a vast literature, the greatest success of this book is its sensitive delineation of the complex relationship between middle-class reformers and the poor families they sought to help. Ashby is persistently and perceptively critical of the affluent child-savers, and yet he refuses to turn them into cardboard villains, just as he resists portraying poor children and parents as passive victims. For example, he credits the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children with reshaping the public concept of child suffering from being an inevitable part of the human condition to being a problem that could and should be solved. And yet, during the late nineteenth century when the SPCC flourished, its solutions were so intrusive that people in impoverished neighborhoods referred to it as “the Cruelty.” Even so, these same people sometimes availed themselves of SPCC services. As Ashby writes of tenement residents: “their willingness to inform ‘the Cruelty’ about abuse indicated that they wanted assistance in the battle against rough conduct and rowdiness. Neighborhoods were contested turf among the people who lived there, not just between the residents and outside intruders.” (p. 62) In a variety of eras and in situation after situation, families of limited resources found ways like this to meet their own needs through the help of outside agencies. Often, they could do this with minimal lip service to the moral agendas of their benefactors.

The same relationship between middle-class reformers and the families of endangered children is covered with the same admirable sense of complexity by Priscilla Ferguson Clement in one chapter of her book, Growing Pains: Children in the Industrial Age, 1850-1890. But Growing Pains generally has a different focus. Clement is surveying the entire range of childhood experiences in the United States within her forty-year span. What impresses her most about this period is that there was no typical form of childhood. Instead, there were many forms. She examines with care the ways in which children’s experiences varied by class, race, ethnicity, parental occupation, gender, and geographic locale. Using each of these categories as sorting devices, she looks at child rearing, education, work, play, poverty, and delinquency. Her task of sifting, sorting, and synthesizing is even more impressive than Ashby’s, faced as she is by an even more voluminous literature.

In sorting the experiences of childhood between 1850 and 1890, Clement stresses the impact of industrialization and of the Civil War and Reconstruction on children’s fates. She makes a stronger case for the former than the latter. Judging by her evidence, the effect of the Civil War on children was temporary, except in the case of African-Americans. Even for the latter, the continuities (lasting modes of child rearing; work and play; enduring values) seem as striking as the changes (heightened parental power over children; access to education). Industrialization, on the other hand, played a major role in creating the dramatic differences that Clement catalogs with such diligence. The contrasts between the lives of urban and rural children and those of middle- and working-class children have their origins in the patterns of production and income distribution that dominated this period.

Clement makes a convincing case not only for the impact of industrialization but for her main theme – that children of different social backgrounds shared little in the way of common experience. More than that, Clement’s text is full of keen insights. For instance, she points again and again to the ways in which the labor of poor children made possible longer years of education and play for children of more prosperous families – wealthy masters’ sons and daughters, middle-class children, youngsters from thriving Northern farm families.

And yet, for all the care with which Clement – and Ashby – have sifted, synthesized, and analyzed, neither of these eminently useful books is truly satisfying as a history of childhood. The reason for this is simple. Neither one conveys a sense that the historical experience of childhood was important. Ashby has written a history of adult responses to endangered children and tells the reader little about the experience of endangerment in childhood. Has the qualitative experience of childhood poverty changed or is it a painful historical constant? Have patterns of abuse and neglect varied over time ? What have been the consequences of these endangering experiences to their victims? Without answers to these questions, Ashby leaves his readers on the outside looking in, just like his misguided reformers – and, like those reformers, the reader is likely to view the experience of endangered children through the lenses of personal preconception or uninformed empathy, since there is no evidence to provide a true picture. Granted that the children of poverty leave fewer historical traces than any other social group, but, as one learns from the scholarship on white working-class and African-American children that Clement synthesizes, it is possible to study the experience of endangerment historically. Without such study, we are left with a history in which the dynamic element is the middle-class reform impulse and the static element is the unvaried endangerment of the impoverished child. (Indeed, is “endangered” itself a historical artifact of modern, middle-class perception?)

It is more puzzling that Clement’s book fails to provide a sense of the importance of childhood experience, because the content of the book is a mass of evidence about that very experience. The problem in Clement’s case comes from a curious organizational decision. Rather than structure her book according to the categories that she so convincingly demonstrates were determinants of childhood experience (white, middle-class Protestant; white, urban working class; white rural; African-American), Clement builds her main chapters on activities or events that were imposed by adults entirely (child rearing, education, work, Civil War and Reconstruction, responses to child poverty and delinquency) or in part (recreation). The effect of this scheme is to make childhood seem like a dependent variable, with adult actions and historical forces acting as independent variables.

This effect contradicts the very reason for the study of childhood’s history. We study childhood not because children have had an active impact on the major political trends of their day or because children have been a significant focus of public policy. We study childhood because all humans start out as children and because we believe that childhood experience has a shaping influence on the individual human. Thus, when we understand broad patterns of childhood experience, we can learn about broad patterns of adult emotion, outlook, and behavior later in time. If childhood were simply an effect of great economic or political changes or of adult socializing efforts, we would take little time to study it.

Had Clement organized her book according to social categories of childhood experience instead of categories of adult action, significant patterns would have emerged much more clearly. For example, when one reads together Clement’s separate subsections on African-American childhood, it is clear that there was little gender differentiation before age ten. Reading in succession the separate pieces on white middle-class girls, one is struck by the sudden and sharp limits on their freedom when they reached adolescence. If childhood experience in each social grouping were presented whole, instructive contrasts would also emerge more clearly. Middle-class boys were encouraged to be aggressive and African-American boys were discouraged from being aggressive. White working-class children in the cities grew up in a world divided between life in the family and life in public, while white rural children experienced no such division. The greatest possible value of a book like Clement’s lies in the ready apprehension of these sorts of patterns and contrasts, but her method of organization gets in the way. To be fair, Clement does pull together these different categories of childhood experience in the last few pages of the book, but the ultimate impact is not the same as if, say, the experiences of African-American childhood were presented in the book as a coherent whole.

These two books share one other shortcoming, which is a lack of clarity about definitional boundaries of time and concept. Ashby’s account supports the idea that the circumstances surrounding childhood changed dramatically at the turn of the nineteenth century. Indeed, more than ninety percent of his narrative covers the years after 1800. Ashby could have sharpened his analysis with a keener focus on this transition. A more explicit contrast of needy childhoods and public responses in the colonial and modern periods could have thrown the characteristics of the latter period (which is the book’s real subject) into higher relief.

Clement’s account could have benefited from a stronger sense of before-and-after and a better indication from Clement (or her series editors) about why the period 1850 to 1890 was chosen. Many of the patterns of experience that Clement describes – from the folktales of African-Americans to the peer culture of white middle-class boys – existed before 1850, and many of them from the adolescent employment of farm children to the public amusements of urban working-class teenagers – continued after 1890. Were there criteria for choosing those dates or do they represent an arbitrary slice of the history of childhood?

Finally, neither author defines “childhood” nor traces changing definitions of it across time. Their evidence suggests that youngsters up to the age of six or seven were treated as dependents in all demographic groups across time, but beyond that nothing is certain. What determined boundaries of childhood – age? employment? marriage? residence? behavior? appearance? dependence on family? Was an eight year-old – an African-American working in the fields or a white working-class youngster working in the streets – a child? Was an eighteen year-old middle-class youth – living at home and not gainfully employed – a child?

These issues of definition are not quibbles. For there is a second fundamental reason to study childhood and that is to understand changing ideas of childhood itself. We need to understand what people have seen as the nature of childhood, what behaviors they thought were distinctive and appropriate to children, what ages have bounded childhood, and when these ideas changed historically. After all, the historical study of childhood began with Phillipe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood, which undertook just such an exploration of ideas. The ideology of childhood is crucial to studying the experience of childhood, because that ideology guides the behavior of adults toward children and sets the terms in which children come to understand themselves. Clement does do some of this. She shows clearly how the nature of childhood was understood differently within different social groupings. But neither Clement nor Ashby explicitly identifies the defining features of behavior and relationship that change when a person leaves childhood nor does either do much to pinpoint or explore historical moments when ideas about childhood changed. As long as these ideas and points of change remain murky (and as long as the patterns of childhood experience are obscured or treated as dependent variables), the history of childhood will lack shape and substance in its essential elements

Department of History Andover, MA 01810

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