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Image Delaware Child-rearing Ways: Bracing the Will

On the subject of child rearing, Quaker ideas took form very slowly during the seventeenth century. The founder George Fox continued for many years to endorse the Calvinist idea that “all children should be brought into, and kept in subjection … through the breaking of the stubborn will within.”1 But many Quakers rejected the idea that children were born evil, and some also denied the doctrine of original sin. Robert Barclay condemned this cardinal belief of Calvinism as an “unscriptural barbarism.”2 By the early eighteenth century, Quakers in both England and America had come to believe that small children were “harmless, righteous and innocent creatures.”3 Many members of the Society of Friends believed that children were incapable of sin until old enough to understand their acts. Others suggested that youngsters continued in a state of innocence until they were as old as eleven or twelve.4

These ideas about child nature created distinctive Quaker customs of child nurture which differed very much from those of Puritans and Anglicans. The first and most important difference was in the special intensity of Quaker interest in the young. One Quaker parent wrote in her diary, “My chief concern is about my children. O if they may be preserved out of wickedness … there is so much wickedness in this place on every side.”5 Others expressed the same interest in a happier way. Isaac Norris wrote of his own children,

I have two daughters yet alive, delightful children. … They are a constant care as well as a great amusement and diversion to me to direct their education aright and enjoy them truly in the virtuous improvement of their tender minds.6

This concern was shared not merely by parents but by the entire community. One historian concludes from long acquaintance of meeting records that “the Quaker yearly meetings for nearly three centuries have drawn attention to the welfare of young people more frequently than any other topic.”7

Quaker autobiographers testified to the constant attention of their parents. “I was not ‘christened’ in a church,” wrote Rufus Jones, “but I was sprinkled from morning till night with the dew of religion.” Even in the late seventeenth century, the environment of a Quaker family was more child-centered than home life in other cultures.8

For the first years of infancy, Quakers believed in what they called a “guarded education.” They thought that small children should be sheltered from the world and raised within a carefully controlled environment. Behind this idea lay an empiricism which held that children could be “trained up” by control of their surroundings. “Virtue passes not by lineal succession, nor piety by inheritance,” said the London meeting.9

The second stage of Quaker child rearing began with what was perceived to be “the dawn of reason” in the child. One Philadelphia mother wrote candidly:

I acknowledge with truth that I am not so dotingly fond of very young infants, as some are, I have no idea of kissing every little dirty mouth, that is held up for notice, and I wou’d quite as leave, indeed, should prefer playing with a good large rag baby, than with a child of two or three months. But when the dawn of reason begins to make its beautiful appearance, and they can take notice; I think them the most engaging little creatures in the world.10

When this stage was reached, Quaker parents were urged to raise their children mainly by working through their reason. William Penn put it thus:

If God give you children, love them with wisdom, correct them with affection: never strike in passion, and suit the correction to their age as well as fault. Convince them of their error before you chastise them … punish them more by their understandings than the rod.11

Travelers of other faiths also often commented upon the permissiveness of child rearing among Quakers—of children who said “I will not” to their parents with impunity. These travelers commented also on the extent to which Quaker households appeared to be, in the modern phrase, child-centered. They observed accurately an important truth about child-rearing customs in this culture.12

Quaker parents made heavy use of rewards rather than punishments, and promises rather than threats. One father, while on a trip to England, wrote home to his daughter in America, “If when I return I hear thee has been a good Girl, there is not a little girl in Burlington shall have what I intend for thee.”13

Corporal punishment was used with moderation by some Quaker parents and masters, and others forswore it altogether. David Cooper wrote in his memoir that he could “never remember receiving but one stroak from a master.” The ideal and often the reality was a different method. Cooper himself wrote:

A strict obedience is so important that no head of a family can support their station with any degree of peace and satisfaction, without [it], and by timely and steady care is easily maintained, whereby a great deal of jarring, scolding and correcting is avoided.14

Child-nurture among Friends, however, should not be confused with a modern permissive system. Quaker children were trained to strict ideals of “silence and subjection”—not so much to parents or elders, but to the meeting. The individuality of the Quaker child was subordinated to the entire community, even as it was protected against the relentless will-breaking of the Puritans and the hierarchical will-bending of the Virginians.15

Child rearing was a communal process, which collectively involved many people besides the parents themselves. “In learning about goals for raising children,” an historian of one Quaker family writes, “the Pembertons largely relied upon the exchange of ideas among family and friends. … in the main, parents expected to raise children in much the same way as they had been raised.”16

Children also actively socialized each other, from a very early age. This process happens in every culture, but among Quakers, it took on a special quality. The Quaker journalist John Kelsall, for example, wrote, “As I remember about the sixth year of my age, my brother and I would have got under some hedge, wall or such like place, and there have kept a meeting in imitation of Friends.”17

Further, Quaker children were trained from an unusually early age to think in terms of serving the community. William Dillwyn wrote to his daughter Sukey, “Good girls always love to serve the poor, and make their lives happy—it is much better than romping about with rude children.”18

By precept and example, and also by the structure of socialization, Quaker children were taught subordination not so much to other individuals as to a community of values. Here was an important part of the process by which cultures were maintained from one generation to the next.

The third stage of life was one which the Quakers called youth, and which we know as adolescence—a period they defined as life from fourteen to twenty-one.19 One Quaker called this “the slippery and dangerous time of life.”20 In this stage, Quaker parents tended to be more active and constraining than Puritans and

Anglicans had been. Quakers argued that young people should remain within their families. “I think it is better,” one wrote, “for children to be at home than a gadding abroad.”21 Many strenuously condemned the custom of “sending out” which was widely practiced among the Puritans. William Penn wrote angrily against those who “do with their children as with their souls, put them out at livery for so much a year.”22 Where apprenticeship was necessary, Quakers were careful to find members of their faith to serve as masters. When they were unable to do so, the question was carried as high as the quarterly meeting—a serious business indeed.23

Quakers encouraged their children to remain at home even to adulthood. Others of different sects suspected that the motives were not entirely spiritual. Henry Muhlenberg wrote in 1748 that young people in Pennsylvania were “almost in bondage” to their parents. Whatever the reason, youngsters in Quaker families tended to stay at home in a way that Puritan children did not.24

Quakers were also very strict in other ways with their teenage children. An example was their attitude toward dancing. A Quaker preacher, traveling in the more complaisant colony of Maryland, came upon a party of young people who were dancing merrily together. He broke in upon them like an avenging angel, stopped the dance, and demanded to know if they considered Martin Luther to be a good man. The astonished youngsters answered in the affirmative. The Quaker evangelist then quoted Luther on the subject of dancing: “as many paces as the man takes in his dance, so many steps he takes toward hell.” This, the Quaker missionary gloated with a gleam of sadistic satisfaction, “spoiled their sport.”25

In some ways, Quakers could be very repressive of their young. But they never created the same hierarchy of age that was so strong in other cultures. They cultivated an ideal of equality among children. William Penn urged Quaker parents to take great care to be even-handed with all of their off-spring. “Be not unequal in your love to your children, at least in the appearance of it; it is both unjust and indiscreet; it lessens love to parents, and provokes envy among children.” In a later generation, this advice would become a cliché of child-rearing literature. But the Quakers were far ahead of others in their concern for sibling equality.26

The Quakers also extended this ideal of equality to relations between children and adults. People of other faiths were startled to observe Quaker children giving moral and religious instruction to their elders. We have one account of a ten-year-old child who interrupted a gathering of adults to deliver a spontaneous speech on salvation. The adults listened respectfully, and after the child was done speaking, a grandmother offered a prayer, and said, “Oh lord! That this young branch should be a teacher unto us old ones.”

Another young Friend, Thomas Chalkley, at the age of ten regularly reprimanded adults in his own family—condemning their swearing, breaking up their card parties, preaching to them about sin and salvation. To people of other cultures, the behavior of these Quaker infants terribles seemed to turn the world upside down. But among Friends, they appeared to put things right side up again.27

Other ethnic groups in the Delaware Valley introduced their own customs of child rearing. It is interesting to observe that many German pietists were remarkably similar to the Quakers in this respect. Among the Amish, for example, customary ideas of child nature and nurture had many qualities in common with those of English Friends. In both groups one finds the same belief in the innocence of the young, the same intensity of love and concern for their upbringing, the same combination of permissiveness in infancy and restraint in adolescence, the same hostility to “sending out,” and the same insistence upon strict subordination to a spiritual community.28

There were also many similarities in the child-rearing customs of German Pietists and English Quakers, which became the basis of a regional culture in the Delaware Valley, and the means of its transmission from one generation to the next.

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