Throughout American history adults have sought to produce orderly behavior in children. Although many parents and educators expressed their own frustration with a boisterous, willful, or recalcitrant child, most sought to instill values and behaviors that would govern the individual as an adult. Their degree of reliance on corporal punishment, habit formation, control of the environment, or moral suasion has fluctuated through the centuries, reflecting change in concepts of desirable behavior and expectations of children in the family, workplace, and society.

Native American and Colonial Children

NATIVE AMERICAN CHILDREN prior to European contact seem to have enjoyed an indulged childhood followed by initiation rites, which occurred at the onset of PUBERTY. Born on an average at four-year intervals, they received protracted breast-feeding and the attention of their mothers, who carried them on their backs in cradleboards. Allowed to crawl when they were ready and to run about freely by the age of three, children were not disciplined with corporal punishment. Instead, instructed by their parents and members of the community in tasks designated by gender, they were chastised by shaming. At the onset of menstruation, girls were separated from the group and told to fast. Boys of the same age were isolated, confined, and given substances that induced visions as guides to life. Such practices marked a clear line between childhood and adulthood, as young men and women assumed the tasks designated by their cultures.

In seventeenth-century England, infants were shaped by midwives and then swaddled in the belief that the human body could not support itself. Children were breast-fed for about a year by their mothers or a wet nurse whose care could sometimes be negligent. Because crawling was thought to indicate animal behavior, children were encouraged to remain upright by the use of tight corsets under their long robes, leading strings attached to their shoulders, and standing or walking stools in which they could be left for long periods of time. Both boys and girls were corrected with corporal punishment as they grew. When the English settled the Chesapeake colonies, these practices were altered by the circumstances of the new environment. Some 70 to 85 percent of the immigrants arrived as indentured servants, one-third to two-thirds of whom were under the age of twenty. These youngsters and youths were disciplined by the routines of tobacco production and chastised with corporal punishment or shaming. They and the children born in Virginia and Maryland suffered the effects of the region's high mortality rate. Half of the children born would not live to the age of twenty, and over half of those who survived lost one or both parents. Although ORPHANS were placed under the care of guardians and sent to live with another family, they came under the direction of adults who may themselves have lacked the loving care of parents. These conditions, however, also mitigated discipline by limiting the power of a patriarchal father and throwing youngsters on their own at an early age.

Religious beliefs also mitigated practices of discipline. English Puritans, who settled New England, believed in the depravity of the newborn child, who inherited original sin. Infants may not have been swaddled and were breast-fed by their mothers, but when they showed signs of autonomy, their parents restrained them in order to create habitual tractability. As children grew, fathers as well as mothers participated in their governance, instructing them by example and exhortation, and correcting with corporal punishment when they considered it necessary. Yet Puritans were restrained by their belief in the reciprocity of relationships: children owed parents honor and obedience, but parents owed children protection and care. Quakers–the more radical Puritans who settled Pennsylvania–rejected belief in the depravity of the newborn child and encouraged spiritual development in a loving family atmosphere. In order to protect children, they sought to shelter them from sinful influences. The Quaker family became a controlled environment in which the child's will was subject to that of the parents. But Quaker authority was nurturing and sought to buttress autonomy; parents appealed to reason in their children and taught them subordination less to individuals than to a community of values.

Influence of John Locke

In his 1693 Some Thoughts Concerning Education JOHN LOCKE suggested that child-rearing practices be designed to develop the rational, autonomous adult. He had argued in his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding that the child resembled a blank tablet (tabula rasa) at birth and received knowledge through sense impressions, which were ordered by the innate power of reason. The task of the parent was to build in the child the strong body and habits of mind that would allow the capacity of reason to develop. To build the strong constitution, Locke advocated loose clothing, fresh air, and exercise. To teach denial of appetite, he urged little behavioral lessons in the first year of life, in which the parent denied the child something he clearly wanted. Once habits of self-denial and obedience were established, parents could reward good behavior with their esteem and punish bad behavior with disgrace–the withdrawal of parental approval and affection. As the child developed the capacity to reason, he could be granted increasing independence while the parent assumed a new role of friend.

Locke's advice was directed to the education of a gentleman's son but was applied to the education of girls in the periodical the Spectator (1711–1714), copies of which inundated the colonies in the eighteenth century. Stories addressed to women and girls spurned fashion while advocating reason, virtue, and gentle wit, and popularized new conceptions of the affectionate, anti-patriarchal family. By the 1740s, British physicians elaborated on Locke's advice, and John Newbery began to print books designed to amuse as well as to instruct children. Avant-garde colonial parents purchased alphabet blocks to make learning pleasant and had children's portraits painted in slightly relaxed attitudes, celebrating the playful aspects of childhood. Popularizations of Locke's advice arrived in America with imports of an expanding consumer economy and widespread aspiration to genteel behavioral ideals. Parents attempted to mold their children to gentility, and some youngsters drew on these materials to discipline themselves. For example, the printer's apprentice Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write in the 1720s by copying articles in the Spectator. In 1746 the fourteen-yearold George Washington consciously acquired self-restraint by copying "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior" into his commonplace book.

Slavery and Revolution

In the eighteenth century, however, increased transport of African slaves brought large numbers of teenagers and many children to the colonies. These youngsters and youths, cut off from their families and original cultures, were put to work in agricultural labor and disciplined harshly with corporal punishment. Slave children were subject to the discipline of both their masters and their parents or kin. Children born in the colonies shared their mothers with the tasks required of slaves and often lived separately from their fathers. Although they were allowed to play when young, their parents may have curbed signs of autonomy in order to prepare them for survival in slavery. Growing up in a slave society also affected parental discipline of white children, who found themselves masters at an early age. Thomas Jefferson, who agreed with Locke that personality was formed by environmental influences, feared that children observing the harsh discipline of slaves would learn to imitate it and not attain mastery of their own behavior.

The American Revolution imparted political significance to the discipline of children, as cultural leaders sought to create a genuinely republican society. Personal independence and individual autonomy became desirable goals, but self-restraint was deemed essential in future citizens. The task of forming personality in early childhood was allocated to mothers and the creation of common social bonds was allocated to schools. Although Americans did not wholeheartedly approve JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU's 1762 Émile, they did adopt his concept of the natural child, whose personality could be formed through manipulation of the environment. In his 1825 Treatise on the Physical and Medical Treatment of Children, Dr. William Potts Dewees recommended maternal breast-feeding and the loose clothing, fresh air, and exercise that had been advocated by eighteenth-century physicians. But he also urged parents to instill obedience through strict control of issues such as the child's diet. And he allocated to children special nursery space in the middle-class household, where they could play with a proliferation of new TOYS under the constant surveillance of the mother.

The Nineteenth Century

By the mid-nineteenth century a widespread movement of evangelical Protestantism reinforced the emphasis on affectionate maternal persuasion to help the child develop internalized restraint through guilt. As the middle class became more child-centered, a romantic concept of childhood emerged, in which the young seemed to possess a special spiritual sensibility. But the lives of children also became more regimented with the development of systems of agegraded public schools. With maturation of a capitalist economy, class differences in discipline became pronounced. Working-class parents expected children to contribute to family support inside and outside the home. Those who were immigrants demanded deference from their children and lacked the time and energy for moral suasion. Many resorted to corporal punishment and were frustrated when the freedom of urban streets lured children from their control. Some urban children found themselves committed by city magistrates or their parents to institutions such as the Houses of Refuge, where they were placed under strict regimens designed to instill orderly habits and reform character. Children who grew up on farms also were expected to work, continuing earlier patterns through which parents instructed the young in daily tasks designated by gender.

As the nineteenth century progressed, social critics became alarmed that mothers and female teachers had assumed the rearing of middle-class boys, while working-class and immigrant youth lacked adequate outlets for dangerous male instincts. The result was an emphasis on masculine aspects of Christianity and the founding of organizations such as the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), which championed the manly, character-building force of competitive SPORTS. By the turn of the century, after-school GYMNASTICS, BASKETBALL, and volleyball became a means to acquire physical discipline and practice teamwork. The scientific study of children produced works such as the 1904 ADOLESCENCE, by G. STANLEY HALL, which defined the teenage years as a period of emotional stress and which also prolonged the protected middle-class childhood. Progressive educators who followed the ideas of JOHN DEWEY advocated liberty in classrooms to achieve self-direction and creative expression for children, but the general trend was toward increasing adult direction of young people's leisure time.

The Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century, child-rearing experts abandoned a romantic view of childhood and advocated formation of proper habits to discipline children. A 1914 U.S. CHILDREN'S BUREAU pamphlet, Infant Care, urged a strict schedule and admonished parents not to play with their babies. JOHN B. WATSON's 1924 Behaviorism argued that parents could train malleable children by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, and by following precise schedules for food, sleep, and other bodily functions. Although such principles began to be rejected as early as the 1930s, they were firmly renounced in the 1946 Baby and Child Care, by pediatrician BENJAMIN SPOCK, which told parents to trust their own instincts and to view the child as a reasonable, friendly human being. Dr. Spock revised his first edition to urge more parent-centered discipline in 1957, but critics blamed his popular book for its permissive attitude during the youth rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s.

The affluent consumer society that followed World War II provided parents with the tactic of disciplining children by denying toys or the right to watch a favorite TELEVISION program. Contemporary experts favor reasonable discussion and nonpunitive techniques that will allow the child to maintain a positive attitude toward the parent. Adults demonstrate the consequences of actions, set firm boundaries and rules, and punish with time-outs and isolation. Yet national surveys show that many parents still resort to corporal punishment. And as mothers as well as fathers participate in the work force to survive or to achieve or maintain middle-class status, many children still are thrown on their own without parental guidance much of the time.

See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature.


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Clement, Priscilla Ferguson. 1997. Growing Pains: Children in the Industrial Age, 1850–1900. New York: Twayne.

Demos, John. 1970. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. New York: Oxford University Press.

Illick, Joseph E. 2002. American Childhoods. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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