New Worlds: Childhood

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Childhood — 18 Comments

  1. 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.

    Except, of course, that a great many of them would likely be parked in the graveyard.

    When Jefferson wrote that an American child was as likely as not to reach the age of 18, he was bragging.

    • When Jefferson wrote that an American child was as likely as not to reach the age of 18, he was bragging.

      Which is nearly impossible to wrap one’s brain around. We’re used to thinking of early death as a horrifying and rare tragedy, not a common occurrence.

  2. Responsibility and freedom at a young age also have to do with how people move around and how public space is designed.
    Those young Japanese kids can do errands because the shop is either at walking distance along safe sidewalks/pavements, or there is good, safe, clean and frequent public transport nearby; just as much as because the culture is used to looking out for these young kids collectively.

    In the Netherlands, kids start to learn to bike between 2 and 4 years old, but travel on their parent’s bikes or close beside them till about 8 years old: on average Dutch primary school children start traveling to school on their own at age eight and a half, walking or by bike. This means that kids get both freedom and responsibility at a much earlier age than American kids tend to. Responsibility for behaving safely in (limited) traffic at an early age – areas around primary schools and the routes kids follow are traffic calmed (i.e. all through traffic removed and speeds limited to 18 mph by physical road design) and have good sidewalks, and separated bike lanes for any streets with more than just local residential traffic. Through the experience they build up from an early age, as well as the school traffic lessons including an on-road biking exam at age 11, they are ready to bike longer distances to their secondary schools in the bigger towns at age 12 (usually anywhere from 3 to 10 miles, with outliers in rural areas of maybe 12 miles before the advent of e-bikes).
    This gives them a lot of freedom as well, from an early age: they can take their bikes to visit their friends, go to sports or music lessons, or anything else they want to do within about a 10 mile trip distance, without needing a parent to drive them and pick them up at a fixed time and place.
    Add in a good public transport system and the action radius expands a lot (at least for older teens and adults; we do not have the Japanese cultural trust in strangers to look out for our youngest children): bike to the station, train to another city, hirebike or bikeshare or bus or tram or walk to your destination… if everyone has a train or high-speed bus station within 10 miles (15 with ebikes) of their home and their destination, and there is both good, fast, frequent and reliable public transport and something as small, nimble, easy to operate and efficient as bikes* available for first and last stage, you don’t need cars except for special circumstances and transport of really large & heavy objects.
    (* and comfortable: hoverboards may look futuristic and cool, but aren’t suitable for people with balance problems or who can’t stand for long.)

    If your culture and your public space is designed around heavy, fast and dangerous private transport like the car, you will never get that kind of freedom for kids. Drivers need a lot of training and certification to make sure they don’t kill others with their vehicles, which means kids won’t be allowed to drive them. This keeps kids and teens dependent on adults until a much later age, incapable of functioning freely in public space until licensed to do so.

    The trend for the last 90 years has been to continually take away public space from other public uses and other modes of transport in favor of promoting this inefficient private car mode. This is a trend which can be reversed, as it has been in the Netherlands, and when it is you see that this reversal can greatly increase freedom of movement for groups that are limited by car centric design – not just kids but the elderly and handicapped (lots of assisted and adapted cycles, trikes, handcycles, tandems for blind people, electric mobility scooters etc. use the cycle paths here), as long as a safe network is available from door to door. This is not just good for health etc., it also is part of
    why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world.

    Something to consider when you are pondering possible extrapolations and developing a future world for your stories.

    PS: a related aspect.
    You will also run into trouble with (futuristic) urban design if you stick too closely to present trends; as cities grow denser and larger, thus needing to move more people and goods, while the space available for moving both people and goods is limited. Cars, whether present-day ones or futuristic self-driving ones, are the most space-hungry and inefficient way to move people, whether they are parked in between trips or drive around waiting for the next passenger. Flying cars can use the air space as well as the surface, but consider the already crowded airlanes at all the big airports, and the way induced demand works on how people make transport choices: people are on average willing to spend about an hour on commuting to their jobs; if the trip goes faster the distance they are willing to travel goes up. So flying cars are likely to mean either more mega highrises (density goes up) or suburbs move farther out, until congestion in the air reduces the possible speed of traffic again.

    • Those young Japanese kids can do errands because the shop is either at walking distance along safe sidewalks/pavements, or there is good, safe, clean and frequent public transport nearby; just as much as because the culture is used to looking out for these young kids collectively.

      Yes, absolutely. The difficulty of these essays is that it’s always a challenge to keep the topic bounded; as you showed, the childhood bone is connected to the public transportation bone, so to speak. (Is that a reference that translates across cultures? We have a kid’s song about “the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone,” etc.) I know that at some point I want to post about cities and how they work, but it’s an amorphous and tangled enough topic that sorting it out into manageable posts will be tough.

      • I sent my daughters to the grocery store when they were 3 and 4; short walking distance, 1 easy road to cross, shopkeepers knew them. Cycling to school alone when [8 years old OR in third grade] (because the eldest was in third grade at 7 1/2) AND had proved they could cross the main road safely.

  3. It wasn’t all that long ago that kids had responsibilities, too. I was babysitting by age nine for other people’s children, and earning a cool quarter an hour, and I used to do the family grocery shopping starting at age seven. I took the little red wagon to the store about a quarter to half mile away, signed for the groceries (including cigarettes for mom and dad–they chucked them in the bag without a second thought) and mom came in once a month and paid up.

    No one thought any of this the least bit odd.

    • There are a lot of kids still today who have those kinds of responsibilities — but I feel like societal thinking overall has changed on that front. Now a seven-year-old who does the family grocery shopping is more likely to be in a single-parent home, with that parent working three jobs to make ends meet, and everyone would cluck their tongues about the poor child having to grow up so fast.

      • Expectations have certainly changed, at least in middle-class families. Growing up in the 1990s and around the turn of the millennium, I didn’t normally do errands outside the house until mid-adolescence, but I had responsibilities inside the house ever since I was tall enough to set the table for meals. As a young child I set the table and helped my parents sort and fold the clean laundry, as an older child I was given responsibility for dust-wiping and scrubbing the bathrooms during weekly housecleaning, as a young adolescent I was responsible for washing dishes and part of meal preparation, et cetera. As a young adult, in active military service but still living in my parents’ home (…it makes sense in Israel) I was responsible for the whole family’s laundry, and this remained my responsibility until I married and we moved into our own home.

        Growing up, I thought this progression of age-appropriate responsibilities was normal. So it was something of a shock to realize (as a young adult) how many of my peers were used to having their parents do pretty much everything for them. I have no statistics here, only impressions, but I still recall clearly how shocked I felt when a soldier my own age described how he orders his mother to prepare and pack food for him.

        Now my generation are the parents of young children. How many of us are raising their children the way I was raised, and how many are raising children who don’t know the meaning of responsibility? Frankly, I’m worried.

        • I did a few chores around the house — helping to set the table or clear it after dinner; a less-than-successful arrangement where part of my allowance was supposed to be dependent on me cleaning the bathrooms — but I never really helped cook, never did the laundry, etc. It depends heavily on where you live and what your socioeconomic class is, I think, but yeah . . . it’s shocking, how little I was expected to do.

  4. I hope you are going to do something about coming of age rituals. That’s something sorely lacking in the U.S. My cousin who was deeply involved in public school administration wanted to institute a series of “promotions” each with a new set of responsibilities. Something children could look forward to and work toward. In her perfect world she envisioned public service (working at a food bank, checking on the elderly etc) as a big part of those responsibilities.

    We used to walk to school. Now they won’t let children off the school bus unless a registered responsible adult or parent is waiting for them–2 blocks from school.

    There are a lot of predators out there, but are we coddling our children too long in trying to protect them?

    • Rites of passage in general are going to get a whole post, yeah. We haven’t completely lost them in the U.S., but they’ve definitely become less important, except in certain ethnic groups (e.g. bar/bat mitzvah, quinceañera, etc).

      And yeah, the question of safety vs. coddling is a very thorny one these days.

  5. Ads to get people making kids, isn’t entirely new – the Roman Empire tried passing laws to get it done (probably with a dose of shaming the senators who didn’t have kids)…it was mostly due to the lead in their plumbing pipes, right?

  6. The boundaries of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, as they are reckoned in my fantasy setting, are actually something I’ve thought about a great deal. This gets complicated because adulthood is defined differently for different purposes. For example, at the point where I think I will start telling the story, my protagonist is twenty years old, and her story begins as she prepares to address her town’s citizen assembly – which she would normally not be allowed to vote in, much less address, until age twenty-one. At the same time, she is neither married nor betrothed, and her parents and friends are concerned that she is already becoming, in our terms, and old maid. I’m not sure how this dissonance is going to strike my readers. I’m not sure how much I want to highlight it – I don’t want to distract from the story, but I do want to show that this is a society where expectations, and norms, and values, are very different from ours.

    The concept of adolescence is not a new one in itself. The ancient Athenians, 2,500 years ago, certainly distinguished between a boy (under 18), a youth or young man (ephebos or neanias, roughly 18-21) and a full-grown man (aner, 21 and above). Most strikingly, to me, the 18-year-old ephebos was considered old enough to fight and possibly be killed in battle, but not yet old enough to sit in the Assembly and vote on whether to go to war. (Actually, I think this was also true in the United States for some time. Just when was the voting age lowered from 21 to 18?) This had nothing to do, however, with the age that men were expected to start working for a living. In the working classes, I surmise, boys started working as soon as they gained the necessary skills. Even in apprenticeship, they would have been learning while working.

    • I would say it’s not so much the concept of adolescence that’s new as what it’s taken to mean. As you say, an ephebos was 18 and could go to war, whereas we put the “not a child, not an adult” span younger and don’t give it nearly that same weight of responsibility.

      • Yes, the release of children and later of adolescents from responsibility – from more and more responsibilities, it seems, as per the discussion above – does seem like the distinguishing characteristic of childhood and adolescence vs. adulthood in the society we live in. But the point I think I was trying to make was that adolescence can have more gradations than we’re used to thinking about in our society. (I think that’s the point I was trying to make. It was pretty late last night.)

        In the society I live in now, almost all adult responsibilities and privileges seem to land on one’s eighteenth birthday – in Israel it’s voting age, age of full legal responsibility (as far as consequences for breaking the law are concerned), age of eligibility for military service, the age one is allowed to buy both alcohol and tobacco products, the age one may marry (or enter any legally binding contract) without parental consent… and that’s probably not a comprehensive list. (I’m not actually sure about the legal age of marriage. It used to be seventeen with parental consent and eighteen without, but there was talk of raising it to eighteen, regardless.) We’re so used to this binary situation, this dichotomy between “minors” and “majors”, that I think we tend to consider it the default. But I don’t think this was always the case, much less that there’s any reason it ought to be the case.

        You can still see some examples of a gradual entry into adult responsibility in my society. For example, I think the age at which one can get a driving license is 17. Age of consent for sex is 16. (I believe in some states of the US, age of consent is also 18 – yet another privilege/responsibility at the 18th birthday watershed. But then again, in some states one can’t legally buy alcohol until 21. So still a kind of gradation, although I must admit that I don’t understand why you’d trust someone with a gun, or a vote, but not a bottle of wine.)

        Thinking back on the many worlds I’ve created for part-written and unwritten stories, I actually remember multiple cases of societies with multiple-stage entry into adulthood. One society I created some years ago actually marked something like “Half Majority” at age 16 and “Full Majority” at age 20, with the idea being that half-majors already had partial civic responsibilities and powers, as well as being adults in civil and criminal law, but weren’t yet full citizens who could hold public office. The idea of “citizenship with training wheels” comes to mind. (I developed this setting when I was 14-18 years old myself. Some wishful thinking on my part? Or was that just the age at which I started learning, and thinking, about civic issues?) The society I’m working on now draws inspiration from Classical antiquity – predominantly Classical Greece, and predominantly Athens – and so they have three formally marked transitions: from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to a kind of “young adulthood”, and finally to full adulthood. This is tied into other aspects of the society. It’s a society where youth is idealized, where both the youthful body and the youthful spirit are depicted as ideals in art even while the youths (and maidens) themselves have very little, if any, power or influence – because that comes with age.

  7. It’s actually my understanding that below replacement fertility rate has been a thing repeatedly historically, as well as even replacement fertility rates; there have definitely been areas with children as common as the West in the recent past, but it’s not universal.

    In general, birth control of some kind has been accessible a lot more widely than generally acknowledged: knowledge of how to avoid intercourse, abortion, and/or variably reliable methods like menstruation-inducing herbs and silphium. There are a ton of references to chemical/herbal birth control and abortion in various sources, it’s just that historians and scientists usually assume that they didn’t work. (To be fair, there are also references to magical methods that certainly didn’t work, but in combination with evidence that people did in fact decide to not have children and then not have them, it’s a reasonable question.)

    Probably more important than specific method is desire; if people in general consider large families desirable, families tend to be larger, but the converse appears too.

    There are various examples of historical populations with declining population rate, including later Rome, the medieval world *prior* to the Black Death, certain Italian cities during the Renaissance, early modern France, etc.

    Contraception and abortion from the ancient world to the Renaissance by John M Riddle has a chapter about this. I haven’t read much of it, but the Introduction of Sexuality and social order: the debate over the fertility of women and workers in France, 1770-1920 also talks about a declining birth rate – and political backlash – in the nineteenth century. There are undoubtedly plenty more sources for specific time periods.

    On a less academic note, melannen has a blog post about using this kind of detail in writing here.

    • There’s also infanticide, which people mostly don’t like to talk about, but which definitely happened — I see that melannen’s post discusses that.

      Birth control and pregnancy and so forth are probably going to fill a whole month of posts later on.