Around the year 1500, an assistant to the Venetian ambassador to England was struck by the strange attitude to parenting that he had encountered on his travels.
He wrote to his masters in Venice that the English kept their children at home “till the age of seven or nine at the utmost” but then “put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another seven or nine years.” The unfortunate children were sent away regardless of their class, “for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children into the houses of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own.”
It was for the children’s own good, he was told—but he suspected the English preferred having other people’s children in the household because they could feed them less and work them harder. . . .
Perhaps it was also a way for parents to get rid of unruly teenagers. According to social historian Shulamith Shahar, it was thought easier for strangers to raise children—a belief that had some currency even in parts of Italy. The 14th Century Florentine merchant Paolo of Certaldo advised: “If you have a son who does nothing good . . . deliver him at once into the hands of a merchant who will send him to another country. Or send him yourself to one of your close friends . . . Nothing else can be done. While he remains with you, he will not mend his ways.”