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Childhood in Colonial New England

Theme: Social Change and Social Reform
Topic: Childhood in Colonial New England
Date: 10 July 2006
Scholar: Lisa Wilson, Ph.D., Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of American History, Connecticut College

Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions

Materials selected and syllabus compiled by Lisa Wilson, Ph.D., Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of American History, Connecticut College.


Colonial New England childhood(s) will be the focus of this session. Historians until recently have focused on the Puritan case, almost exclusively, when characterizing family patterns in New England. Although influential, Puritans were a minority in colonial New England. The majority of less-than-pious English settlers or the various indigenous groups that surrounded them have received less attention. Puritans had the advantage of writing and preserving what they wrote so historians have archival material to exploit. This explains in part their dominance in the historical literature. In addition, the European scholars, often focused on their own literate minorities, have influenced the kinds of questions historians of colonial New England ask of these surviving sources. Did parents treat their children as children or was miniature adults? Were children raised with kindness or with harsh discipline? Did the early modern period see a shift in emphasis between these two alternatives? The answers to these questions vary in the resulting scholarship with no agreement in sight. More recent work has conceded, however, that children were loved in the past as well as in the present. The newest studies have worked to include non-Puritans in the New England familial landscape. When these other New England families – native people, the less pious, the poor, and people of African descent – are reinserted into the historical record the multicultural character of New England childhood(s) emerges. The resulting history is more complex than the easier-to-tell story of Puritan families, but far closer to the reality.

(The term "Puritan" is now hotly debated. What is a Puritan? How long did Puritanism last in colonial New England? Here, I am using the term as shorthand for the religious elite.)


Primary Sources

Cotton, Josiah. Diary. Massachusetts Historical Society. 5 February 1723/24. p. 162-168.

Mayhew, Experience. Indian Converts. Kessinger Press. Reprint. p. 219-275.

Secondary Sources

Calvert, Karin. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992. p. 19-52.

Greven, Philip. "Breaking Wills in Colonial America." In Major Problems in the History of American Families and Children ed. Anya Jabour. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. p. 86-95

Herndon, Ruth Wallis. Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. p. 27-47.

Moran, Gerald F. and Maris A. Vinovskis. Religion, Family and the Life Course: Explorations in the Social History of Early America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992. p. 109-139.

Wilson, Lisa. "Patriarchy and Marriage in Colonial New England." In Major Problems in the History of American Families and Children. ed. Anya Jabour. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. p. 49-58.


1. Is it possible to study people in the past from their own perspective without judging them? How would the Puritan parents of the past see us, with our aversion to corporal punishment and increasing secularism?

2. Why did white New Englanders find native childrearing techniques disturbing and what does this discomfort reveal about their own family patterns? What was the effect of English settlement on native family patterns?

3. Why did Puritan leaders feel compelled to extract children from poor families? Was the issue purely economic? How did this separation affect the children and parents involved?

4. Does the literature of childhood in the past adequately account for gender? Were childrearing techniques different for boys and for girls? How did the gender of the parent matter?

5. Do we, in the end, really know what children were like in colonial New England or do we just have a sense of what parenting was like?



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