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Posts Tagged ‘children’

The Giving Season… and Era

Every time I cash in on being (just barely) a senior citizen – at the movie line, on the subway, for example – I feel a twinge of guilt. The elderly, on average, can better afford such items than can young adults, especially those raising small children. Yet the system of discounts for age, like much else these days – say, Medicare vs. Medicaid – is slanted toward seniors. The logic is rooted in an earlier time.

Back in the day – say, before the ’60s – the assumption was that most old people could make it through their sunset years only with financial and personal help from their grown children. In last few decades, the flow of money and of energy has been largely going the other way (see earlier post).

In two new overview papers (pdf and pdf), sociologists Judith Seltzer and Suzanne Bianchi document the help many American seniors are giving their adult children long past the school years, be it directly with money or through help such as babysitting. (Bianchi, a terrific scholar of American family life, passed away recently, much too soon.) Among the less well-off, parents might largely help by re-opening a bedroom at home or providing after-school care. One study found that about 3 of 10 pre-schoolers are with grandparents when the parents are at work. Among the most affluent, parental help can include buying 20-somethings their own Manhattan apartments (see here and here).

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Child Labors

American children are typically expected to focus, laser-like, on doing well in school so that they can do well in college so that they can do well when they eventually start working. Moreover, parents enroll their daughters and sons in extracurricular activities also in part to give them practical skills. Given such a schedule, the proportion of teens, especially young teens, who work for pay has dropped considerably in recent generations; it also appears that rates of doing household chores have dropped. Our image of childhoods past, in contrast, depicts even young children working hard on the farm or in part-time city jobs. When did American childhood change to become so education-focused?

Noted USC historian Carole Shammas contributed to the discussion this summer. (Shammas has produced central studies on, for example, the history of the family and of consumption.) Writing in the William & Mary Quarterly, Shammas analyzes an unusual pre-revolutionary diary – a 12-year-old boy’s a detailed accounting, started in 1774, of all his daily activities. It tells of a quite different adolescence.

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Paying Attention to the Kids

Whether Americans are doing right by their kids is a recurrent subject of often bitter debate. With controversies about the “tiger mom,” or “helicopter parents,” or career women “dumping” their children on others, or men doing their share, there is no end of worry about whether 21st-century American parents are properly committed to their children.

Some recent data suggests that American parents in the last generation have been at least trying harder than parents did decades ago. They are spending more money on their kids and, given their work schedules, spending more time with their kids. This trend developed in the face of other trends have made attending to kids more and more difficult: the growth of single parenting, the entry of most mothers into the labor force, and the exacerbated financial strains on middle- and working-class families. While parents are making the effort, as is so often the case these days, widening inequality makes it harder for some parents and kids than others.

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Lost Children

I’ve been to a few – and any is too many – funerals of and memorials for children. One often hears at such at such moments is the comment that this death is particularly wrenching, because it is “unnatural” for a parent to bury a child; it is “not the way of the world.”

LC-USZ62-5409

The social historian knows, of course, that parents burying children is all too “natural” in much of the the world today. In many African countries over 1 in 10 babies dies in the first year of life. And it was all too much “the way of the world” in the United States until recently. Only in the last couple of generations has that terrible experience become so rare in America as to feel “unnatural.”

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Buying a Head Start

The widening gaps between Americans of average wealth and well-off Americans, and especially, super-well-off Americans over the last 40 years have now been fully documented and heavily discussed. But it’s not just about money. We are seeing, as well, growing economic, social, geographical, and cultural divisions between Americans of less and more education. (See, e.g., this earlier post.)

barnaby watson via flikr

Now, Sean Reardon of the Stanford School of Education has described another way that these two developments have increasingly combined to widen social class differences. More and more over the last four decades, affluent parents have leveraged their financial assets into better academic skills for their children. Having those greater skills, in turn, gives their kids an even larger head start in the race for higher education and its financial payoff.
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