Kids in America: 500 Years of Change

Connect for Kids (now SparkAction)
Jan Richter
September 29, 2003
Kids in America: 500 Years of Change
Interactive Timeline

When I worked as a psychotherapist for close to 20 years, much of my work was in helping people understand their story—and how that story changed as they worked to correct it. Here's one story—a man who grew up in the forties fervently believed that his mother had been neglectful and unloving when he was a young boy. This conviction colored his relationships with women in his current life and colored how he valued and loved himself. Over and over he complained about how eager his mother was to get him out of her hair. His evidence? Every summer she sent him far away from her.

What he came to understand was that every summer his mother sent him to distant country relatives to try to protect him from the polio epidemic. What he had always understood as evidence of his mother's unconcern was in fact a loving, caring act. The point is not that she was right and he was wrong, but that understanding his own history was key to freeing him from the hurtful consequences of feeling unloved and unwanted.

Cultures tend to use stories the same way to give meaning and coherence to our lives. George Washington and the cherry tree, Robin Hood and his merry men—tales like these connect groups to their history, and carry a moral lesson too. Children draw their conclusions about who they are and what they stand for from these stories, conclusions that stay with them even after they begin to suspect the stories might not be true.

These cultural myths and legends are useful and powerful, but I believe our best decisions are based on an accurate knowledge of events. In telling us how we got here, past events help us choose the better path to follow into the future.

So Many Stories
So, what's it been like growing up in America? How has that experience changed over time? The answers depend on where you were born, and when, and who your parents are or were. There is no single storyline.

Connect for Kids is kicking off our new project, "Kids in America: 500 years of Change," with an interactive timeline intended to prompt questions and help users find answers about the forces that have shaped American childhood. Over the coming months, we'll add to this resource with essays and narratives on key topics.

Check the timeline to get a sense of the wide variety of children's experiences across America and through time. Why did European settlers frown on Native American child-rearing practices—practices that seem mainstream today? What impact did the shiploads of London orphan boys sent to the colonies have on the first century of settlement? From those ships, to the Orphan Trains of the 1850s, children played a role in filling the labor needs of a growing country.

Did the deaths of immigrant girls, some as young as 12, in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York give an added push to efforts to improve conditions for garment workers? How did we, as a society, compass the gulf between African American children raised in slavery, working full days from an early age, and the simultaneous growth of the idea of childhood as a special period of play, learning and innocence for affluent children?

Look at the timeline and you'll see that victories for children have not come easily or quickly. Our society has had major successes in committing our collective and public resources to helping kids—developing a polio vaccine, establishing free public schools, housing orphaned or abused children, providing medical care—but progress has rarely been the result of compassion alone. It has resulted from an alignment of power brokers, politicians and advocates building on the self-interest of the community and a compelling story that attracts public attention and demands for improvement.

The History of "Kids in America: 500 Years of Change"
Several years ago an article in the Washington Post described the scholarly field of the history of childhood, an emerging field gaining respect in academic communities. That sparked Connect for Kids' interest. We wanted to bring the history of childhood to the American public.

Kids in America: 500 Years of ChangeAs a start on this ambitious project, we convened historians for a meeting of the minds, in May, 1999. The late Professor Robert Bremner participated in this meeting, contributing his encyclopedic grasp of the history of childhood to the discussion. Joe Hawes and Ray Hiner, co-editors of the Twayne Series on the history of childhood, were there. Scholars Wilma King, Joe Illick and Kriste Lindenmeyer were there. We spent the day together outlining the key areas for a narrative accounting of the history of childhood in America, and also the key lessons learned for present-day activists.

Now, Connect for Kids is launching our online feature on 500 years of childhood in America with an illustrative timeline.

Over the course of the coming year we will add narrative accounts of children at play and at work, the history of education, the story of public health efforts that changed the odds for children's survival. For now, wander along the timeline, and as always, let us know what you think!

Kids in America: 500 Years of Change Timeline

Connect for Kids would like to acknowledge and thank those historians whose advice helped share our "Kids in America: 500 Years of Change" feature. The late Robert Bremner, whose seminal work "A Documentary History of American Childhood and Youth" helped to establish children's history as a scholarly field, attended a working meeting in May, 1999 to identify key themes and lessons learned for a Web-based feature on the history of childhood and youth. The other participants, whose expertise and insights were invaluable for launching this project, were Joseph M. Hawes (University of Memphis) and N. Ray Hiner (University of Kansas), co-editors of the Twayne History of Childhood series, Kriste Lindenmeyer, professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore, Joseph Illick, emeritus professor of history at San Francisco State University and Wilma King, professor of history at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Connect for Kids greatly appreciates the time and effort these historians contributed to this project. The work of these and other historians is listed in our bibliography.

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