Every culture in the world recognizes that there are some important differences between a newborn baby and an adult, a growing child and an elderly person. We all go through various stages of life, with the transitions between them sometimes marked by rites of passage (about which more next week). But I initially typed “certain stages” in that previous sentence, and then changed it to “various” — because although the notion that we age is universal, the categories and what they mean are not.
Let’s start this week with childhood, which seems like a relative no-brainer. You’re a child until . . . okay, maybe not so much of a no-brainer. When does it end? In some cultures it’s pegged to the physical changes that accompany puberty, as when we say that a girl who has gotten her first period “is now a woman.” But of course we do not, at least in the modern United States, actually consider that girl to be a woman yet.
In fact, childhood in many industrialized countries has become a hugely extended, amorphous thing, in part because of the amount of education now considered necessary or at least desirable before you enter the adult world of employment. You’re generally required to be in school at least until your mid to late teens, and people in America without high school diplomas or their equivalent face a lot of hurdles. Jobs for which that high school diploma used to be sufficient now expect you to have a college degree. Even when college is over you may face grad school, medical school, law school, more and more school. You might not enter the “real world” until you’re twenty-five. Or older.
Frankly, our concept of childhood or not-yet-adulthood is kind of weird and recent. Most cultures before the Industrial Revolution simply could not afford to let their young people fritter away two decades or more of life before they became productive members of society. If a psychologist sat you down for one of those word association tests, you might respond to “childhood” with words like “innocence,” “play,” and so forth. We think of those years as a time when we’re supposed to be unencumbered, bounded about by rules but free to enjoy ourselves, to find ourselves. But try floating that notion to somebody from five hundred years ago and they’re likely to look at you as if you’ve grown a second head: to them, childhood might more accurately be summarized as adulthood with training wheels.
That’s not to say that people didn’t love their children — they certainly did — but your years of joy and freedom and play, if you got any, might very well end around the age of six, if not sooner. Then you would be responsible for taking care of younger siblings, cooking meals, cleaning the house, looking after livestock, planting and weeding and harvesting, anything you were big and strong and sensible enough to manage. Quite a lot of things that many modern parents would be horrified to see young children doing — they’re not old enough for that! Except that what you’re old enough for depends in large part on what the people around you expect and prepare you for. Japan has a long-running TV show called Hajimete otsukai (My First Errand), where they hand money to four- or five-year-old children and even some as young as two (the latter accompanied by that four- or five-year-old sibling) and send them off to the market to buy groceries. By themselves. In Japan, it’s cute; in the U.S., somebody would call Child Protective Services.
And oh, those siblings? Bear in mind that without some form of reliable birth control (which will also get its own post eventually), you’re going to have rather more of them than most of us are used to nowadays. The exact number varies widely from country to country, era to era, and lifestyle to lifestyle; mobile hunter-gatherers, for example, tended to have children roughly four years apart, because you needed your first kid to be able to walk reasonable distances on their own before you had a second babe in arms, whereas for sedentary farming communities it was all hands on deck. (A feedback loop, in fact: the relative abundance of food in good years both allowed for a larger population, and demanded it to cover the labor of planting and harvesting.) But the TV show Call the Midwife is one of the only pieces of media I’ve ever seen that really tries to show you just how many children were underfoot and running around in the days before the pill. The overall population skewed vastly younger than we’re used to nowadays, to a degree that is frankly difficult to imagine if you’re not used to it.
As is the death toll. In early modern European cities, the infant mortality rate — children who died before the age of five — often hovered around fifty percent. That’s literally one out of every two children who died young. Mostly of infectious disease, though malnutrition and accidents and so forth also took their toll; in these days of vaccination, the scourges of measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, polio, smallpox, and more have nearly been eradicated from our consciousness, rather than being the expected fate of half our children. (But not eradicated from our world, with the exception of smallpox. And some of the others are on the rise again, as vaccination declines.)
So what childhood looks like in your world will depend heavily on the associated circumstances. Your typical quasi-medieval fantasy setting without birth control or healing magic? Solo children or the 2.5 average of the United States will be outliers, while many families will have a pack of children running around and more buried in the ground. A wealthy, technologized society where disease has been eradicated and women control their own bodies? You might have to run ads encouraging your citizens to get with the baby-making. And whether those children’s lives are focused on work and responsibility or endless schoolroom learning or floating aimlessly around until they know what they want to do with themselves will vary just as widely.