American parents greatly value children’s happiness, citing it well above other possible priorities. This commitment to happiness, shared with parents in other Western societies but not elsewhere, is an important feature of popular emotional culture. But the commitment is also the product of modern history, emerging clearly only in the 19th century. This article explains the contrast between more traditional and modern views, and explains the origins but also the evolution of the idea of a happy childhood. Early outcomes, for example, included the novel practice of hosting parties for children’s birthdays, another mid-19th-century innovation that has expanded over time. Explaining the intensification of the happiness commitment also reveals some of the downsides of this aspect of popular emotional culture, for example in measurably complicating reactions to childish unhappiness. The basic goal of the essay is to use this important facet of modern emotional history to evaluate a commitment that many modern parents assume is simply natural.
One of the most pervasive beliefs about emotion, at least in American culture, is the idea that children should be happy and that childhood should be a happy, perhaps unusually happy, stage of life. There is little question that many parents are strongly guided by this standard, even though a variety of experts argue that they often go about it in the wrong way. And it is highly likely that many adults simply assume that childhood happiness is a natural connection, that while its implementation may be varied and debated and while a few reprobates may not accept the goal at all, the basic notion is simply a normal part of human life.
International polling confirms the pervasiveness of the happy childhood assumption, in American and several other cultures – though it also opens the door for a somewhat more nuanced assessment. A recent survey found that 73% of Americans rated happiness as the most important goal in raising children and assessing the results of education – far ahead of any other option. And they were joined, or even modestly surpassed, by a number of other modern Western societies: Canada at 78%, with France heading the pack at 86%. Other goals paled in comparison, even though it was possible to select more than one option: only 20% of Americans rated success as a major goal (along with 17% in Australia and the United Kingdom).
However – and here is the first opening for more than a brief summary of the happiness/childhood emotional linkage – several other major societies presented quite a different profile in the same poll. Most strikingly only about 49% of respondents in India selected happiness, overshadowed by the 51% who put success and achievement first. Mexicans also rated success most highly. The Chinese, interestingly, did not seize on success but they did not highlight happiness either, putting good health at the top of the list. The poll suggested, plausibly enough, that a predominant commitment to children’s happiness was an artifact of advanced economic development (bolstered, quite possibly, by a particular dose of Westernism as well) (Malhotra, 2015).
Certainly the American assumption that happiness and childhood go together can be additionally confirmed. A childrearing expert, Robin Berman, puts it this way: “When I give parenting lectures around the country, I always ask the audience ‘What do you want most for your children/’… The near-universal response I get is ‘I just want my kids to be happy.”’ Berman herself deeply challenges the validity of this commitment, but for now the main point, again, is to emphasize the depth of the American assumption (shared, clearly, with other Western societies). It is understandable that many Americans simply take the priority for granted, open perhaps to a discussion of what strategies best achieve the goal but not inclined to subject the goal itself to much scrutiny. The idea that children should be happy, indeed that childhood stands out as a particularly happy time of life, is deeply ingrained (Berman, 2016).
But without placing too much emphasis on international polling, the gap between Western and Asian (or Mexican) responses already suggests that the childhood/happiness equation is not automatic or in any sense natural, but the product of more particular circumstance. And this in turn opens the way to a more searching analysis, aimed initially at determining where the idea that children should be happy came from in the first place and then tracing the way the association has evolved in the United States, with some clear downsides or problems attached.
Assessing the childhood/happiness linkage provides in fact a fruitful opportunity to demonstrate the role of emotions history in shedding light on significant popular assumptions and commitments. The emotions history field, which has grown rapidly within the history discipline over the past 30 years, contends that key aspects of the emotional beliefs and experiences of any society are shaped not by invariable psychobiology but by particular social and cultural circumstances. This means that we can learn more about the past by including emotional variables in the human equation and that – as in this case – we can understand current patterns better if we examine how they have emerged from contrasting assumptions in the past (Matt and Stearns, 2013; Boddice, 2018).
In the case of happy children, the emotions history approach raises two initial questions, before we get into most recent evolution of the association: what did people think about happiness and childhood at an earlier point and when (and of course why) did the happiness emphasis begin to develop.
The most glaring historical challenge to the childhood happiness equation is not easy to handle, but it adds up to the statement: before about the middle of the 19th century most Americans (and, probably, most people in most agricultural societies) did not equate children and happiness and indeed were unlikely to see childhood as a particularly happy phase of life (Greven, 1988; Mintz, 2006). This does not mean that they necessarily expected children to be unhappy, or that they were gratuitously nasty to children, or that they did not enjoy moments of shared joy. But any kind of systematic happiness, or even a common use of the term, was simply not part of popular expectations (Gillis, 1981).1
And the reasons for this stance are not hard to identify, in a combination of general features of premodern childhood and some particular cultural assumptions that took deep root in colonial America. In the first place, high child mortality rates – with 30–50% of all children born perishing before age 5 – surrounded children themselves with frequent death and constrained adult reactions as well. A dead child might be deeply mourned, but the expectation of transiency obviously affected perceptions of childhood more generally: adulthood could easily be seen as a preferable state. Further, for most people childhood after infancy was primarily associated with work, under the sometimes rough direction of adults. Childishness, in this context, was not highly valued, as opposed to the early acquisition of more mature qualities. In all probability, obedience was the quality most sought in children themselves. Small wonder that, before the 19th century, few autobiographers spent much time describing their childhoods in any detail or referring to their early years with any pleasure (Stearns, 2016).
This is not to say that before the 19th century children had no pleasure, or that adults never enjoyed their more informal interactions with offspring: considerable historical debate cautions against too gloomy a view. Work requirements were not always too intense, particularly for younger children, and there were informal opportunities for playfulness (Huizinga, 2016).2 Traditional leisure outlets, and particularly the village festival, gave young people some space for pranks and hijinks. But none of this seriously qualifies the claim that more systematic ideas associating childhood with happiness were lacking.
In the colonial American context, this general situation was exacerbated, particularly in New England, by the strong Protestant commitment to the notion of original sin. How many adults viewed actual children through this severe lens is hard to determine, though it was certainly linked to harsh disciplinary practices in schoolrooms and churches. But even if youngsters were not actively seen as sinners requiring redress, Protestant beliefs certainly argued against conceptions of happy childhoods. Indeed a number of studies suggest that, even for adults, an emphasis on a degree of melancholy was urged even for adults, well into the 18th century (Greven, 1988; Demos, 1999; Mintz, 2006).
Granting the perils of trying to establish the absence of a quality in the past, the claim seems reasonably secure: the association of childhood and systematic happiness, as opposed to periodic moments of release, is essentially a modern development.
Several factors, taking shape in the later 18th and early 19th centuries in the United States and other parts of the Western world, began to reshape the conception of childhood, despite the lingering hand of the past.
Interest in happiness in general began to accelerate in Western culture during the second half of the 19th century (Kotchimedova, 2005; MacMahon, 2006; Jones, 2017). The Enlightenment encouraged a new commitment to optimism about life on this earth, and hopes for happiness increased accordingly. Apologies for good humor, common during the previous century with its preference for melancholy in the face of human sinfulness, began to disappear (Stearns, 1988). Even more, a positive expectation that decent people should present a cheerful demeanor began to gain ground. One historian has suggested that, along with the general push from Enlightenment thinking, improvements in dentistry and a decrease in rotten teeth heightened a willingness to smile openly – and to expect others to do the same (Jones, 2017). Emphasis on happiness may also have been furthered by some measurable improvements in life’s comforts, from home heating to cleaner clothing, at least for the property-owning middle classes. And of course, in revolutionary America, pursuit of happiness was listed as a basic right.
This significant cultural shift did not initially apply to children, at least with any specificity. Older beliefs persisted. Checking the rise of attention through the relative frequency word use (happiness, cheerfulness) bears this out suggestively (Figures 1, 2). Google Ngrams suggest the chronological lag: while references to cheerfulness and happiness in general peaked in relative frequency during the 18th century in American English, commentary on happy children was virtually non-existent until the 19th century, and became at all common only in the middle decades of the century.3