Chapter 12. Children and Childhood

12.2 Childhood in a Dangerous Time

It has been estimated that a quarter of all infants in 18th century New France failed to make it to their first birthday and that nearly half died before they were 10 years old.[1] Matters were no better a century later: mid-19th century Montreal witnessed infant mortality rates of 250 per thousand live births. The rate was even higher on the other side of the continent; in Victoria, Kamloops, and Nanaimo near the end of the century the rate was almost 300 per thousand.[2] (In comparison, the Canadian rate is now below five per thousand live births.) Conditions varied sharply from place to place but it is likely that childhood mortality (that is, dying between one’s first and fifth birthday) was nearly as bad. In short, it is possible — and certainly plausible — that a third to a half of all live births in late 19th century British North America ended in death before the age of five.

Historians of childhood have struggled with these figures. What were the implications of such a high death rate for relationships and the experience of childhood? Some historians have taken the view that the high incidence of infant death (along with stillbirths and miscarriages) impacted the development of strong emotional bonds between parents and children. As one study claims,

Parents resisted making large emotional investments in their children until they demonstrated their ability to survive. The delay in naming infants and the practice of giving the name of a child who had died to a subsequent child are cited as practices which demonstrate this relative lack of attachment. Thus, a situation of high infant mortality is in a sense a vicious circle, with children valued less because they are less likely to survive, and with the lower emotional investment in children reducing their survival chances.[3]

Not everyone agrees with this perspective. Anecdotal accounts do not reveal emotional stinginess on the part of bereaved parents; quite the contrary. John A. and Isabella Macdonald lost their first born — John Jr. — just after his first birthday. As John A.’s biographer writes, “Of course, his parents never fully overcame their grief. Moving house in Ottawa in 1883, Macdonald’s second wife discovered a mysterious box of toys: her husband quietly identified them as ‘little John A.’s.’” Isabella, who had given birth at 37 years of age after a difficult pregnancy made tolerable by opium, was pushed by her grief into depression and addiction; she died eight years later.[4]  Now, it might be countered that middle- and upper-middle class couples had fewer children on the whole and so experienced infant loss differently from, say, farmers who had to be more dispassionate about tragedy. This presumption remains to be proved, and it assumes a lot about the stereotype of stolid farmers.

Clearly material well-being was an important consideration in the lives of children. In societies based on subsistence agriculture, horticulture, hunting and gathering, or the harvest of food from the sea, the line between success and failure was thin, and children were especially vulnerable.

The Threshold to Adulthood

Despite the persistent belief by many that the average age of marriage — one indicator of achieving “adulthood” —  was much lower in past generations, the evidence points in the opposite direction. Historical demographer Jacques Henripin found that the mean age at first marriage for women in 1700-1730 Canada was 22.4 years (26.9 for men).[5] The age of marriage was even later in the 19th century. The median age at first marriage for women born in the 1830s was 25.1 years, and girls born in the 1840s married later still, at 26.0 years. Thereafter the age at first marriage would drop, almost steadily so that women born in the 1930s married at 21.1 years.

To be sure, there is a good likelihood that more 14-year-olds married in the 1850s than in the 1950s, but those were — then, as now — exceptions.[6] Youthful marriage, in any event, ought not be mistaken for early physical maturation, which in fact was often delayed by poor or inconsistent diets. [7] And some marriages involving children were arranged, being more about diplomacy that intimacy. Samuel de Champlain married Hélène Boullé when she was just 12 years old. Boullé’s marriage contract stipulated that the marriage would not be consummated for two years; the fact that the couple never had any children suggests that perhaps it never was.

In New France the most important threshold in childhood appears to have been around the age of 15 or 16.  This was a demographic watershed as well, as nearly half the population was under the age of 16 years. In Acadia in 1698, nearly 400 of a total population of 789 colonists were under 16. It is no surprise, then, that 16-year-olds were made into militiamen.[8] Nevertheless, the age of maturity in the ancien régime was 25, and people as old as 20 were often (and officially) considered to be children. Parents thus had a continuing and ongoing responsibility for their children well into what we would consider adulthood today.

Indeed, this responsibility could run quite deep. The patriarchal model of French colonial society was firmly and formally established, and men were entitled to physically discipline both their children and their spouse providing it was not outright brutality. The checks on domestic violence included the judiciary and the clergy, both of which upheld the necessity and the sanctity of marriage, and neither of which recognized wives as anything other than dependants. Gossip was probably a more powerful instrument of social control in these situations, because social censure could hamper the survival chances of a whole family.[9] Parents performed a critical role in the colonial marriage market because, in New France, a new son- or daughter-in-law (and their offspring) could become dependants with a legal claim on family property. A poor reputation in these circumstances was something to avoid and something to watch out for.

Key Points

  • High rates of infant and childhood mortality meant that childhoods were abbreviated in at least a quarter of all cases.
  • The threshold between childhood and adulthood was delayed in New France, even though children could marry at a young age.

  1. Jacques Henripin, “From Acceptance of Nature to Control: The Demography of the French Canadians Since the Seventeenth Century,” in Perspectives on Canada’s Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, eds. Frank Trovato and Carl F. Grindstaff (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 1994), 25-6.
  2. John Douglas Belshaw, Becoming British Columbia: A Population History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009), 180-1.
  3. Roderic P. Beaujot and Kevin McQuillan, “The Social Effects of Demographic Change, Canada 1851-1981,” in  Perspectives on Canada's Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, eds. Frank Trovato and Carl F. Grindstaff (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1994), 40.
  4. Ged Martin, John A. Macdonald: Canada’s First Prime Minister (Toronto: Dundurn, 2013), 48-51. 
  5. Cited in Peter Moogk, “Les Petits Sauvages: The Children of Eighteenth-Century New France,” in Childhood and Family in Canadian History, ed. Joy Parr (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982), 19.
  6. Ellen Gee, "The Life Course of Canadian Women: An Historical and Demographic Analysis," in Perspectives on Canada's Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, eds. Frank Trovato and Carl F. Grindstaff (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1994), 56.
  7. Neil Sutherland, "History of Childhood" in The Canadian Encyclopedia (Toronto: Historica Canada, 2006)http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/history-of-childhood/#h3_jump_0
  8. Moogk, “Les Petits Sauvages," 20.
  9. André Lachance and Sylvie Savoie, “Violence, Marriage, and Family Honour: Aspects of the Legal Regulation of Marriage in New France,” in Essays in the History of Canadian Law, vol.V, Crime and Criminal Justice, eds. Jim Phillips, Tina Loo, and Susan Lewthwaite (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1994), 143-173.

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12.2 Childhood in a Dangerous Time by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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