Your life as a Pilgrim child…when you weren’t working

The upbringing of a Separatist child was harsh, as you might suspect.

Adults believed that children were to be humble and submissive. They believed that children were born with a sinful nature that must be broken. Parents and other adults began to “break the child’s will” beginning somewhere around the two. Not surprising given the ‘terrible twos!’

While eating the children could not sit down, although babies sat in high chairs. They stood at the end of the table and would serve the food. During a meal, children were not allowed to speak unless spoken to.

Corporal punishment was considered necessary for the proper upbringing of children.

Children were expected to both love and fear their parents, to be obedient in all things, to be submissive equally to mother and father, and to speak in a restrained and proper manner.

After age eight it was not uncommon for a child to be “put out” or placed in the foster care of another family. Some children were placed into households to learn a trade, others to be taught to read and write. I had Mary Allerton put out to live with the Bradfords, reasoning that there was no one in her family to teach her how to be a proper Pilgrim woman. Her mother died the first winter and her sister was only two years old and busy keeping the home for her brother and father.

Did the children have time to play?

Yes, they did when their work for the day was finished and their parents gave them permission. They could play games that improved their body and mind. Outside, they would play leapfrog, “ball and cup,” lummelin (keep away), all hid (hide and seek), or blow bubbles, and have foot races. There were also board games, like draughts (checkers), Nine Men’s Morris (a strategy board game) and Naughts and Crosses (tic tac toe), or marbles.

Girls had cloth dolls called poppets.

Older children might exchange riddles or jests (jokes). They particularly liked tongue twisters or  “giffes,”  or what we call tongue twisters. Here is a sample I used in The Last Pilgrim: “Dick drunk drink in a dish. Where’s the dish Dick drunk drink in?”

What did babies wear? Did they have baby toys?

Children wore shifts and ‘leading strings’ were attached to the shoulders of the shift so parents could hold the children upright when they began to walk. Walking was encouraged as early as possible since crawling on the floor was considered close to the devil. Because these little ones often fell, toddlers wore something called a “pudding’ around their heads. Thus when they fell, their heads were padded.

Surprising modern, children also had walkers with trays for toys, and they sat in high chairs. Their toys would be wooden blocks, carved animals, or small poppets.

What did older children wear?

When children reached the age of 4-5, they were old enough to wear clothing similar to their parents. This was called breeching for the boys.

If you were a girl, you would wear: a coif or hat on the head, a smock or shift under everything, petticoats, tied-on pockets, a skirt, an apron, a waistcoat, a neckerchief, knitted stockings, and latchet shoes. An older girl might wear stays and of course, the children would go barefoot in warm weather.

If you were a boy, you would wear: a hat, a linen shirt, a wool jacket or doublet, woolen breeches, knitted stockings, and latchet shoes

Were the children educated in addition to life skills?

Many children were not book-educated unless their parents were. In those households, boys would be taught to read – the Bible being the only book in most cases – and write and do sums. Girls might be taught to read.

And of course, they were educated in religious precepts.

I doubt if the children of today would manage if they were suddenly sent back in time to 1621! I’m not at all sure I would!

What about you?




29 thoughts on “Your life as a Pilgrim child…when you weren’t working”

  1. I surely would not! Thanks for the great research and photos, Noelle. I highly recommend THE LAST PILGRIM to readers everywhere and thoroughly enjoyed learning extra details about Pilgrim children in your post.

  2. Fascinating as ever. I could survive provided you didn’t steal my poppet, Noelle. I notice in old photos of my grandfather’s siblings – born around the 1880s – that the toddler boys are wearing dresses like the girls.

  3. petespringerauthor

    Fascinating stuff, Noelle. I don’t think I would have liked being a parent or a child in that era. I’m not a big fan of corporal punishment, although I believe in discipline.

    1. They did not spare the rod, Pete. But their survival depended on the children becoming an integral part of the colony. There was no loafing around. Our children are so lucky!

  4. I guess you only manage if you’ve been cowed over the years to learn resilience so most of today’s children would be stunned by the unnecessary cruelty. Not a lot to recommend as a child methinks…

      1. I maybe sensitive today because once again thr English government has refused to ban smacking whereas the devolved nations all have. You’ll gather I’m against all forms of domestic abuse which is what smacking amounts to.

  5. It sounds very rigid. No, I don’t think I would have stood up to the times as a child. Probably not as an adult either. I love your research and all the authenticity it added to The Last Pilgrim. Another great post, Noelle!

  6. I would definitely struggle if I ended up traveling back in time to those days. I’d be considered lazy and disrespectful, I’m sure. And my grandkids… forget it, Noelle. Ha ha. They’d be screaming for their ipads. 🙂 Fascinating post! Thank you.

    1. Children were the means to a continued existence in a harsh environment then – their treatment was tough. Parents actually tried NOT to become attached to their children until they were 4 or 5 because so many of them died.

  7. Very harsh indeed. I’m not sure I would have survived either, but it would have been fascinating, if you could just visit for a little while… Thanks for such an informative post, Noelle.

  8. Hi Noelle – kids worked so hard back then, but it was a matter of survival and practicality. I’m pretty sure we’re all too soft to make it through that now. I remember some of these details from your book. Super interesting – thanks for sharing them!

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