Friday, April 5, 2013

A History of "Childhood" in New York City

The April 8, 2013 New York magazine cover story is "Childhood in New York". This excerpt from Jennifer Senior's article "Little Grown-ups and Their Progeny" is consistent with the research that we've previously posted about childhood being a relatively recent invention.

The article relates that up until the end of the WWII, children were expected to contribute to the family financially. Particular to New York City, newsboys were rampant, but delivering newspapers wasn’t their only source of income. They “[…] blacked boots, scavenged for junk, and shuttled messages and goods.” But “[...] child poverty, child abuse, and exploitative labor practices […]” lead to an effort by reformers and the government (e.g. Children’s Bureau) to protect children.

However, Steven Mintz, the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of Childhood in America, said, “They [reformers and the government] viewed kids smoking at 10 and 12 and having independent money and walking into bars as the worst thing in the world. It reminds you that "child" is a label, not a reality."

Clearly, prior to the end the WWII and before the American economy prospered, young people (i.e. children) were expected to behave as adults in terms of earning a living wage and their adult behavior in terms of vices was condoned. It was even common to see 10-year-old prostitutes in New York City. 

Just like Neil Postman related in The Disappearance of Childhood, things have gone full circle. Today, many children/teens behave like adults. For example, they drink, smoke, take drugs, have sex, and are (virtual) teen strippers; however, what separates them from adults isn't the printing press, but age-of-consent laws. 

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