Chapter 12. Children and Childhood

12.8 Summary

It is in the nature of childhood to be a part of the life course that is subject to external forces. Infants are nursed into childhood proper with no say as to how that should happen. Behaviours and expectations, rewards and punishments are administered in such a way that children quickly misperceive their world as the only possible way in which childhood might be constructed; it is a period of socialization into adulthood but first into childhood. These are features that make childhood in the past a challenge to research and also an extremely important subject to pursue.

The experiences of children in pre-Confederation Canada varied from one region to the other, from one century to the next, and from one cultural group to another. Just defining the period known as “childhood” and the experience of “childhood” thus becomes a slippery business. What we can say for sure is that childhood was fraught with health hazards and cluttered with work obligations. The family — particularly in rural areas — was the forge in which children were fashioned. In New France the clergy played an important role as well and in the 19th century institutions like orphanages, schools, and prisons began to challenge the primacy of kin in moulding young minds and bodies.

It is easy, however, to underestimate the role that children play in the making of these societies. Their numbers are crucial to their military histories. The loss of children in the 1630s smallpox epidemics, as we have seen in earlier chapters, was crippling for Wendat society when it needed warriors to fight against the Haudenosaunee in 1649. As the nation-state emerges in British North America and as the Empire relinquishes both control and obligations, young people are where armies will come from. Increasingly they become viewed as assets that must be managed by the state in some way or another. The story of modernity — which has its roots in the late 18th century and its foundation in the institutional structures erected in the 19th century — is in many important ways the story of childhood.

Key Terms

street arab: An impoverished and underprivileged child who survives by means of begging or stealing.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. What are some of the constraints faced by historians in their study of children?
  2. Why were rates of infant mortality in the 18th and 19th centuries consistently high?
  3. How did pre-Confederation societies define “childhood”?
  4. What role(s) did the clergy play in shaping childhood?
  5. To what extent were children “property”?
  6. In what ways was childhood in New France different from the experience of childhood in 19th century British North America and the West?
  7. What role did the state play in the lives of children?
  8. To what extent were schools a response to moral panics?

Suggested Readings

  1. McIntosh, Robert. “The Making of Modern Childhood.” In Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mining, 14-41. Montreal & Kingston: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2000.
  2. Moogk, Peter. “Les Petits Sauvages: The Children of Eighteenth-Century New France.” In Childhood and Family in Canadian History, edited by Joy Parr, 17-43. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982.
  3. Nootens, Thierry. “’For Years We Have Never Had A Happy Home’: Madness and Families in Nineteenth-Century Montreal.” In Mental Health and Canadian Society: Historical Perspectives, edited by James Moran, 49-68. Montreal & Kingston: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2006.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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