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The Nature of Childhood

February 28, 2008 By:
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Even in his later years, William Post could vividly recall his arrival in America. After his boat docked in New York harbor, he was taken on a small launch to Ellis Island. There, he was literally herded into a cavernous building where he sat for hours until, at last, his name was called. While speaking with an official and answering a string of questions, he caught sight of two of his landsleit -- young men from his village who'd come to America years before, waiting behind a fence. His spirits picked up a bit.

An hour later, Post was standing outside Castle Garden with his friends; they then traveled by subway to Grand Central Station, where the two men gave Post a railway ticket, with instructions in Yiddish, on how to join his brother in Vermont. "[He] had gone [there] to get a job," Post explained in the book A Brotherhood of Memory by Michael R. Weisser, a history of the landsmanschaften groups that assisted immigrants, "and he didn't have time to write to me in the Ukraine before I left. He was supposed to meet me at the boat, but he sent these two landsleit in his place. If they hadn't come, I think I would still be sitting on Ellis Island."

This is a fairly typical immigrant story, circa 1880-1920. Such tales generally deal with a male subject, usually in his late teens or early 20s. Women, too, had such "adventures," as family stories attest, but they were distinctly rarer.

The Youngest Struggles

But what were the experiences of immigrant children like, whether they came to America with intact families or alone? (In many instances, fathers went ahead, then sent for wives and children.) What happened to the young ones once they got to America? Did they become acclimated to their surroundings easily or did the struggle continue longer than imagined?

Scholarly attention hasn't given much space to the stories of children during what's been called the Great Migration to the United States, which came to an end in the 1920s with the passage of more restrictive immigration laws; mostly, these young lives were viewed as adjunct experiences to their parents. Small Strangers by Melissa R. Klapper, a resident of Merion Station who teaches at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., fills a considerable gap in the historical record. Her book, slight in size but filled with insight, has been published by the always enterprising Ivan R. Dee out of Chicago.

Jews are only one of the social groups Klapper considers here. By her definition, immigrant children are "those whose childhood and adolescence were central-ly shaped by immigration and adaptation to the United States, whether they were born abroad or in America. These children came from all over the world, from Mexico and Japan and Canada as well as the more commonly considered late-19th- and early-20th-century embarkation points of southern and eastern Europe."

The author contends that though much of the historical record of childhood was actually produced by adults -- "either to establish conventions or to recall things past" -- many of the most "iconic" images of immigration to this country deal with children: "industrious Greek boys wearing caps and selling newspapers, dutiful Jewish girls minding their baby brothers and sisters on the streets where they lived, adolescent Mexican migrants stooping over crop fields and nervous Italian siblings feverishly cracking nuts in family workshops. All these historical figures and more participated in a population movement that strained, challenged and transformed American society and culture at the turn of the century. Just as the children's experiences represented the fulfillment or failure of their parents' expectations for a new life in a new home, so too does their history embody the complicated process of acculturation and Americanization."

Small Strangers begins with a consideration of the changing ideas about both childhood and immigration at the turn of the century, then examines what the author calls the landscape of early childhood. She next follows the young to school and work, and watches them at play. She provides a chapter on their adolescent years, and then looks at what effect restrictive immigration in the mid-1920s and the economic depression of the 1930s had on them. Her final chapter examines immigrant children in modern America.

By the first years of the 20th century, immigration from Europe had wrought changes in American society, giving rise to the Progressive Era, a time of significant social change. With these permutations came changes in how children (and childhood itself) were perceived.

Klapper notes that, for centuries in America, children, even those of the rich who could afford to treat their offspring differently, looked at their young ones as miniature adults "in everything but legal and possibly religious status." But the 19th century saw a shift in many of the old patterns that had ruled family life. After the 1880s, demographic shifts resulted in smaller families. Mothers gained a certain measure of power within the family as fathers moved out into the industrialized marketplace.

In addition, writes Klapper, "Changes in American Protestantism softened theological positions on infant damnation so that a new innocence became attached to an idealized childhood. The widespread growth of public education, beginning in the 1830s, helped draw a sharp boundary between childhood and adulthood for many white children. Along with formal education came a newly defined dependency of nonproductive children on their parents. These new ideas about childhood were related to other intellectual currents of mid- to late-19th-century life, particularly evolutionary theory, with its focus on biology, environment and stages of development. Children were now seen as qualitatively different from adults, progressing through stages of life with their own developmental and behavioral benchmarks. By the 1880s children were more typically seen as emotional investments than as economic assets."

Middle-class life in America formed around this idea of a "distinct, ideally innocent and independent stage of life" called childhood. And even though most American families couldn't conform to the middle-class ideal, "the dominance of the model" exerted enormous influence along class, racial and ethnic lines.

According to the scholar, when immigrants in the second wave of migration arrived in America, these accepted notions about childhood and adolescence were as surprising to them as the new foods they encountered -- bananas, for example -- and new sports -- baseball, for one. Many of these people cared desperately about the future of their children; in fact, they had emigrated to ensure their success.

"But," notes Klapper, "they were not used to or enthusiastic about state intervention in their traditional roles of family authority. For example, most immigrant parents did not believe that the state should or could force them to send their children to school. They demanded to know how their families could survive if their children studied rather then worked. This question, of course, was echoed by millions of working-class families of all backgrounds across America. Viewing children as individuals and emotional investments rather than as part of a collective family economic enterprise was a luxury of the middle and upper classes, who did not worry constantly about putting bread on the table. Native-born working-class families shared this grievance yet typically aspired to achieve the middle-class model of family structure and childhood. Immigrant parents, bewildered and even repulsed by some American social norms, often set their sights on different goals, more in keeping with their own cultural traditions."

Their children, however, grew up between these sets of ideas and tended to gravitate, understandably, toward the protected idea of childhood, which they imagined would allow them to "maximize their potential." These children did not wish to set themselves against their parents, but they knew the road to achievement meant becoming acclimated to American ideals.

The sharp dividing line between parents and offspring is the true subject of this stimulating study and the source of some of Klapper's finest insights concerning the effects that immigration had on America and its varied citizenry.

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