Early in the morning, while it was still dark, pioneer children rose to do chores. Some of the chores for which they were responsible were done even before the children had breakfast. Chores depended upon the season, the land, and how many people were in a family but children were expected to work hard.
Pioneer families were typically large. During the colonizing of America, there were as many as twenty people to a family. From the reading of books such as Little House On The Prairie and Spencer’s Mountain, mention of big families and girls married as young as thirteen pepper the pages.
I wondered at the large numbers of children. It is true there was no birth control but then again, there were mentions of much smaller families with only one or two children. It may be large families resulted from plentiful intimacy between husband and wife, or from within a relationship where, with respect for the times, women did not say ‘no’ to their husband’s advances.
I found smaller families were found among the wealthy storekeepers and merchants, as opposed to farmers; I found households with many children almost always were among the farming men, and further reading brought me to a deeper realization of the truth; one a lot more realistic for the pioneer age: children were born for labor.
That may seem a cruel thing to say but work on large farms was hard, and many farmers could not afford to hire help. Having a large family, especially since many farmers kept moving further West, solved the problem of falling short of labor. Farmers needed help, and children cost nothing except the food and clothes to sustain them. Parents ended up with fives of children under their roofs and, to keep them under control, mothers turned to spanking while father’s whipped in the infamous woodshed.
Many children died in blizzards and of disease. Grieving was proper but new children quickly followed to fill the void left by death. If births yielded only girls, often the wives kept having babies to satisfy the need for boys. In a day when women did one thing and boys did another, boys were used for harder labor that was considered improper for women to do.
Children were expected to carry out many tasks: girls swept, washed dishes, mended, and sewed. They weeded and hoed in the garden while boys helped with the heavy farm work such as plowing and sowing seeds. The jobs they were responsible for doing were important to the survival of their families but the methods used to punish them for failing at their tasks involved corporal punishment. And that is where the love divides.
Where there are children, there is love and I am certain there were parents who loved their children in the pioneer age, yet I cannot help but hypothesize that parental love may have been eclipsed by the need for labor. Expecting children to do their fair share and help toward the family survival is a healthy expectation, but pioneer use of corporal punishment, coupled with the fact many settlers were Christians, tells me the love was not strong enough to sway popular belief that hitting was a good way to teach children to obey. Not many parents or teachers felt uncomfortable whipping their children, and it was considered weak not to do so.
Nowadays the need for farm labor is much lower in the world, and children are not as large a part of it. Still, large families still exist, especially among the Mormons and people of religion. Why?
That is a question I cannot answer and cannot even comprehend. Perhaps some Mormons and devote Christians feel they are serving God by bringing new life into the world. But marriage does not mean children. Children are a choice you make as a couple, not a requirement demanded by law or God.
Many people may feel children are a required part of becoming a married couple and have children based on those feelings. But if you then turn and hand your offspring into the hands of babysitters, daycare, and school, what time do you spend with your child(ren) as parents?
Why have children if you do not have the time to love them; to explain with patience a wrong instead of taking the quick way to remedy something: spanking is for those with no patience.
Pioneer farmers had little to no patience, and were rough men and seasoned women who had expectations and were willing to go to any length to accomplish what they had traveled far to do. Spanking is a temporary solution to stopping behavior in the moment but does not shape character. Pioneer children were often afraid of their parents.
The time today’s parents spend with their children can be limited to punishments, and discussion around the table may be stuck to topics about school, “what you learned today”, sports, and extra-curricular activities.
I believe parents and children grow further apart after birth. Many babies sleep in cribs separate from the people who gave them life, and are fed from a bottle, furthering the gap between mother and child.
I find spanking is still in large practice among people of the Christian Faith, but communities of gentle Christian parents are springing up, and Christians are interpreting the Bible in new ways related to children.
Parenting has changed in this day and age. Not nearly as many children are being born to fill in as labor, and spanking is diminishing among parents who turn to gentle and respectful methods of teaching their children empathy and respect.
The world is changing and I believe the most innovative of us who will continue to carry the world forward will be those people who were not spanked as children, or who may have been spanked, but chose not to bring spanking to their families. I believe the people who will change the world are those who bring to their lives the creative thinking parents who do not spank bring to the ways they teach.
I want to be one of those people.