Childcare during..., History

What did childhood and family life actually mean during Colonial times?

childhood and family life

My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.

said George Washington about his own mother. It seems indeed that all mothers want the best for their children and hope that they grow strong and healthy to maturity, and during Colonial America and its European counterpart, this was also true. However, standards about childhood and family life were very different then than they are today.

Childhood and family life in Colonial Times

Many things that children take for granted now were forbidden. Children needed to help with chores and learn their appropriate place in society. Many practices of child rearing, childhood and family life in colonial times could, by today’s standards, be considered child abuse and neglect, though all were common and accepted as the norm during the time period.

The Colonial Period was marked by high infant mortality rates. Because of this, all efforts were made to ensure that babies grew strong. In infancy, for example, mothers, midwives, and wet nurses kept babies swaddled, but not in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they were bound in fabric until their limbs were straight and immobilized, and slept in narrow cradles. This was thought to help them develop strong and straight bones. In early childhood, children usually wore a girdle or stays to ensure they continued to develop good posture. While perhaps not necessarily child abuse and neglect, it did inhibit natural infant development.

Crawling, strapping, walking, and passing out

Childhood and family life was not a cakewalk. When children learned to walk, they were typically forbidden from crawling. Crawling was seen as a form of animal behavior and therefore, teaching the child to walk was important.

Some tools used were pudding caps, a padded hat that would protect the head when the child fell so that their mind was not turned to, essentially, pudding, and babies and toddlers, regardless of sex, were kept in long petticoats and gowns that inhibited crawling and made it easy to toilet train.

Leading strings were also used to help a child learning to walk. The straps attached to a child’s clothing and were used to guide them as well as keep them from sitting down. Walking stools were another tool utilized to ensure children learned how to walk, roughly similar to a more modern walker without the body support to allow a baby to sit down.

It is documented that children might pass out from exhaustion due to standing for prolonged periods of time while in a walking stool, and by today’s standards might very well be considered child abuse and neglect.

Child abuse and neglect

Child abuse and neglect are strong words that bring with them a particularly abhorrent meaning today. This was not always the case. It was considered normal practice during childhood and family life,  that children in the colonies and Europe were expected to help with household chores, even burdens we might consider inappropriate, help with the family business, and learn a trade.

By the time boys went to grammar school, they were also expected to behave like an adult and threatening to put boys back in petticoats was used as incentive to behave.

Corporal punishment was acceptable by a school teacher when necessary, something considered most definitely to be child abuse and neglect.

And what about school?

Basic arithmetic and reading was taught, reading being important for learning how to read the bible. Religion was also taught in the classroom. Boys were frequently expected to learn a trade alongside their schooling, or were prepared for university. Girls were not generally allowed in the classroom unless they were enrolled in a dame school or if they were Quaker, but were taught domestic duties. The standards of childhood and family life or schooling seem to have changed.

Childhood and family life without holidays and gifts

For young children, even in puritanical New England, toys were permissible. But for school-age children, toys and playing were not the way of normal life. Even holidays such as Christmas were not children’s holidays, and celebrating in any form was forbidden in New England. In the middle colonies where Catholicism was more dominant, celebrating included feasting and merry-making, though no mention of including children is made. Children, just like servants, might be given gifts such as coins or other tokens of gratitude, but gift giving only went from parents to children, from masters to slaves or other help.

Punishment could be physical, and when a crime was committed, a child might be “bound out” or indentured as a servant for a specified period of time, up to a number of years, until the punishment had been worked off.

Children were very strictly expected to be seen and not heard, even at the dinner table, where they were made to eat quickly and depart, or sometimes were not even allowed to sit with their parents. Childhood and family life were in a sense kept separate. They were sometimes not even allowed to eat many of the things adults did because they were not deemed appropriate for children.

Inexisting concepts of child abuse and neglect

It was not until the Victorian Era that the concept of childhood as we know it began to slowly take shape. Imaginative play was accepted more and more into the twentieth century as innocent. Cribs as opposed to tight swaddling were used to allow children to move about safely. Concepts of child abuse and neglect slowly began to take shape and emerge. Even though child labor laws and other restrictions outlining inappropriate treatment of children had not yet been established, the mindset was beginning to change.

For further reading, here are some great resources:

And more on motherhood and childhood in the 17th century, is be found here.

childhood and family life
The Happy Mother, Jean Honoré Fragonard, 1760
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