Children in the 17th century

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This is a large subject, so I'm not going to deal with education or childbirth and baby-care - interesting and controversial subjects - but will try to cover those aspects of child-rearing in which the people of the 17th century differed

most from our own.


There was an idea popular in the late 1970s that because of higher child mortality in the past parents were somehow less attached to their children. This, it was thought, explained the rather formal relationships between parents and

children of older generations. While there may be a grain of truth in it with respect to babies under a year who were the most likely to succumb, (the Lakota Indians say "After a year we know that they want to stay") it is undoubtedly

silly as a generalisation. Parents may well have felt that any child who survived its infancy was more precious. It is pretty safe to assume that parents of the past were at least as doting as we are; but their concept of their job as

parents was different. They felt that, having decided, usually in accordance with religious and social tradition, on the best pattern for their children's behaviour and manners, it was their task to make them follow it obediently. The

present cosy friendship between parents and children (very recent, as anyone over 50 knows) would, in the 17th century, have been regarded as an unnatural abdication of their duty to produce obedient, hard-working, God-fearing and

law-abiding citizens.


Children were obviously inferior to adults, and they were made to know it. The first duty of a child was to obey its parents as they would obey God. This, reinforced by scripture ('Honour thy father and mother'), was part of an ingrained

appreciation of hierarchy that we may now find hard to understand. A disobedient child struck at the foundation of order, and was as bad as a renegade citizen or one of the fallen angels because he was going against God's will.

Because their parents gave them life, children were regarded as the possessions of the parents. As Hannah Wooley puts it when talking about marrying against parental wishes, "…Children are so much the goods and chattels of a parent that

they cannot without a kind of theft give themselves away...".


There was no cosy concept of childhood in the 17th century; that didn't arrive until the 19th. Children were small, undeveloped and unruly savages who, naturally wayward because of the Fall and Original Sin, had to be tamed and civilised

before they could be saved spiritually or admitted socially.

"Spare the rod and spoil the boy" was a belief commonly adhered to both for boys and girls, especially in the matter or learning which seems to have been literally beaten into some of them. Nor was it only men who did the beating: women

commonly beat girls for misdemeanours, both their own children and young maids.

In poor families where every mouth was an added burden, children were put to some sort of simple work as soon as possible; sometimes as young as three. Little fingers could tie threads and pick up fiddly pins and buttons.

There were many small jobs around house and fields to keep older children busy. Both sexes picked stones from the fields and scared rooks with wooden rattles and all members of the family helped with the harvest.

In large families the care of the smallest children was usually given to the oldest girl. A seven- or eight-year-old might be found shepherding her small siblings about, humping the baby on her hip. Such very young girls often bore the

responsibility for the survival of toddlers,keeping them out of millponds, lakes, cowbyres and fires and saving them from being eaten by pigs (true), occasionally, as in the case of Thomas Tomkins with tragic results.

Children still must have had plenty of time to play, as the smallness of the houses of the poor and the largeness of families made it necessary for them to be outside most of the time.

Boys, not having household duties like spinning, seemed to have an easier time of it altogether and "being boys" could go off playing one of the innumerable (and violent) games illustrated in Brueghel's "Childhood Games". Then, as until

recently, "being boys" involved getting hold of the most dangerous things available - knives, arrows, fire etc. and playing with them, but unlike today, this was seen as a natural way for them to develop into men. Fighting too was common

and not always discouraged even by the godly, for who wanted their son to grow up a milksop?


Nappies were not used once babies could toddle. They wore skirts split conveniently at the back and the resulting messes had to be cleaned up, like those of the dogs, by an unfortunate maid. Boys were dressed in aprons and skirts like

their sisters, (but can usually be identified in pictures by their shorter hair and play swords) until they were breeched, at about six or seven. This was a cause for family celebration as it symbolised their entry into the favoured

world of men. Henceforth they would be encouraged to spend more time in men's pursuits away from their mothers.

Once out of baby clothes children were dressed as small versions of adults not, as today, because they looked so cute, but because their parents wished them to identify with the adult world. (The care of these often expensive clothes

must have been a continual source of trouble for both boys and girls - remember Polly Flinders and her Nice New Clothes?) Mothers put quite young girls - four and five - into simple corsets "to set the waist" and as fashionable waists

grew longer over the century so these grew more restrictive. One of John Evelyn's little daughters died when her tight corset broke one of her soft ribs and drove it into a lung.

Children of poorer families, about whom we know very little, presumably wore cut down adult clothes and handed them on to younger children.


Respect for one's parents was reinforced by formal behaviour which could be found explained in the many books on manners available for the guidance of the young.

The old tradition of kneeling to greet one's parents in the morning was dying out by the middle of the century, but they still expected to be treated with great deference. Letters home were addressed to "Honoured Sir" or "Honoured Madam"

and the quaint Southern American habit of calling one's parents "Sir" and "Ma'am" is, like so many other American oddities, a direct relic of the 17th century.

If given permission to sit in their parents' presence, children sat on stools to emphasise their lowly place, and at table they were expected to stand and wait silently and patiently until offered food.

Parents seem not to have felt any guilt in preferring sons over daughters - an almost universal preference - or, indeed, having favourites. It appeared natural to prefer the nicest or cleverest or most beautiful of your children: parents

did not hesitate to criticise to their face those who lacked these qualities, and exhort them to emulate their siblings. Attitudes to disability left a lot to be desired, and a disabled child of wealthy parents was probably destined to

miserable concealment and the care of servants.

By contrast, disabled children of the poor could earn money by begging, and could be quite an asset to a family if the disability was sufficiently horrific. Indeed it was widely believed that some parents disfigured their own children to

increase their value.

It would be some years before childhood would be seen as anything other than an inconvenient period to be endured before becoming an adult.

© 2011 Ingrid Barton