Great Books of the Great PlainsTM


Study Guide for Childhood on the Farm, by Pamela Riney-Kehrberg


The Author

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1991 with a PhD in history, specializing in rural and agricultural history. She is best known for her 1994 work Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas (see link below). During the late 1990s, she received a Fulbright fellowship to New Zealand. While studying abroad, Riney-Kehrberg began a comparative study of childhood in New Zealand and childhood in the Midwest. Since 2000 she has been an associate professor of history at Iowa State University and has incorporated environmental and childhood history as additional areas of expertise. Childhood on the Farm is her first significant work in the field of childhood history.

The Book

Childhood on the Farm: Work, Play, and Coming of Age in the Midwest is a thoroughly researched and fascinating account of rural childhood. Riney-Kehrberg takes a straightforward approach to explaining the highs and lows of growing up on a farm, while letting the children speak for themselves. For this monograph, Riney-Kehrberg uses the journals, diaries, and memoirs of children. She also relies on oral histories and census data. In her analysis of childhood from 1870 to 1920, Riney-Kehrberg focuses on three main components: work, school, and play. She uses these three facets of childhood to debunk two historical myths. She argues that childhood on the farm was neither the “best” nor the “worst.” She also dedicates a chapter to exploring the lives of illiterate, poor, or neglected rural children. She concludes her analysis with a chapter about the transition from childhood to adulthood. In Childhood on the Farm, Riney-Kehrberg sheds light on an almost forgotten aspect of childhood history—growing up on a Midwestern farm.

Some Questions

1.       According to Riney-Kehrberg, there are three main components (work, school, and play) to childhood on the farm. What is her explanation for each component? Are her explanations feasible?


2.       Are there any aspects of rural childhood that are neglected in Childhood on the Farm?


3.       Let’s look at the book’s organization. Why did Riney-Kehrberg include a separate chapter about the neglected or delinquent children? Why not incorporate their stories within the chapters about work, school, and play?


4.       Unlike most childhood historians, Riney-Kehrberg includes a chapter about the transition from childhood to adulthood. What does this chapter tell us about childhood on the farm?


5.       Riney-Kehrberg explains (at length) her use of sources. What primary sources does she use as the foundation for Childhood on the Farm? What are the strength and weakness of these sources? Are there other sources she might have consulted?


         Childhood on the Farm at University Press of Kansas

         Rooted in Dust at University Press of Kansas

         Pamela Riney-Kehrberg at ISU

         “Growing Up in Kansas” in Kansas History


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