Studying Life before TV

A review of 'The Outsider: The Life and Times of Roger Barker' by Ariel Sabar.

by Terry Severson - 11 August 2015

Studying life before TV - illustration

According to studies 1 2 3 children in America and Britain spend, on average, over 4 hours per day watching TV. Which means for every child who watches less TV (1-2 hours per day) there is another who watches 5 to 6 hours per day, an even more mind-boggling amount. It is no exaggeration to say that TV has taken over childhood in the U.S.A. and Britain, and to a somewhat lesser extent, in the rest of the industrialized world.

So how did kids spend their time before TV?

There are articles and memoirs and people’s memory of what childhood was like before screens took over. But as for scientific studies, these are few and far between. Dr. Roger Barker made it his life’s work to study the life of children in the small town (about 700 people) of Oskaloosa, Kansas.

As far as I know, no one has done such an in-depth study of American childhood before or since. But when he published his results, the reception was not at all enthusiastic. What was the point of all this? Where was the theory? Why was this interesting? It was only decades later, as places such as Oskaloosa disappeared that his work is being more appreciated.

Arial Sabar has written a fascinating and lively book, not about the results of this study (unfortunately), but about the amazing life and times of Roger Barker, his colleagues, his family and their struggle to discover scientific truths through studying childhood in a small American town.

Roger Barker enjoyed a very free childhood in Plover where he lived until the age of 7, he wrote: “By the time my sister, Lucile, and I could travel by foot we ranged over most of the town… The delights I recall were endless… A kind of defiant freedom reigned.” But then later on at the age of 14 he came down with bone infection that debilitated him until his early 20s. Instead of going to high school and learning about life as a teenager, he was stuck at home, often too sick to even read or study, life was passing him by.

Later on, after recovering and going to school at Stanford and working at Harvard, he tired of the endless theorizing and rat mazes and decided that a purely empirical study of real life (especially small town America) would be invaluable.

In the late 1940s Barker, requested and received a sizable grant to study “all the children in a representative, small American community.” Or as he also described it, as studying the “naturally occurring behavior of ‘free-ranging persons.’” From there he had to find a suitable small town, hire graduate students, and most importantly convince the town to support his research.

You might think this would be dry reading, but it is all quite fascinating. Sabar has done an excellent job painting a sympathetic picture of a driven scientist, his amazing wife and colleagues, and what used to be a typical small, mid-western, American town.

Barker’s study ended in 1972, and his main ideas that grew out of the study was how places effect behavior (kind of a precursor of New Urbanism) and the advantages of smaller places over bigger places (a precursor to the idea that “Small is Beautiful”).

It was only much later that academics are looking at his studies to find out how society has changed. For example:

“…John Modell, a professor of education and sociology at Brown University, compared Barker’s 1951 behavior-setting survey with Barker’s follow-up, in 1963. Modell found a steep drop in the number of public places children frequented.” (Location 878)

And here is another example of how much childhood has changed. From a Kansas City Star article describing Barker’s study, came this very interesting story:

“When local magistrate Dennis Reiling was about 6, researchers escorted him into the basement of a Methodist church, where toy building blocks awaited. “They told me, ‘We’d like you to reconstruct every building in Oskaloosa just based on your memory,’ “ Reiling said. “Well, I had no problem doing that. I knew every family in town. I knew where they all lived and the names of their dogs.””4

Where in America could you find a 16 year old, let alone a 6 year old, who could accomplish such a feat?

And where in today’s America could you find a town of comparable size where people still have enough public trust that they would allow their 5 and 6 year old to wonder the town freely? And not only did parents allow their young children to wonder around freely, but they also were OK with strangers moving into town to study their children. They assumed that the scientists were acting in good faith, while today, so many people tend to assume the worst of intentions. Oskaloosa was no utopia, but while school integration was being fought tooth and nail in other parts of Kansas, Oskaloosa had desegregated many years earlier.

Note, this book also mentions “Center of Everyday Lives of Families”, which had done somewhat similar, more recent studies of middle-class families in Los Angeles.5 It’s interesting that Barker described his study as studying the “naturally occurring behavior of ‘free-ranging persons’” while today’s study is of families. Young children having free lives in the community apart of their parents is so rare nowadays that today, studying families is the way to go.

Now that TV has taken over childhood and so much of adult leisure time, spending one’s free time in front of a screen is seen as completely normal, so normal that it is very hard to imagine a time before screens. Was life before screens so very much different? Thanks to Roger Barker, and his team’s years of study, we have objective benchmarks of just how much childhood had changed.