New Worlds: Childhood Education

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

From the moment we’re born, we begin learning.

When we speak of “education,” we usually mean formalized instruction, but in fact our education begins long before that. Compared to other animals, we’re born incredibly helpless, with very little wired into us as instinct and even less capacity to perform basic tasks. But one of our superpowers as a species is our ability to learn, and from our every earliest moments, we begin doing just that. (I recall a study which showed that when babies have their most vacant expressions on, their neurons are lighting up like a fireworks show: it’s as if they can’t spare any attention for their faces, because all their processing power is working overtime to understand what they’re seeing and hearing.)

Our very earliest education is very much “monkey see, monkey do,” because one thing we are wired for is imitation. Adults make noises with their mouths at each other; babies start doing the same thing. Adults walk on two legs; it takes some practice for a child to get there, but eventually they manage it — though children lost or abandoned to the company of animals often go on all fours instead. Back when we discussed toys in Year Three, we talked about toy versions of adult tools, with which children practice play versions of everything from cooking to child-rearing to warfare.

Not everything can be learned purely through imitation, though — or at least, not very efficiently. Some amount of active instruction is often required. Adults spend a lot of time correcting their children’s imitations, explaining that the child used the wrong word or improper grammar. In a pre-industrial society, where all textiles have to be made by hand, somebody puts a spindle into a little girl’s hand and teaches her the basics of spinning, critiquing her early efforts until she’s able to produce thread of acceptable quality.

In fact, many of the jobs and daily tasks of pre-modern society get learned through that kind of ad hoc instruction. These days it’s fairly common for farmers to have college degrees in agricultural science, because our food production has become remarkably complex, but in the past? You learned how to farm by going out into the fields with everyone else, first performing the simplest tasks like weeding (after being taught to distinguish weeds from crops), then graduating to more complex challenges like guiding a plow or wielding a scythe. The wisdom of a farmer, knowing when to plant or how to recognize the signs of blight, came drop by drop through years of conversations with older and more experienced individuals.

This approach hasn’t entirely died out in modern times. Although there are parenting classes and endless books and videos on how to care for a newborn or a toddler or a school-age kid, much of child-rearing is still learned through watching other people do it, through assisting as an older child or a babysitter, and so forth. The same is often true of basic cooking — though if you’re me, you manage to miss out on that until you’re in graduate school and have no idea how to feed yourself other than by sticking a frozen meal in the microwave. And amusingly, I realized while writing the above bit about farmers that while archaeology is very much a discipline one studies in college, the work of excavation is still something you learn through hands-on experience and correction, beginning with the simplest tasks. But we place a much heavier emphasis now on lecture, reading, and demonstration videos, before we attempt any task ourselves.

So much for learning the things we identify as skills. There’s another aspect here, though, which is much less immediately visible. We don’t just teach kids how to do things, we teach them how to be.

After all, we are profoundly, inescapably social creatures. That means we’ve built up complex structures around how to relate to each other, and in turn, we each have to learn to be someone who can be related to. This permeates our lives and our identities, on fronts ranging from etiquette to gender to self-control.

Gender is a fairly obvious one because it’s become a very contentious topic in recent years. How important is it to teach children the proper way to be boys and girls? Sedentary, stratified societies tend to put more effort into creating and teaching gender roles than mobile hunter-gatherer ones do, though even within the former, there’s a wide range of variation. The Victorians would have been disturbed by the twentieth-century insistence on visibly gender-coding even newborn infants, because to their way of thinking, gender was bound up with sexuality, and so advertising the former meant drawing attention to the latter. But once their offspring got old enough to graduate from the genderless clothing of infancy, adults began aggressively teaching children how to be girls and boys, in everything from the toys they played with to the way they talked.

And to the way they related to their own emotions — because that’s very much a culturally-shaped thing. This piece from NPR discusses traditional Inuit child-rearing techniques, which aim to produce a society in which people don’t express their anger through shouting or violence. Contrast that with the number of Western societies where it’s been considered normal or even admirable for people to make displays of their anger . . . at least, for male people to do so, while their female counterparts are supposed to act like anger isn’t even in their emotional vocabulary.

There’s no faster way to see how many subtle habits and assumptions get trained into us in childhood than to put together people who were raised in very different cultures and see where they conflict. How close should you stand to other people? How loudly should you talk? Is asking directly for something good, clear communication, or is it pushy and intrusive? Children watch how we behave and learn from it, and our praise or chastisement reinforces those ideals. Unlearning those habits in adulthood can be incredibly difficult, because something deep in the mind says but you’re doing it wrong. This is why people who grow up in abusive households are at high risk of perpetuating those behaviors in their own families when they grow up: that’s what they learned, and even if they consciously know it’s a problem, the mental model is still there.

As Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical Into the Woods, “children will listen.” We adults are teaching them, all the time, whether we realize it or not.

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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 Education — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Childhood Education - Swan Tower

  2. Things cross-connect, you learn tool sharpening, in cooking, carpentry,and agriculture. ( And Expectations of tool maintenance, and general tidyness)

    Anatomy while preparing food.
    ( And the importance of hand washing)

  3. So much learning can’t really be done on purpose because it’s not ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ but ‘you get a village’– the parents aren’t the only people teaching, and it’s hard to get everyone on the same page. And then the rules change! And it sucks!

    Now I just want to list off things I learned as a kid, taught intentionally or not, and things I see the baby learning, intentionally or not. And Covid is changing things– I really do want to know if we’ll have a cohort of people who are vaguely weirded out by mouths the same way a lot of people in my age group were weirded out by feet.