Child-rearing in the Georgian Era
Despite the high incidence of mothers returning to work as quickly as they can these days, in the modern world it is still accepted practice for one parent to stay home with the children for at least the first few years, and often until they can go to school. But the Georgian era was very different, at least for upper- and middle-class families.
To begin with, giving birth to a child was a life-threatening event, and the mortality rates of both mother and infants was high. Records are hazy as data wasn’t kept at that time, but based on historical records and estimates, it is believed that the maternal mortality rate for mothers during the Georgian era was between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths per 100,000 live births, and for babies it is supposed to be somewhere near 150-200 deaths per 1,000 live births. I would assume that this is only the counted data, as many families of poorer status would not have bothered to record the death, so the actual rate could be much higher.
Factors contributing to high maternal mortality rates during this time included poor hygiene practices, lack of medical knowledge and technology, and the absence of effective treatments for complications such as haemorrhage and infections.
If birth did not kill them, many babies died in their first year of life. This was due to a number of factors, including poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, and a lack of understanding of the causes of disease.
If the child was fortunate enough to survive birth, middle and upper-class families would then likely send the child out to a wet-nurse to be fed or have a wet-nurse brought in. This might seem unnatural to us, but for the Georgian era, this was very common. Breast-feeding was seen as a lowly activity and many upper-class women preferred to delegate it. Also, having the mother’s milk dry up as soon as possible meant most importantly that she could conceive again as quickly as possible—with infant mortality rates so high, women knew that it was likely that not all their children would survive, and so, especially if a male heir was expected, it was important to carry through as many pregnancies as possible until an heir (and a spare!) was produced. There was also the matter of stays and corsets, which made suckling your own baby difficult and uncomfortable.
Once the child reached the age of weaning, it would then very commonly be sent away to a foster family until the child could walk, talk and was toilet trained. This may seem heartless, but in the era of large families, it had the practical use of freeing up the time of the mother to run a large household, and must have saved the staff the extra work of hand washing nappies (diapers).
Jane Austen and her siblings were all supposedly sent away to a local village and raised there by an acquaintance of the family. Middle class families like Austen’s could afford to do this, but not all incomes could support this cost. Those more impoverished families would simply employ a nurse to give babies and toddlers the most basic care, keep them out of sight in the upstairs areas, wait for them to gain the age they could behave themselves at the dinner table.
Once children were older, around eight to ten, boys of middle and upper-class families would often be sent away again, this time to formal boarding schools. Girls were typically educated at home, either by a governess, if the family were of high enough status or wealth, or her parents would typically do the job. Recall that Elizabeth Bennet, when asked about her education, confessed that her mother had educated her and her sisters.
Occasionally, if the mother had too many children to have time to teach her older girls, and they had the means to do so, girls might also be sent away to school for the most basic educations. Then they were expected to come home, help around the house, and wait to be married. Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra were sent away to school for a few years, where they received the most basic instruction. Skills commonly taught females were skills that would help around the home—embroidery, sewing and darning, and basic accounting or math. Some girls might receive extra classes in painting, music and French if they were lucky.
In the regency-era portrait on the left of two upper class children, you can see the different expectations on men and women as far as education and preparation for the future goes; the boy is the one who holds the pen, and is engaged in the intellectual pursuit of writing, whereas the girl simply passively looks on. This really symbolizes the beliefs and social mores of the period, that women were not educated in a scholastic way (beyond basic reading and math) whereas the boys were given better and more thorough education to prepare them for their very different roles in society. Girls were rarely educated in anything ‘cerebral’ at all for they would not need it as housekeepers and baby factories. Society generally believed that a girl's primary role was to marry and bear children, and that education beyond basic literacy and numeracy was unnecessary. Therefore, the length and depth of a girl's education varied greatly depending on her family's beliefs and social status.
Discipline was strict in Georgian households, with parents using physical punishment as a means of correcting misbehaviour. This included spanking with a cane or switch, and even locking children in dark closets as a form of punishment. Despite these harsh methods, Georgian parents were also as affectionate towards their children as we are today, and to a great extent, parenting was as good or bad as it is today, depending much upon the temperaments of the adults and the children. Georgian life placed a great deal of importance on family relationships. Children were expected to show deference and respect towards their parents and elders, and were taught to value hard work and good behaviour.
Georgian era children played a variety of games and pastimes, many of which would be recognizable today. However, the types of games and activities that were popular varied depending on the child's social class and location. In wealthier households, children might have had access to toys such as dolls, stuffed animals, and board games. They might have played games of skill such as jacks, marbles, or card games, or participated in group games such as hide-and-seek, blindman's buff, or tag. They might also have had access to books, musical instruments, and other forms of entertainment.
The image to the far left depicts two Georgian era children playing with a ball.
In the painting to the left the girl cradles a doll—foreshadowing her expected future role, of course, as a mother.
Children from less affluent backgrounds might have had fewer toys and less elaborate games to play. They might have spent more time outdoors, playing games of skill and chance such as hopscotch, skipping, or ball games. They might also have engaged in simple crafts or creative activities, such as making dolls or paper boats.
Regardless of their social class, Georgian era children were often expected to help with household chores and other duties as they grew older. They might have been expected to help with cooking, cleaning, or caring for younger siblings. This would have varied depending on the family's circumstances, but would have been a common expectation for children in both cases.
In the image on the left we see a family of nine siblings posing for a portrait—note how the younger children and older children are all dressed similarly—this is because after a certain age children were expected to behave like little adults, even from a young age—and of course, they are all dressed up for their portrait!
In many ways raising a child in the regency era posed no greater challenges than raising one in the twenty first century, give or take a few variations in child-raising methods and social mores. Even these differences changed depending on social status of the families. Both eras have different challenges, both for parents and children! I will leave you to judge if you would rather raise—or be—a child in the regency era, or a child in 2023!