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Conference Report: Society for the History of Childhood and Youth

By: Natalie R - July 02, 2013

Last week I was finally able to attend the biennial conference for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth (SHCY). I have been eager to attend this conference for a few years. This year the conference was held at the University of Nottingham, which allowed the Society to highlight its international focus.

I noticed several themes throughout the panel that I thought could enhance the study of children and religion—and in specific case, Mormonism. Before going any further, it would be remiss not to point out Rebecca de Schweinitz’s article on the historiography of Mormon childhood in the Spring 2012 issue of the Journal of Mormon History, which provides a detailed overview of work on Mormon children, childhood, and youth to the recent present.[1] De Schweinitz was also a founding member of SHCY when it first began in the early 2000s.

The first thematic question that drew my attention was how do we as scholars define the delineations of childhood, or adulthood for that matter. Can we consider age as a helpful delineation? Nicholas L. Syrett of  the University of Northern Colorado argued in his talk “Child Marriage and the Meanings of Age in the Twentieth-Century Rural United States”  that in the early twentieth century urban and suburban children were much more age conscious compared to their rural counterparts. The main focus of his paper was 13 to 17 year old girls who married older men. The lack of focus on age within rural communities—Syrett asserts—was one factor among many that led to early marriages in rural America. The significance of age varied upon geographic location. Of course, Syrett’s research led me to wonder how this framework could apply to Mormon youth and marriage. Was and is there a preponderance of early marriages for Latter-day Saint youth in more rural areas compared to Salt Lake City or Provo? Or does this framework even apply when we consider how many young college-age couples—sometimes just past the age of consent–have wed throughout the twentieth century. And, this does not even begin to touch on  how such an analysis could lead to a richer discussion of how younger women were encouraged and decided to enter plural marriage.

The conference’s leading theme focused on the intersections between childhood and space. Space was defined widely and the focus of papers varied from looking at the physical structure of schools to considering how young women used personal writing as a personal space.  A subtopic of this theme that was regularly addressed was how children used adult created spaces. Dr. Alison Twells of  Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. explored her great-aunt’s schoolgirl diary in a panel entitled “The Pyramid Formation: Identity, Class, and Space in the Diary of a Scholarship Girl, 1938-1939.” The publisher’s intent for the schoolgirl diary was not meant to be for introspective writing but for a young schoolgirl to keep track of her school life and responsibilities. The diary contained many pages of “helpful” information that included conversion charts for measurements, recommended books to read, a list of suitable careers for women, and the conjugation of Latin, French, and German verbs. On six blank pages labeled “Memoranda,” Norah, the young woman, listed different crazes or “crushes” on buys and wrote about her passion for football and motor racing.  Twells maintains that the schoolgirl diary was created for a middle-class audience, and that the working-class Norah used the diary as a tool to construct a middle-class identity. Through examining a personal, though not necessarily private, space for writing we understand how young women came to understand themselves within the present and future.  Parents and religious leaders also expected young Mormon women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would keep journals that included their school responsibilities and religious activities. Does “reading between the lines” of a young woman’s diary reveal how she felt about her religiosity or church? Or, in many cases, does it reveal an absence of religious discussion?  And, if so, what does this absence imply?

The first plenary session  “The Spaces of Childhood: A Conversation on Rooms as Evidence” investigated four different spaces: a library, a museum, a school, and an orphanage. The four different scholars discussed how architecture can serve as evidence when constructing the history of children. Abigail Van Slyck of Connecticut College examines how a floor plan of a library reveals how buildings are shaped by cultural assumptions about the ways they should be used. The placement of the children’s reading room—usually in the basement Van Slyck explained–unveils cultural assumptions about where children belong. Throughout these different panels, I was regularly thinking of how Mormon children related to different religious spaces whether it be in their ward house or the location in a home where a family usually engages in Family Home Evening. I could not help but wonder how young children related to the Temple, a place they are expected to revere but cannot enter for many years. Earlier this June while I was walking through Temple Square, I saw a young boy probably around five years old ask his mother if they were going into the Temple. “No,” she quickly declared. While I have no idea if this mother and child were Mormon or not, this scenario most likely can happen when a Mormon family visits a Temple for a variety of reasons. How do young children relate to a religious space that they are not allowed to fully enter or take part in until a certain age? How can and do they relate to a religious milestone such as the Endowment Ceremony when they have never seen inside the sacred building where this ceremony and others take place?

The history of childhood as a field is still relatively new according to many of the scholars who attended the conference. This review only touches upon only a slice of different, ideas, methodologies, and theories discussed in these panels that could further expand the study of children and religion. In his essay “Why the History of Childhood Matters,” Steven Mintz writes that even though childhood history has been merely treated as “as a subset of family history or as a minor aspect of cultural and intellectual history,” the history of childhood does matter. He writes “Childhood, I shall argue, is the true missing link: connecting the personal and the public, the psychological and the sociological, the domestic and the state.”[2] Exploring the intersections between childhood and religion also provides compelling reasons as to why studying children’s history allows for a more developed and nuanced historical understanding of religious thought, ritual, doctrine, development, etc.  The thoughts sketched out here offer some ways to analyze children’s place and as historical actors within the history of Mormonism.

I would be eager to hear any new work on Mormonism, childhood, and youth  or suggestions for considering these or other frameworks in the comments.

Link to the conference program.



[1] Rebecca de Schweinitz, “‘Where Nothing is Long Ago’: Childhood and Youth in Mormon History” Journal of Mormon History vol. 38, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 125-138.

[2] Steven Mintz, “Why the History of Childhood Matters” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth vol. 5, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 15.



4 Comments

  1. Natalie, this sounds like a really interesting conference. I love Allison Twells’ work! The argument of hers that you highlight seems to be an increasingly common one. I know that Mary Kelley is making a similar argument about the development of the autograph book and that other historians have argued that diary keeping played a similar role for African American women who wanted to assert their fundamental middle classness. I find the argument convincing, but I wonder about circulation. To what extent (and this likely varied throughout time) were such diaries circulated? And did it matter? Was this about teaching yourself to be middle class or was it about proving something that you already were?

    Comment by Amanda — July 2, 2013 @ 10:36 am

  2. These are great questions, Amanda. And ones that I have to deal with in my own work. I am looking further into the history of diary publishing not just the writing of them.

    The questions about class are also intriguing. I must admit I don’t know if working-class girls were encouraged to keep these types or diaries or other kinds.

    Comment by Natalie R — July 2, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

  3. Thanks for the report, Natalie.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 2, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

  4. Interesting and important stuff, Natalie.

    Comment by Ben P — July 3, 2013 @ 7:12 am