Views of children shifted from capable and responsible to the opposite.

Peter Gray:

I have previously written much about the decline, over decades, in children’s freedom to play and explore independently of adults and how that has contributed to well-documented declines in children’s mental health, creative thinking, and internal locus of control(e.g., herehere, and here). Recently I came across a book that documents brilliantly how adults’ attitudes about children’s competence, duties, and responsibilities have changed over the past hundred years. I wish I had discovered it earlier, as it was published 11 years ago and would have been a great reference for some of my writings over the past decade. 

The book, entitled Adult Supervision Required, is by Markella Rutherford, an associate professor of sociology at Wellesley College. It is based primarily on her systematic qualitative analysis of 565 articles and advice columns about childrearing that appeared in popular magazines—especially in Parents and Good Housekeeping—from the early 20th century on into the early 21st century. Here, under separate headings, are four of her main conclusions.

1. Children’s public autonomy declined greatly.

If you are considerably younger than I, you might be amazed to read articles for parents written prior to the 1970s, in which the prevailing assumption is that children, even young ones, will spend much of their time outdoors away from adults. Here are three examples from Rutherford’s book:

• An article in Parents, in 1956, expressed approval of a mother’s decision to acquiesce to her 5-year-old’s desire to walk to school by himself, about four blocks from home. The article made it clear that a child old enough for kindergarten is old enough find his or her own way to and from school and can be trusted to make that trip without an adult. The article implicitly judged the child’s desire for such independence to be healthy and normal, something the parent should encourage.