Children usually had no say at all about their family becoming pioneers. They left behind their friends and any comforts they’d had in their daily lives, and they took on hardships, grinding chores, and responsibility like they’d never known before. Some children or youngsters embraced the change; it was invigorating, an adventure, and they could feel close to their parents in their daily struggles and triumphs. Others must have suffered extreme nostalgia.
It’s true to say certainly of large settler families that a child was viewed as a resource and that each of them, male or female, had at least to make a contribution towards their upkeep. Older girls were childminders for the younger ones, washing and dressing them, braiding their hair in the same way that their own hair was braided by their mothers, and showing them how to do chores – perhaps chores which they would now pass on.
Typical chores for a young child might include: making the beds, washing the dishes, setting the table, picking wild greens, feeding the chickens and other livestock, and maybe, especially for boys, gathering firewood.
As they grew up, the range and difficulty of their daily tasks increased. Once they were strong or skilled enough, they would fetch water, milk the cow, collect eggs, help with cooking, do easier repairs to clothing, remove stones from the fields, chop wood and generally help with all stages of the crops from planting to harvesting.
Some settlers’ children attended school, but they didn’t go during sowing or harvest time because their labour was needed. It was generally a one-teacher, one-room school in which children of one age or grade were taught while the others were given work to occupy themselves, the teacher then moving on to another group. The schooling was designed to teach the basics of arithmetic, reading and writing with an emphasis on spelling. There might also be some history and rudimentary geography. The schools were inspected once a year and many of them were very good, but abuses must have been easy or tempting, with no other adults to witness the daily goings-on. Controlling a number of disparate children was surely a challenge, and harsh discipline aimed at instilling fear was sometimes seen as the answer.
Discipline for children generally was harsh. They were expected to be respectful and polite to all adults at all times, and pranks were severely dealt with. Fathers meted out whippings to boys and girls alike. Many families believed it was a case of ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ and indeed parental authority was generally seen as stemming from the Bible.
Sundays were enforced as days of ‘rest’ although in practice children found them days of restriction and boredom and were often in trouble for transgressing by engaging in play of some kind.
Settlers’ children did play – children almost always do in whatever situation they are placed. Any toys they had were usually home-made, or if store-bought, of rare and immense value. Girls often made their own dolls, even if this was only a matter of wrapping up a vegetable in a handkerchief. Generally speaking, girls had to stay clean and tidy in their restrictive clothing, so it was difficult for them to have as much fun as their brothers.
On occasions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, the whole family had fun, joining with other settler families in the area for a feast to which they all contributed, and dancing to music created by talented players within the families. They were occasions eagerly looked forward to by children and a chance for everyone to let off steam.