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Changing Roles

Family Reads

In the second half of the 18th century, marriages in gentry families were made more for love than the previous ideal of alliances of power. That was a change that eventually spread from the gentry to all classes of society, and historians call the change “the rise of the affectionate family.” Relationships among family members became less formal and more emotional. The family turned inward, away from the strife and competition of the outside world and toward the haven and peace of the family.

The traditional role of authoritarian parents gave way to affectionate bonds, while wives and husbands became more companions. Fathers took a more active role in day-to-day childrearing. Women became more active in the spiritual advice they gave their children and servants.

Childhood Assumes New Importance

Parents, as they always had, wanted their children to be upright, moral, independent members of society, but in the “affectionate family,” how children were trained changed. Infants and young children became a focus of family life and their development was a source of delight to parents and other adults. Parents actively sought educational experiences. There was a growing demand for books on childcare and children’s behavior.

In the middle of the 18th century, families typically included six to eight children despite the frequent stillbirths and miscarriages that were common. Fear for the newborn and the mother was part of every birth. The loss of every child was mourned, but in mid-century, it became more openly emotional for black and white families.

Content excerpted from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s publication “Becoming Americans”.