Are Children Different Today Than They Were in the 1890s?

News stories of a three-year old calling 911 to save a dying parent or of a teenager shooting teachers startle us over what children can now do to help and harm others. Kindergarten teachers speak admiringly of bright-eyed five-year olds who sing the lyrics of the latest rap song or tap out a note to the teacher on their parent’s computer. They are soooo smart! These same teachers speak less glowingly, however, of how their attention span is as short as a tweet or how little ones expect the classroom to be just like “Barney and Friend.”
Kids do seem different today than earlier generations.

But it is a myth.

Biologically, babies are have been born with the same heart, brain, and other organs that human babies have had for millennia. Psychologically, children then and now have always needed to feel physically and emotionally safe and loved by those that care for them. If they are same biologically and psychologically, what makes them seem different now?

First, social conditions have changed dramatically influencing what toddlers learn and do as they mature. Second, while adult beliefs about children and child-rearing have changed over time, certain basic ideas continue to exert a powerful influence. These enduring beliefs have contributed to the myth of children today being different.

Few would disagree that over the last two decades socioeconomic conditions have changed the U.S. family. The spiraling divorce rate and sharply increased numbers of working mothers in concert with periodic recessions have had an enormous impact on rearing children. Experts have pointed out repeatedly the importance of parents spending time with their children.

Parents and children also have to cope with technological changes. Experts point to how media has made it possible for children to consider adult ideas and behaviors. Researchers cite statistics about soaring rates of alcoholism, sexual activity, drug use, and teenage violence to show that distinctions between adulthood and childhood are fading. Moreover, exposure to video games, mobile phones, texting, and other nanosecond communication devices have altered attention spans in both positive and negative ways (see: BavelierGreenDye2010 ). Children do indeed spend big chunks of their days facing screens in and out of school. It is these conditions in mall-dominated suburbs and low-income neighborhoods that shape what children think and do.

But while socioeconomic and cultural changes such as increased divorce, televised violence, and high-tech devices may give the appearance that children are different, fundamental beliefs parents have have about the nature of children and how they should be raised have persisted. Consider these enduring beliefs.


From birth through toddler-hood, experiences in a family and in the larger culture, adults have long believed that they are the chalk that writes on those blank slates. Toys, computers, cell phones and books proliferate in homes. The dramatic growth of child care, nursery schools, kindergarten, and the school itself in the past two centuries derive from the taken-for-granted idea that experiences outside the family are also pieces of chalk. The original idea behind the television program “Sesame Street” in the late 1960s, for example, was to give young children know-how and experiences that would prepare them for school.

Although this blank-slate model of childhood is pervasive among adults, it competes with another equally old but still popular belief: children are born bad and have to be made good.

Born Bad, Made Good

This view, solidly anchored in a Christian vision of human nature, has gained renewed thrust  among evangelical groups since the 1950s challenging the secular blank-slate view of children. It is the view that children are born sinners and need strong training especially in the family and also in the school to build habits of helpfulness, caring, self-reliance, and respect for authority.

Child as Perpetual Learner

A more recent idea about children and raising them is that children are neither blank slates to be written on nor born bad but curious individuals that actively inquire, develop goals, seek to work with others, and think for themselves–if given proper support in families and schools. Children need to explore and be involved in activities that are both productive and socially useful. Schools become communities of learners who work together on relevant and useful activities under the guidance of adults.

These seldom examined beliefs about the nature of children and rearing them act as filters for interpreting the actions of toddlers and young children. They also shape school reform agendas. Those who assume that children are blank slates, born bad, or individuals that constantly learn see instances of social and cultural decay around them and often turn to the schools to provide better experiences to foster desired behaviors: for the blank-slaters it might mean–handing out condoms in high schools and conflict resolution courses. For make-kids-good believers it might mean more respect for authority and more focus on academic subjects. For those who see children-as-inquirers, their school reforms mean that teachers act like coaches rather than autocrats; and that children take far more responsibility for learning. Of course, while I have presented these beliefs separately, there are mixes of them in most adults. We seldom examine these beliefs about children’s nature or child-rearing and see their connection to school reform.

My point is straightforward: children are not biologically or psychologically different than earlier generations. Changed socioeconomic and cultural conditions, however, do affect young children behaviors to appear different than earlier generations. Those changed conditions also influence adults’ beliefs about rearing children and how schools should be. Thus, there is both continuity and change–not myths–when it comes to how children are in school and at home.



Filed under school reform policies

5 responses to “Are Children Different Today Than They Were in the 1890s?

  1. Larry,
    I’ve been doing a little work with Baroness Susan Greenfield recently, and her thinking certainly gives me serious pause for thought about whether or not today’s kids are in fact different from previous generations. You can watch a very good lecture by her here.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Joe,
      The issue of children today with far more screen time and the inherent plasticity of the brain is a point well worth pondering when answering the question of whether today’s generation differs from mine in the ’30s and 40’s and my kids in the ’60s and 70’s. I thought my argument in the post took brain adaptations to media into consideration but I will look at Baroness Susan Greenfield’s comments and think again about what others have written about how children and so much media have caused changes in brain activity and learning. Thanks.

  2. Adams

    Hi Joe,

    I think you’d be well advised to look at Green and Bavelier’s ongoing work on game-induced plasticity. The authors have found (in a series of very important studies)measurable and significant changes in the processing capabilities of individuals who engage in high levels of video game use for long periods of time. These papers are only the tip of the spear on this issue – a number of other associated findings are extant in the literature. I appreciate your passion for this topic, but as a researcher in this area, I believe you’re mistaken in your broad argument that kids are not different as a result of exposure to new media. A number of peer reveiwed empirical studies suggest that they are.

    • Adams

      Oops, meant “Larry,” not “Joe.” My apologies, fellas.

      • larrycuban

        Dear Adams,
        Thanks for your comments. I have begun reading Bavelier’s articles and even went back to the post and entered one 2010 article for others to read. My argument is that biologically and psychologically, children are basically the same. This does not rule out the “plasticity-of-the-brain” point that you, Joe, and others have raised.

        That the human brain has adapted to its surroundings for millennia is part of the biological equipment that we have. It is that plasticity, however, that leads many parents, educators, researchers, and others to conclude that today’s children are fundamentally different than previous generations. Fastening onto that one change has misled many into thinking that public school organization, curriculum, and pedagogy must also change without taking into consideration either the basic biological and psychological needs of children or the beliefs that adults have about how children learn (e.g., blank slate, etc.). That jumping to a conclusion about children being different now and ignoring of adult beliefs about children learning has had strong implications for school reform agendas. Again, thanks, for pointing me to the work of Bavelier.

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