History paints Puritan parents as strict adherents to the teachings of the Old Testament. Their conservative outlook on life impacted how they raised and educated their children. A child’s will was to be broken as Puritans thought that humans were all born with a sinful nature, filled with pride and stubbornness. Parents and teachers were expected to discipline the children using emotional and physical punishments.
Puritans were very loving parents but taught their children not to express emotion publicly. Joy and physical affection, as well as fear and anger, were not to be displayed. Self-control is one of the fruits of the spirit according to scripture. John Robinson, a Pilgrim preacher wrote, “Surely, there is in all children a stubbornness and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride which must in the first place be broken and beaten down so that the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may in their time be built thereon.”
Willful children who were considered incorrigible were often sent to stay with families in the village. These adults were allowed to teach them lessons and were free to discipline the children in an appropriate manner. “Sending out” was not only for discipline but was often used to teach useful skills, crafts, manners and social interactions with adults other than their family.
My ninth great-grandmother, Mehitabel Braybrooke was a Puritan child who was one of those willful children. Her parents must have been exasperated with her behavior and “sent her out” to work as a servant to several neighbors when she was quite young. This information came from the court documents from her trial for arson of her master’s home when she was sixteen. Some neighbors who testified against her reported that she had been sent to live with them and unfortunately, had nothing good to say. This true story is told in great detail in my upcoming novel The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke.
Puritan teachers and students would be incredulous if they could view the schools in 21st century America and the lack of discipline that prevails in many schools. Schoolmasters during the Puritan times were notorious for their use of various instruments of chastisement that brought shame and terror upon their students. My teachers during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s would have made their Puritan counterparts proud. I recall students kneeling upon bean bags, standing on their tiptoes at the blackboard with their nose firmly planted on an X drawn by the teacher, nuns pulling children’s hair, etc. As a teacher, I recall one principal who used a paddle with holes drilled through.
Colonial teachers favored the birch rod as their most effective and satisfactory instrument of torture. In Massachusetts stern fathers often whipped their children at home if they were whipped at school. The sound of the rod must have resounded throughout the colony by day and by night.
An especially insulting technique used by schoolmasters was to send the rowdy student to fetch a stick of a birch tree. The instructor would make a slit in the severed end of the branch, and the child’s nose was placed in the cleft end. There the student would stand as an object of ridicule.
Sometimes delinquent children were placed in yokes together with bows like an ox yoke. Much more disgraceful was for a boy to be yoked with a female student.
Whispering sticks were used on some students in the Dame Schools. This wooden device had the same effect as placing a bit in a horse’s mouth. The child’s mouth was forced wide open, and each end of the stick was tied at the back of the neck. Obviously, not much could be uttered by the student, and they could not close their jaws for quite a while.
The flapper, a version of which could be seen in the office on many school principals not too long ago, was made of tanned buckskin, six inches square, with a round hole in the middle. It was fastened to a wooden handle and used upon the child’s bare flesh. The hole demonstrates that the Puritans had a good understanding of the physics of air resistance.
The instructors also had a tattling stick made using a half dozen thick strips of deer hide fastened to a short handle. The children were forced to lie down over a log hewn with a sharp edge at the top. The sharp edge of the wood, referred to as a “peak block” caused great pain. The whippings were referred to as “trouncings.”
Woe to the child who could not sit still on his bench! He had to endure the single-legged stool. Before the punishment ended, the child must have thought their back was broken while attempting to keep their balance.
The most well-known means of humiliation was the dunce’s cap.
They were made of birch bark, and the teacher painted names on the front such as:
“Bite- Finger Baby”
“Pert Miss Prat-a Pace”
Alice Earle Morse
Hopefully, these harsh punishments are in the past, but author Alice Earle Morris (1851-1911) provides her readers with an intriguing suggestion:
“A ‘warm birch’ applied in the early stages of that terrible tragedy the Salem Witchcraft, to Ann Putnam, the protagonist of that drama, would doubtless so quickly have ended in its incipiency as to obliterate it entirely from the pages of history.”
(from Child Life in Colonial Days)