Growing Up in Colonial New England (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 6)

[Note: One of the “joys” of teaching in a prep school with a PhD., at least in the state of Georgia, was the state’s assumption, “back in the day,” that folks like me were deficient in “professional education” courses and needed to make up that deficit posthaste. Consequently, I was issued a temporary certificate, on the understanding that I would begin to take a series of such courses, two a year for five years, at the completion of which I would be issued a permanent certificate. One of the courses I enrolled in was “Advanced Adolescent Psychology,” which required a short research paper. Because I was a historian, I decided to investigate childhood in Colonial New England, figuring that: a) I remembered from preparing for comprehensive exams in grad school that I had enjoyed reading a number of books and articles produced by “social historians” of the American colonial experience, in the 1960s; and b) a paper on the topic might come in handy in my AP U.S. History course. What follows is a lightly revised version of that effort, which was well-received by my Education professor and did prove useful in bringing colonial America alive to high school seniors, at least for a while.]

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Puritan Family (Stereotypical)

Puritan Family (Stereotypical)

Authority was ever-present in Puritan New England, and children felt its constraints quite early in their lives. In a sense, of course, the first duty of Puritan parents was the same as that of parents anywhere, anytime: to provide food, shelter, and protection for their children. Nevertheless, the male head of a Puritan family had a larger, almost awesome responsibility: he bound himself, on behalf of his entire household, by a so-called “covenant of grace,” to live according to God’s laws. Consequently, he was required to ensure civil behavior on the part of all family members. To the Puritan father, then, enforcing morality was the means of forestalling the wrath of God from descending upon his family and, because of the ramifications of the covenant ideal in Puritan society, upon the church and state as well.

Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

The Puritans believed that God’s laws were found in Holy Scripture, especially the Ten Commandments. To the Puritan child, the most important Commandment was the fifth: “Honor thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land.”

Infants probably had an easy time for the first year or so of life, but thereafter parents were likely to react with firmness to counter any childish efforts at self-assertion. Though parental authority was preeminent, ministers frequently warned that the rod must be used only as a last resort. As New England divine Cotton Mather explained in his diary:

The first Chastisement, which I inflict for an ordinary fault, is to lett [sic] the
Child see and hear me in an Astonishment, and hardly able to beleeve [sic] that the
Child could do so base a Thing, but beleeving [sic] that they will never do it again.
I would never come, to give a child a Blow; except in Case of Obstinacy; or
some gross Enormity.
To be chased for a while out of my Presence, I would make to be look’d
upon, as the sorest Punishment in the Family. . . .
The slavish way of Education, carried on with raving and kicking and
scourging (in Schools as well as Families,) tis abominable; and a dreadful Judgment
of God upon the World.

* * * * *

The Puritan child probably wore distinctive clothing until sometime between the ages of six and eight, from which point the youngster was dressed like a miniature version of his or her parent. The years from six to eight were also the time when Puritan parents decided whether or not to “put out” their children, that is, to place them in another home.

This decision could be made for a number of reasons: the poverty of the family concerned; the desire of the parents that a son be apprenticed to learn a trade (a daughter might also be apprenticed in order to learn housework, though normally this was taught in her own home by her mother); the realization that another family could provide better educational opportunities for the child; or, according to one scholar, the parents’ fear that their affection might overrule the need to discipline the youngster when he or she began to assert his or her independence. That the practice of “putting out” children was widespread in Puritan New England is suggested by a study of Plymouth Colony by John Demos, who estimates that from one-third to one-half of all children in Plymouth during the seventeenth century grew up in households other than those of their parents.

For those children who were not “put out,” their home remained the center of both religious and vocational training. The only “career” open to girls was that of housewife, so they began to learn the rudiments of “homemaking” as early as their fifth to seventh years. Boys, of course, were taught the skills necessary for them to aid their fathers around home and in the fields. At about age fourteen, boys might also be apprenticed for a period of up to seven years in order to learn a craft or trade. Those few boys who were not taught and trained at home or “put out” to be apprenticed in their teens were probably destined for college, the main purpose of which was to produce Christian ministers.

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Puritan Church Service

Puritan Church Service

The main business of education in the Puritans colonies was to prepare children for religious conversion by teaching them the doctrines and moral precepts of Christianity. Their elders believed that children were born both evil and ignorant, but that ignorance could be enlightened by education, and evil restrained by discipline, if the effort were begun early enough. Parents were required by law to examine their offspring at least once a week on their knowledge of the Puritan catechism. For the children, this meant time spent in memorization; individual initiative was discouraged, for ministers felt it might lead to the development of heretical religious views. Children also received religious instruction in school and church. Once children had begun to attend church, their fathers might quiz them at home after the service to see how much of what the minister had said they remembered and understood.

* * * * *

It is difficult to determine the point at which a Puritan youngster assumed various “adult” responsibilities. In fact, this whole question is so hazy that the historian of Plymouth Colony, John Demos, has argued that children did not pass through a separate stage recognized by their contemporaries as “adolescence.” In other words, for Plymouth at least, the process of growth and maturation was so gradual that the child experienced no “awkward age.”

Puritan Wedding

Puritan Wedding

Whether or not Puritan society recognized a period of “adolescence,” the dependence of the young upon their parents was usually terminated in a legal sense by marriage. The most important matters to parents in arranging the marriages of their children were the religion, social status, and wealth of his or her intended. Love might be considered, but the prospective bride and groom also were expected to use reason to keep passion in check. In fact, historian Edmund Morgan notes that Puritan love “was not so much the cause as it was the product of marriage.”

The process of making a marriage involved several steps: courtship, usually initiated by the young people themselves; securing the approval of the respective parents to the match; the betrothal, or “contract,” the period analogous to the engagement of today, during which the parents reached a mutually satisfactory financial arrangement and the contracting parties worked on learning to love one another; “publishing” the banns, or officially informing the community of the intended match; the transfer from parents to child of a “portion” of the family property; and, perhaps two to three months after betrothal, the performance of the marriage ceremony.

John Demos’s findings indicate that Plymouth residents normally married several years after reaching the age of twenty-one. Therefore, he contends that, strictly speaking, even marriage did not serve as a “rite of passage” from youth (or adolescence) to adulthood. Yet, his own evidence for Plymouth Colony, and that of Edmund Morgan for Massachusetts Bay Colony as well, suggest that parents had an abiding interest in arranging proper matches for their children. Consequently, it seems fair to conclude that, for Puritan elders at least, marriage marked the “coming of age” of their progeny.


Demos, John. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
__________. “Notes on Life in Plymouth Colony.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, XXII (1965): 264-286.
Greven, Philip J. “Family Structure in Seventeenth-Century Andover, Massachusetts,” in Stanley N. Katz, editor, Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Family. Revised edition. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.
Zuckerman, Michael. Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
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1 Response to Growing Up in Colonial New England (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 6)

  1. Glen Browder says:

    Interesting. Not as scary as I had presumed.

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