Prior to 1877, patterns of school attendance in New Zealand were flexible and this was accepted as normal. By the end of the nineteenth century, the terms and conditions of compulsory schooling produced the idea of childhood as lacking by converting different patterns of school attendance into an understanding of an inferior childhood. This article explores how nonconforming children were categorised in this way by examining the range of meanings that were put forth as true about children’s upbringing, and which justified strategies for managing school attendance. The category of truancy appears as a firmly fixed and accepted social problem. However its development was continually shaped and reshaped by an administrative bureaucracy that increasingly regulated, and therefore constituted, how we relate to the child both in and out-of-school.