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Children Of The Young Republic
As the nation changed, so did its theories about raising youngsters. Prayed over or let run wild, and always the despair of foreign visitors, they have usually survived
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
We knew how it was when we got home from school, because they acted so sober, and, after a while, Grandmother talked with us about it. We told her we were sorry and we did not have a bit [of a] good time and would never do it again. When she prayed with us the next morning, as she always does before we go to school, she said, “Prepare us, Lord, for what thou art preparing for us,” and it seemed as though she was discouraged, but she said she forgave us.
Caroline, and especially Anna, were constantly being mischievous (“Anna tied her shoe strings in hard knots so she could sit up later”), and more often than not their grandmother knew exactly what was going on. Once someone asked Anna whether the old lady still retained all her faculties; “Yes, indeed,” she said, “to an alarming degree.” When Grandmother heard that Anna had played hookey and told her she hoped she would never let anyone bring such a report again, “Anna said she would not, if she could possibly help it!” While Mr. Adams, a Boston relative and the head of Adams’ Express Company, was visiting, Anna asked what Eve was made for; when no one could answer, she told them all: “For Adams’ express company.”
Overheard by a critical visitor from abroad, these remarks on the part of a young child might have sounded like downright insolence. Yet her grandparents not only tolerated it in Anna, they rather liked it. “He has the queerest voice and stops off between his words,” Caroline wrote of the minister they had all just heard one Sunday. “When we got home Anna [nine at the time] said she would show us how he preached and she described what he had said about a sailor in time of war. She said, ‘A ball came—and struck him there—another ball came—and struck him there—he raised his faithful sword—and went on—to victory or death.’ ”
“I expected Grandfather would reprove her,” Caroline adds, “but he just smiled a queer sort of smile and Grandmother put her handkerchief up to her face, as she always does when she is amused about anything.”
What emerges from Caroline’s diary and others of this later period is a new sense of informality between parents and children, and at the same time a growing separation of their two worlds. Anna adores and makes fun of both her grandparents; Caroline calls Grandmother her “dear little lady” and thinks “she is a perfect angel even if she does seem rather strict sometimes.” But the real center of Caroline’s and Anna’s life is in school, in Sunday school, in the myriad activities outside their home.
Home was where you lived, but you didn’t learn about life there. The world was moving so fast that, while the older generation still could and did teach values to the young, it had less and less to pass on of a practical nature. Henry Wright learned all he needed to know right on his father’s farm. At six, Lydia Huntley was helping her grandmother to make her father’s shirts; she was encouraged, “when in the parlor with older people … to imitate their employments.” Caroline and Anna did a certain amount of light work about the house—threading needles before going to school or straightening their things, getting their room ready to be cleaned—but it was the merest token.
Since they were allowed their own pursuits, were judged more and more by standards adjusted to suit their age group, and were unexposed either to the neglect or to the arbitrary parental wrath of an earlier day, it is hardly surprising that the Richards girls and other mid-nineteenth-century children occasionally considered grownups rather superfluous:
Anna and I were chattering like two magpies today [reads Caroline’s entry for Christmas, 1857] and a man came in to talk to Grandfather on business. He told us in an undertone that children should be seen and not heard. After he had gone I saw Anna watching him a long time till he was only a speck in the distance and I asked her what she was doing. She said she was doing it because it was a sign if you watched persons out of sight you would never see them again.
This facetious attitude toward adults would have puzzled Henry Wright, whose father ”… allowed but little familiarity … a look, or a tap of his foot on the floor, was enough to guide us and keep us quiet.” Probably both he and Lydia would have been amazed, and delighted, by Anna’s Sunday satires. “One thing can never be effaced from my memory,” Wright says, “the burden of the Sabbath.” Lydia was overcome by “a sensation of weariness” as she replied to her father’s Sunday grilling on the catechism.
It would be false to imply that, by 1850, the old fundamental principles of Christianity no longer formed the basis for the American child’s religious life, or that the Christian duty of employing time to best advantage wasn’t still one of the first lessons taught the young. It would be still more wrong to assume that fathers had lost their whip hand. What “Paw” said still went, even if he didn’t say as much and said it differently. The concentration of authority that made the family such a strong unit lasted, fundamentally unchanged, at least until the middle of the century.