Cultures and Children

We don’t often think about children in speculative fiction or our games—at least, not once we stop reading entirely in the children’s section. They might be incidental characters, might possibly serve in a MacGuffin role, but they’re not likely to be the protagonist. As such, it’s easy for us to forget about them in a world-building situation, and thus to forget how much a culture can be characterized by its kids. Here, then are some questions to ask yourself about the role that children play in any of your invented cultures.

How are they viewed differently from adults? You might have one culture that considers children helpless/vulnerable/innocent, one that expects them to have a different spiritual outlook from adults, one that just considers them as miniature adults without the heavy lifting or the reproductive capabilities… yet.

How are they valued? Some cultures consider children to be treasures; some just see them as hindrances. Since family priorities tangle things up, one thing to consider asking is what value the average would put on a given child who wasn’t his or hers.

What do they do? “Grow and play” is almost never the only thing expected of children. There’s also the training necessary to be productive adults. In many places, they’ll be needed to do some of the work, and what differs mostly is what sort of work, exactly. Light work on the fields? Housework? Taking care of younger siblings? Work that requires small hands or the ability to fit through small spaces? Less advanced versions of things their parents are doing?

How are they expected to treat their elders? How much does it vary depending on whether that elder is related to them? What about how much older that elder actually is?

Are they seen as needing protection from anything? If so, what? Are the dangers to them moral? Physical? Magical? What priority is the protection of children compared to the protection of adults? (Particularly in the case of the dangers that apply to both.)

How do they stop being children and reach adulthood? Is it a matter of reaching puberty? Of hitting a particular age? A rite of passage they need to perform? Something else entirely? Is there an in between stage, like what we consider teens to be, or does one go straight from childhood to adulthood with nothing in between?

2 comments

  1. Ed Healy says:

    Great article. One of the things I liked most about living in Eastern Europe was the chance to see various traditions that we don’t have in the US. Bulgaria has a really neat tradition when a child starts walking called a Prestapulka. I’m sure other cultures have ‘coming of age’ traditions, etc. Thanks for the reminder to keep the kids in mind…

  2. UZ says:

    :) I write more about adult children than actual children, I’m going back to an earlier age now in some works and it’s difficult.

    Kids are complicated; a lot of people write them as little geniuses for narrative impact but this is generally wrong. From my observation there are distinct stages that are worth looking at:

    Infant (<3 months) – need constant care – new parents do not sleep for this entire period and are only barely in touch with reality, so be kind to them. In traditional Chinese culture people outside the immediate family are not allowed to see the baby – or the mother – for the first 100 days, at which point the kid is named.

    Baby (3-18 months) – Adorable. I think humans are genetically disposed to start having another kid during this time, so babies are very agreeable at this age. Also, engineering starts very early, kids who can barely sit up will still try to build things. Nearly every baby I've ever seen tries to "combine" dissimilar objects by putting one on top of the other and hitting them.

    Toddler (18 months – 4 years) – Adorable / freaking annoying :) Some animals, like monkeys and parrots, are just smart enough to have a rudimentary sense of humor and cause all kinds of trouble. All kids are destined to pass through this level of intelligence on their way to being brilliant; it is both annoying and adorable. Funniest is around 2 years, where they are actually trying to annoy you but they don't really know how yet. Many kids show occasional flashes of brilliance at this age.

    The Doubtful Years (4-7 years) – The Lacedaemonians did not bother to send their boys to Stick-Hitting School until the age of 7; this period is difficult because a kid at this age seems conversational and intelligent but still often struggles with the most basic tasks and loses focus very fast.

    Getting Schooled (7-10 years) – most of the teachers I've spoken to believe that there is a major intellectual cutoff at 10 years where a person develops the ability to negotiate and come to terms with complex ideas. Most kids grow steadily in size during this time. I've heard that traumatic events affect kids of this age worse than younger or older ones but I'm not sure about this.

    Puberty (for girls! 10-14) – puberty generally starts wahay earlier for girls than for boys, you can usually tell because during this age range a girl is about a foot taller than a boy of the same age. I have no experience with the actual process so I can only speculate there. Between puberty and the age of majority most kids are considered to be a risk in a way that they weren't when they were younger, this goes for both genders.

    Puberty (for boys! 14-16) – puberty doesn't really hit for a lot of boys until high school age, although there is always that special case kid who grows a mustache in grade 6. It's a long, painfully slow process when it's happening to you. Not to be confused with "maturing physically", which takes a lot longer, boys continue to change for years afterward. Also comes with a lot of urges that nobody wants to talk to you about, I assume this is the same for girls.

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