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February 7, 2002

SMU COURSE EXPLORES THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN CHILDHOOD

DALLAS (SMU) -- This spring Southern Methodist University students are learning about American history through the eyes of a child.

A new course offered by the William P. Clements Jr. Department of History in Dedman College, “Growing Up in America,” explores the cultural, social and political history of childhood from the colonial era to the mid-20th century. The instructor, Crista DeLuzio, assistant professor of history who specializes in women’s history, says the class is unique to SMU because the field of childhood history is so new.

“The history of childhood is an increasingly growing field of study, within the last 10 years or so,” says DeLuzio. “It is related to the fields of women’s and family history and the history of education.”

How children were perceived by adults in the past, whether they were viewed as separate from adults or merely as smaller versions, is a subject of debate among historians. Some historians believe there was no recognized state of childhood before the 17th century. Most American historians, however, recognized a concept of childhood dating at least to the Colonial era.

“It wasn’t the same concept of childhood that we have today or even in the 19th century, but there were still adults who recognized distinguishing characteristics between children and youth, although they were not called adolescents in the Colonial period,” DeLuzio says.

Understanding how these cultural expectations and social experiences of childhood changed over time is a major focus of the class, especially when seen through the lens of race, gender, class and ethnicity.

“It was different for girls and for boys. It was different obviously for slave children and for urban children,” DeLuzio says. “The point is not to make any generalizations, but to pursue as many diverse experiences as possible.”

Among the topics covered are the material world of children; for example, their toys, clothes and furniture; child-rearing practices from the 18th and 19th centuries; the experience of slave and immigrant children; and the treatment of children as reflected in 19th-century infant and child mortality rates, truancy laws, and the emergence of child welfare organizations.

Another problem posed by historians is how to study a population that leaves no records. For the most part, children who lived before the 20th century -- and only the literate ones then -- did not leave diaries, wills or letters. Without these records, historians of children must rely on cultural prescriptions written by adults about rearing and educating children. These parents’ guides help present historians with a conception of childhood from the 18th and 19th centuries.

DeLuzio says historians know that early in American life children were more connected to the adult world, living and working side by side with their parents in the household or in the fields. In later generations, children gradually moved away from spending all their time in the family unit. Also important are demographic and census records as well as patterns of school construction which can tell historians how much of an impact children had on their communities. The post-WWII baby boomers, for example, left a large footprint on American history.

To paint a realistic picture of childhood, students read from historical accounts, memoirs and novels. These books give a worldview of children, their family and work lives, and their religious and social observances. Assigned readings include Louis May Alcott’s Civil War novel, Little Women; Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches story of a New York City shoeshine boy, Ragged Dick; Mary Odem’s story of female juveniles during the Progressive Era, Delinquent Daughters; and Russell Baker’s memoir of a Depression-era childhood, Growing Up.

SMU sophomore Alicia Harden says one of her favorite books was Harriet Jacobs’ account of slavery, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

“I had never really studied 19th-century slavery and I enjoyed the time we spent there,” Harden says. “The story of Jacobs is very powerful and something everyone should experience.”

In addition to her class, DeLuzio is writing a book about how scholars in the social sciences, including anthropologists and psychologists, viewed female adolescence from 1870 to 1930 and how those ideas later shaped contemporary theories of child development. DeLuzio received her Ph.D in American civilization from Brown University.


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