Are Today’s Children Different than Children 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.”

Today’s kids do seem different than those over a century ago.

But the belief is a myth.

Biologically, babies are born with the same heart, brain, and other organs that humans 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. Few would disagree that over the last half-century 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.

Second, 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. These enduring beliefs passed from one generation to another have contributed to the myth of children today being different than those over a century ago.


From birth through toddler-hood, experiences in a family and in the larger culture, parents and teachers 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. While a traditional view, philosophers and educators have challenged it often (see here).

Child as Perpetual Learner

A more recent idea about infants and children is that they 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 beliefs about the nature of children and rearing them act as filters for interpreting the actions of toddlers and young children.

These beliefs 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 focusing on basic academics to handing out condoms in high schools and starting conflict resolution courses. For make-kids-good believers it might mean building more respect for authority, character education, and teaching moral precepts in lessons. For those who see children-as-inquirers, school reforms that push teachers to act like coaches rather than autocrats; and encouraging children to take far more responsibility for their learning. Of course, while I have presented these beliefs separately, there are mixes of them in most adults. Nonetheless, we seldom examine these beliefs about children’s nature or child-rearing and connect those tenets 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 yet thus far have hardly altered long-held beliefs about the nature of infants, toddlers, children, and youth. Thus, there is both continuity and change in beliefs when it comes to how children are at home and should be in school.



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10 responses to “Are Today’s Children Different than Children in the 1890s?

  1. “…evangelical groups since the 1950s challenging the secular blank-slate view of children. It is the view that children are born sinners…”

    It isn’t just Evangelicals who think children are born sinners. The Catholic church maintains that all babies are born with original sin. They have to be baptized into the Catholic church to take away that “sin”. If a child should die before being baptized, she/he will go to a place in limbo and not be able to see God.
    It’s a ploy to get every child born to Catholic parents into the church beliefs as quickly as possible. .

  2. bluecat57

    No. Humans are humans no matter when or where they live.
    Each is a unique individual which will respond in unique ways to teaching.
    The trick is for the teacher to find a method that will reach most in the minimum of tome and use the saved time to reach the outlayers.

  3. David F

    Hi Larry–I’d say the biggest difference is that students in the past read a lot more for leisure. Looking at the old McGuffy Readers, students were expected to read complex texts which implied a certain knowledge of things that many students today would not have. The Hechinger Report just today has a piece on this issue.

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