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Have Children Changed in Modern America?

A recent piece by the dean of historians of American education, Larry Cuban, asks a provocative question: Are Today’s Children Different Than Children in the 1890s?

His answer is no. Sure, he acknowledges, the experience of childhood has changed in noticeable ways.

  • More children are raised in single-parent homes and experience their parents’ divorce.
  • Most children have working mothers, which has had the ironic effect of both increasing and decreasing time spent in each other’s company (since when moms and children are together, working moms actually devote more attention and time to their children than did their 1950s counterparts).
  • Children do spend more time in front of screens, and their ready access to cellphones, social media, video games and video streaming means that most have largely unmediated exposure to adult realities.

Three somewhat inconsistent ideas now shape parenting and teaching:

  • That children’s intellectual growth benefits substantially from conscious cultivation and enrichment and that it’s therefore a mistake to assume children will grow up naturally.
  • That in order to develop into well-behaved, responsible adults, children need structure, adult supervision and character education (now called social-emotional learning or civics education).
  • That children are naturally curious incipient scientists who need and profit from opportunities to learn actively, engage in hands-on inquiry and work collaboratively on relevant, useful tasks.

One of Cuban’s most interesting points is the ways that these three ideas have shaped children’s school-going experience.


We should certainly be wary of facile generalizations about how childhood has changed. Have children’s attention spans declined? We don’t know. Are kids more resistant to reading? The evidence remains unclear and contradictory. Are children more disrespectful and impulsive? Probably not.

But as a historian of childhood, I’d like to respectfully disagree with Cuban’s insistence that children today are more or less similar to those in 1890. I believe that today’s children do differ in meaningful ways from their predecessors. Nor is my disagreement with Cuban simply a matter of terminology. It reflects fundamental disagreements about how childhood is defined, understood, treated, institutionalized and experienced.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed