Child-rearing Patterns

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Child-rearing Patterns


Overview. Fundamental to educational thought and institutions in British America, New Netherland, New France, and the Spanish borderlands were the attitudes of parents toward child rearing. In general there was a trend through the colonial era from rather authoritarian and repressive styles of parenting toward more-indulgent and liberating methods. This shift from repressive to liberating child-rearing methods was most pronounced among the upper classes, though exceptions could be found even there as well.

Spanish Borderlands. Despite the frontier circumstance of many settlers on the borderlands, their attitude toward child rearing reflected the strongly class-conscious, patriarchical family of Spain itself. Honor was at the heart of family relations. Children owed their parents honor and respect, and for children to disobey their parents was to dishonor the patriarch in particular and the family in general. Women were responsible for the religious education of children, especially catechetical training before puberty. Mothers trained daughters for their future roles as wives and mothers, with particular emphasis on chastity, modesty, and submissiveness. Children of the elite were usually taught reading and writing in church schools, but the literacy rate among the general population of settlers was low. Craftsmen were in high demand in the borderlands, and boys were required to read and write before beginning an apprenticeship. More often fathers taught sons the family trade and initiated them into the code of honor that governed males in the upper classes. While sons were taught to protect their sisters and other women relatives from predatory males, the machismo culture of the borderlands encouraged men to express their sexual prowess through seductions, whether with Indian or European women.

New France. National culture and the Catholic Church both conveyed a strongly patriarchical view of the family among French settlers in Canada, the Illinois country, and the Mississippi River valley. However, the shortage of labor in New France gave both children and wives more leverage in dealing with husbands and fathers. The labor of children was valuable, and for that reason alone the childs wishes in his or her work had to be heeded, at least to a degree. Between puberty and first communion children were rigorously catechized by the priest. Young women of the middling to upper classes went to school, usually taught by a priest or nun; boys of similar status were much more likely to work with their fathers or perhaps be apprenticed. Craft apprenticeship was the dominant form of secular education in New France, and family vigilance made certain that the master treated the apprentice fairly and taught him well. Because of the labor shortage, fathers could ill afford to alienate their offspring by being too restrictive when it came to career choices or marriage. Many an aging couple deeded over the family farm to an offspring in return for their care in later years, but not before they spelled out all the terms carefully in the contract.

New Netherland. In the seventeenth century the Dutch in both the Netherlands and their North American colony demonstrated progressive attitudes toward child rearing. In the arts and literature the Dutch celebrated infants and children and were accused by foreign observers of indulging and spoiling their offspring. Even Jakob Cats, the most famous Dutch Reformed moralist, made it clear in both prose and poetry that parents owed their children affection as well as discipline. By the 1650s, as family life in New Netherland was burgeoning, so were Dutch child-rearing attitudes and practices. Arriving in 1647, Director General Peter Stuyvesant described the children of New Amsterdam as wild and undisciplined. The personal correspondence of Jeremias and Maria Van Rensselaer reveal parents and grandparents who simply doted on their children, and similar evidence of deep and abiding parental affection may be found in New Netherland prenuptial agreements and joint wills. As in the fatherland, young men and women mixed and mingled in the Dutch colony without much parental supervision, and despite the freedom given them in courting, they generally married within their class.

British North America. Unlike many of the parents in New Netherland, Puritan parents in New England were likely to follow more-authoritarian, restrictive views of child rearing. Puritan moralists warned that the infant, tainted by original sin, possessed an evil nature that had to be disciplined again and again lest the unruly child grow up into a dissolute young man or woman. Catechetical training and reading and quoting from the Bible were encouraged among the young. The fear that parents might spare the rod and spoil the child no doubt encouraged the Puritan practice of farming out sons and daughters to live with friends or relatives who presumably would have fewer qualms about disciplining them during their adolescent years. Children should not know, if it can be kept from them, explained the Reverend John Robinson, that they have a will of their own, but in their parents keeping. According to historian Philip Greven this Puritan-evangelical style of child rearing was just one of the three Protestant temperaments that determined adult attitudes toward children. The second, which Greven called the moderate temperament, saw the child as an innocent with a tendency toward sin but whose will could be made good by the affection and moral instruction of dutiful parents. This moderate temperament was especially manifested by many Quakers and most Anglicans, Greven believed, and was becoming the majority Protestant temperament after 1700 among Anglo-Americans. It owed much to the popularity of John Lockes writings on education, which were didactic but in a decidedly secular way. Finally, Greven described the emergence of the genteel temperament, characteristic of the upper classes generally in the eighteenth century but especially southern planters on the Chesapeake and in South Carolina. Rationalistic and self-confident, parents of the genteel temperament were permissive and loving; they encouraged individualism and self-expression in their children and were loved and respected in return. Although all three temperaments can be found in both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tendency in Anglo-America was movement over time from the evangelical toward the genteel temperament.


Karin Lee Calvert, Children in American Family Portraiture, 1670-1810, William and Mary Quarterly, 39 (1982): 87113;

John and Virginia Demos, Adolescence in Historical Perspective, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 31 (1969): 632-638;

Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America (New York: Knopf, 1977);

David Freeman Hawke, Everyday Life in Early America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988);

N. Ray Hiner, Adolescence in Eighteenth-Century America, History of Childhood Quarterly, 3 (1975): 253-280;

Hiner, The Child in American Historiography: Accomplishments and Prospect, Psychohistory Review, 7 (1978-1979): 13-23;

Peter Laslett and Richard Wall, eds., Household and Family in Past Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972);

C. John Sommerville, The Discovery of Childhood in Puritan England (Athens &c London: University of Georgia Press, 1992).