17th Century Child-Rearing: It’s A Hard-Knock Life

Here at Pennsbury Manor have just finished our annual Colonial Summer Camp, and boy did they have fun!

This summer camp features a number of activities that were common to the colonial period and give our campers a feel of just what is was really like to live nearly 300 years ago. At the end of the week, the campers get to give their friends and family guided tours  in period clothing. In conjunction with the camp it only seems appropriate to elaborate on children’s lives.  Expectations and philosophies on how to raise a colonial child  from our views today.

A young boy gets water from the cistern to fill the kettles for doing laundry.

Child rearing throughout the 17th century rooted itself in rather different soil than it does today. Growing up in 17th century England or Colonial America, it sure wasn’t all fun and games. This is the case unless of course you were born into an elite family and then perhaps the rules could change, however; most were not this privileged.

Children in colonial families were numerous and averaged between seven to ten in each household. The number of children at home varied, however, for a variety of reasons. The most common of these being (sadly) early death; roughly half of the off-spring would not reach maturity.  They were also apprenticed out, or having started a family of their own. For William Penn, the first and last of these were the cause of his small family in home, particularly while in Pennsylvania.  Nevertheless, before the children left the house, they were instilled with fundamental morals and an understanding of one’s actions. “Colonial children were initiated into the adult world early, but not in a hasty or harsh manner.”  When a Quaker child reached the age of reason, they were thought to understand that they were sinners and capable of sinning.  This age was typically between 4 and 8, usually being marked by the start of school; for boys, this was also the age where they stopped wearing petticoats.  Parents were advised to “govern, counsel, and correct as soon as they could understand what they were being corrected for and knew what they should say and do.”  This varied with the belief of other religions, such as Catholicism, which deems the child born with original sin and not innocent until it was removed with the sacrament of Baptism.  Furthermore, the Quaker hand in the raising of children was sufficiently stricter than in other religions. Parents were conscientious to lead by example, especially to be “…careful of actions in the presence of children, for they have very quick eyes and ears.”

A colonial mother and her children on the estate.

What may seem harsh about some of these practices is in reality a matter of practicality and necessity. All members of the family had their own role to play.  Their contribution preserved the family’s welfare.  The entire family would work together, educate each other, and keep food on the table.  Young children were given chores to suit their strength and ability, not just out of need and to teach discipline, but to keep them from underfoot.  Nonetheless, it is also fair to note that the trust placed in young children early on would likely horrify modern parents. For example, colonial parents left unsupervised 8 year olds with guns, carrying large pals to retrieve water from rivers/wells, and facing wild animals to defend a heard of sheep. 

Still, we must remember that these factors do not lessen the affection colonial parents had for their children. Surely the most important lessons to be learned were to be “loved but not pampered” and to be shown “tenderness but not softness”. We have enough remnants of their world to know of  the“great love” and  “nurtur[ing]” nature of parents, and the surprise toy or whistle from a father when he returned from town. Resultantly, not only did 17th century children learn practical lessons, but so too did they learn of love and compassion in these small, thoughtful gestures.

 Written by Mary Barbagallo, Intern

Edited by Hannah Howard

Sources/Further Reading:

Everyday Life in Early America, David Freeman Hawke, Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc. 1988,  New York, NY.

The Quaker Family in Colonial America, J. William Frost, St. Martin’s Press, Inc. 1973, New York, NY.

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3 comments on “17th Century Child-Rearing: It’s A Hard-Knock Life

  1. […] it has come a long way since our colonial forbearers. We talked last month about the realities of colonial childhood, particularly for Quakers.  Because of their responsibilites to their family, general education in […]

  2. […] life and childhood back in the 17th century.  We spent the summer posting on children’s daily lives and education, so maybe it’s time to feature what they’d be wearing!  Pieter de Hooch […]

  3. Le Loup says:

    Good post.
    Keith.

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