I’m reading this book that is so great that I almost want to start a reading group so we can discuss each chapter. It’s called Childhood in America, and it’s a 700-page anthology of three-page excerpts from scholarly writing about childhood.

Two of my favorites:

The Life of a Slave Child, by James W. C. Pennington. Written in 1849. He emphasizes that parents had no time to be with their kids and no ability to discipline their kids, so the only reliable interaction with adults slave kids had with adults were the overseers and the masters and they were abusive. The undermining of daily parenting was a new perspective for me.

Proceedings of the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Written in 1909. The discussion about whether or not children of poor parents should stay with the parents is surprising if not earnest. I, for one, had no idea how late in history the idea of keeping families together had emerged.

I’ve always been an avid reader of history. I am convinced my fascination stems from my need to feel like I belong. Understanding where we fit in a bigger story enhances our sense of belonging, and belonging is a key factor in our sense of well-being.

The more I become entrenched in homeschooling, the more I find myself reconstructing historical narrative so I understand where I fit. I don’t accept the idea that I’m on the fringe, raising my kids in some crazy fashion. I want to belong. To something.

So you can imagine how quickly I jumped to the section in Childhood in America that focuses on education. The section comes right after the section about work. Of course we know why: school emerged as a way to get kids out of factories.

There are, or course, obligatory articles by Jacob Riis about the plight of kids in the city with no one to take care of them. And there are diatribes about how terrible working environments were for children in factories. But there is a stunning article by sociologist Viviana Zelizer called The Changing Social Value of Children.

Zelizer writes about the time in history when it became clear that working in factories or on the street was totally inappropriate for children. At that point, children were earning 1/3 of the family income for urban families. Which means that convincing parents that their kids should not work was fighting the creation of a large financial gap. In a Rhode Island town dominated by a textile mill, the local paper estimated that removing children from the workforce would “create an immediate deficit of $135,000 a year.” I can only guess what that would be in today’s dollars, but you get the point.

Yet photos and stories continued pouring out of cities about children wasting away in terrible working conditions. So pundits started qualifying what it meant that children should not work. People said only the worst working conditions were a problem–that most situations were fine for working children. Southern newspapers especially, encouraged people to visit the cotton mills and see how child-friendly the working conditions were. The Textile Manufacturers Journal promoted factories as a way to help poor kids escape the squalor of their homes, if only during working hours.

And people started making moral arguments about why kids should work. There was a rallying cry around the Bible proverb: Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. The argument was basically that if kids did not work, then they were idle, and surely this would not be good either. Children working all day granted their parents a sense of moral superiority.

So what happened? What finally changed it? The age limit for work was increased slowly. The workday was limited, slowly. The history of legal age for work in the US is actually the history of coming to terms with the idea that it is not appropriate to make a child support the family.

It blows me away how similar our situation is today, with school.

Then

Now

There was clear evidence that child labor was squashing childhood. There is clear evidence that schools are squashing childhood.
Parents were economically dependent on children working. Parents are economically dependent on children going to school.
Communities were financially dependent on the money from factories. Communities are financially dependent on the money from schools’ care of children.
People disregarded all evidence and said we can improve working life for children. People disregard all evidence and say we can reform schools.
Parents questioned the judgment of parents who did not send their kids to work. Parents question the judgment of parents who do not send their kids to school.
Legislation slowly chipped away at child labor. ?

Look at the history of protecting children. Notice how parents resist change when it’s financially inconvenient? That’s what’s happening right now. With school.

I get frustrated and disoriented when people look at me like I’m some sort of parenting revolutionary. I don’t feel like a revolutionary. For more than a century we’ve been working to build a society that protects the emotional life of children. So homeschooling is not revolutionary at all. It is a natural continuation of the path American parents have been walking for generations. I am part of the American history of parenting. And I feel like I belong.