Here’s how an Atlantic author answered that question in September 1858:
Full of anticipations, full of simple, sweet delights, are these [childhood] years, the most valuable of [a] lifetime. Then wisdom and religion are intuitive. But the child hastens to leave its beautiful time and state, and watches its own growth with impatient eye. Soon he will seek to return. The expectation of the future has been disappointed. Manhood is not that free, powerful, and commanding state the imagination had delineated. And the world, too, disappoints his hope. He finds there things which none of his teachers ever hinted to him. He beholds a universal system of compromise and conformity, and in a fatal day he learns to compromise and conform.
But it wasn’t until the 20th century that scientists began to seriously study child development. In our July 1961 issue, Peter B. Neubauer heralded “The Century of the Child”:
Gone is the sentimental view that childhood is an era of innocence and the belief that an innate process of development continuously unfolds along more or less immutable lines. Freud suggested that, from birth on, the child’s development proceeds in a succession of well-defined stages, each with its own distinctive psychic organization, and that at each stage environmental factors can foster health and achievement or bring about lasting retardation and pathology. …
Freudian psychology does not, as some people apparently imagine, provide a set of ready-made prescriptions for the rearing of children. … The complexity of the interactions between mother and child cannot be reduced to rigid formulas. Love and understanding cannot be prescribed, and if they are not genuinely manifested, the most enlightened efforts to do what is best for the child may not be effective.
According to this view, children weren’t miniature adults, but they were preparing for adulthood. Growing up was a process that had to be managed by adults, which made the boundaries of childhood both more important and more nebulous.
A few years later, in our October 1968 issue, Richard Poirier described the backlash to a wave of campus protests as “The War Against the Young.” He implored older adults to take young people’s ideas seriously:
It is perhaps already irrelevant, for example, to discuss the so-called student revolt as if it were an expression of “youth.” The revolt might more properly be taken as a repudiation by the young of what adults call “youth.” It may be an attempt to cast aside the strangely exploitative and at once cloying, the protective and impotizing concept of “youth” which society foists on people who often want to consider themselves adults.
What’s more, Poirier argued, idealism shouldn’t just be the province of the young:
If young people are freeing themselves from a repressive myth of youth only to be absorbed into a repressive myth of adulthood, then youth in its best and truest form, of rebellion and hope, will have been lost to us, and we will have exhausted the best of our natural resources.
But how much redefinition could adulthood handle? In our February 1975 issue, Midge Decter addressed an anxious letter to that generation of student revolutionaries, who—though “no longer entitled to be called children”—had not yet fulfilled the necessary rites of passage for being “fully accredited adults”:
Why have you, the children, found it so hard to take your rightful place in the world? Just that. Why have your parents’ hopes for you come to seem so impossible of attainment?