Images from the Library
“A seedling to be protected and nurtured” — Childhood during the Confederation Era (1840–1890)
During the Confederation era, the experience of childhood varied, depending on the circumstances in which a child was raised. A family’s income and social status, as well as the value assigned to education, determined the nature of childhood. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, parents increasingly accepted that children deserved at least a few years of schooling. It was also accepted that children needed some respite from work around the house and farm, and that they shouldn’t necessarily be sent out to work in order to augment the family income.
Changing Perceptions of Childhood
During the nineteenth century, new attitudes developed towards childhood, emphasizing it as a precious period during which a child’s purity and innocence should be valued and nurtured. Rather than simply serve as preparation for adulthood, childhood was seen as a distinct stage in life, to be enjoyed and prolonged. Fragile and vulnerable, children needed to be sheltered from corrupting influences and from the struggles involved in making a living. Although physical punishment was still used to discipline bad behaviour, teaching by example, tenderness, Bible lessons and guilt were viewed as preferable ways of shaping a child’s character and instilling self-discipline.
Children enjoyed a sheltered childhood only in families where they were not expected to begin working at a young age. Middle-class children stayed at home longer, receiving greater care and attention, and a more extensive education. For girls, a good upbringing ensured a respectable marriage, while for boys schooling into their late teens or early twenties provided an entrée to good careers. Because of the considerable emotional and material investment now made in children, couples increasingly chose to have smaller families.
The value middle-class families placed on a child’s development was evident in many aspects of daily life. Important family occasions included birthdays, religious rituals such as baptisms and confirmations, and the moment — generally around the age of five or six — when boys were recognized as young men and “breeched”, or allowed to wear trousers. Middle-class children were also encouraged to engage in wholesome and supervised play and, from the 1860s on, amused themselves with a variety of manufactured toys and games. Boys participated much more than their sisters in organized sports and other outdoor activities.
Farm and Working-Class Children
Unlike their middle-class counterparts, farm and working-class children learned early that they were expected to contribute to the family economy. By the age of eight, children of both sexes helped with light household chores. As they grew older, they performed more demanding tasks until, by their mid-teens, they were able to work beside their parents, or even work for wages outside the home. Although these children had fewer opportunities to attend school, as the century progressed, increasing numbers of youngsters enrolled in school and stayed there longer.
By the final decades of the nineteenth century, concerns over the effects of urbanization and industrialization focused primarily on improving the situation of urban, working-class children. By 1875, Ontario and British Columbia had made school attendance compulsory for at least four months of the year. In the mid-1880s, Ontario and Quebec passed legislation that established minimum ages for factory workers — 12 for boys and 14 for girls — and limited the work week to 60 hours. Reformers further broadened their improvement efforts to include housing, health care, juvenile courts, libraries and playgrounds.