Parenting in America   /   Fall 2013   /    Parenting In America

Picturing Childhood: What Images Tell Us About the Modern History of Parenting

Gary Cross

How did parents feel about their offspring in the past? Why and how have those feelings changed in more recent times? Answers to those questions are elusive and contested, but even provisional ones help to illuminate the mysteries surrounding childhood and parenting today, including transformations in childcare and child-rearing practices, educational methods, birthrates, and even people’s motives for adoption.

Some scholars—including some who invoke evolutionary principles—find that parents throughout history have behaved pretty much the same as mothers and fathers often do today, lavishing all the care and attention they can reasonably afford on their adorably vulnerable progeny. Other researchers have concluded that, until relatively recently, high rates of infant and childhood mortality, the need for children’s labor, and the widespread belief in original sin made parents less indulgent, sentimental, or even loving than their modern counterparts. There is much evidence to suggest that the latter finding is indeed the case—that adult feelings about children have changed dramatically in the last 150 years or so. This appears to be particularly true of that most rapidly changing of societies, the United States. We all know, for example, about the rise of the permissive parent and the disrespectful, overly entitled child. Such types were not unknown in past centuries, but the question is how the exceptions have come close to being the rule.

To understand this sea change, historians have generally relied on child-rearing manuals, memoirs, and other written documents. But sources from our material culture may offer new and valuable insights. Consider the gifts parents gave to their children in times past. These highly charged symbolic offerings allowed parents to share memories of their own childhoods, even while hinting at their aspirations for their children’s future. Images of children in photographs and illustrations can also reveal what childhood has meant to successive generations of parents over the last century and a half. Along with other elements of an emerging and then fully developed consumer culture, these toys and images both reflected and transformed the way parents felt about and treated children. A small selection of images of toys and children from the last 150 years should help to illustrate this point....

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