Children's Work and Apprenticeship David F. Lancy Introduction

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Children's Work and Apprenticeship

David F. Lancy


Children appear to be predisposed to learn the skills of their elders, perhaps from a drive to become competent or from the need to be accepted or to fit in, or a combination of these. And elders, in turn, value children and expect them to strive to become useful—often at an early age. The earliest tasks are commonly referred to as chores. David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings (Lancy 2008, cited under Surveys), in surveying the relevant literature, advances the notion of a chore “curriculum.” The author notes that the tasks that children undertake are often graduated in difficulty and complexity. These built-in levels, or steps, create a kind of curriculum that children can progress through, matching their growing physical and cognitive competence to ever more demanding subtasks. The anthropological literature on children’s work is both extensive and elusive. That is because, with the exception of Spittler’s Hirtenarbeit: Die Welt der Kamelhirten und Ziegenhirtinnen von Timia (Spittler 1998, cited under Animal Husbandry), there is not a single volume devoted exclusively to the subject and relatively few articles or chapters with work as the sole focus. In contrast, every ethnography of childhood and the family, as well as studies of subsistence systems, devotes some attention to the contributions of children and their “education” to the survival skills inherent to the culture. The same cannot be said for published material on the history of childhood, which, as yet, pays little attention to work. A distinction must be made between the chores assigned to children in the household and village and “child labor.” See the Oxford Bibliographies Online article Child Labor for more information on that subject.


There is no single comprehensive survey of children’s work and apprenticeship. Lancy 2008 is an overview of the anthropology of childhood and includes a chapter on the subject of work and apprenticeship. Lancy 2010 discusses the processes involved in children’s learning work skills. Zeller 1987 offers a brief survey of children’s work in thirteen societies.

  • Lancy, David F. “His First Goat.” In The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. By David F. Lancy, 234–271. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

This chapter synthesizes much of the ethnographic literature available. The book’s website includes additional bibliographic entries.

  • Lancy, David F. “Learning ‘From Nobody’: The Limited Role of Teaching in Folk Models of Children’s Development.” Childhood in the Past 3.1 (2010): 79–106.

The focus of this article is on the processes involved in children’s learning the skills for survival.

  • Zeller, A. C. “A Role for Women in Hominid Evolution.” Man 22.3 (1987): 528–557.

Cursory survey of children’s work in thirteen societies.

Parental Attitudes

Almost universally, adults expect children to assist in the household and domestic economy at the earliest possible age. In most cases, parental expectations and children’s aspirations coincide. Children attend to the tasks that need doing and practice to improve efficiency. In some cases, children are rewarded for accepting the responsibility of mastering routine chores; more frequently, they are chastised or punished for laxity. Parents also expect children to learn either on their own or with the help of older siblings. Harkness, et al. 2010 initiated the systematic study of parental views. Studies in Mexico, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, Oceania, and the Arctic (Sánchez 2007, Whittemore 1989, Weisner 1989, Evans-Pritchard 1956, Goldschmidt 1976, Barlow 2001, Howard 1970, Guemple 1979) provide a diverse sample of such theories in action.

  • Barlow, Kathleen. “Working Mothers and the Work of Culture in a Papua New Guinea Society.” Ethos 29.1 (2001): 78–107.

In contrast to Goldschmidt 1976, the people of the Murik Lakes emphasize the use of rewards and praise to encourage children to be diligent. Two areas are singled out for discussion: gathering freshwater clams and gardening.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.

Evans-Pritchard’s classic ethnography pays a great deal of attention to childhood. The Nuer do not acknowledge a child until the child is at least six years old, because “when he tethers the cattle and herds the goats . . . when he cleans the byres and spreads the dung to dry and collects it and carries it to the fire,” that child is considered a person (p. 146).

  • Goldschmidt, Walter. Culture and Behavior of the Sebei: A Study in Continuity and Adaptation. Contribution to the Studies in Culture and Ecology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

In the context of a more general ethnography, the author examines family life. Mothers are concerned that their daughters “learn proper housekeeping so that their husbands will not beat them for neglecting their duties, and so it will not be said that they failed to learn proper behavior from their mother” (p. 259).

  • Guemple, D. Lee. “Inuit Socialization: A Study of Children as Social Actors in an Eskimo Community.” In Childhood and Adolescence in Canada. Edited by K. Ishwaran, 39–51. Interdisciplinary Studies in Family and Marriage. Toronto and New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979.

Inuit children learn their culture—subsistence skills, particularly—without instruction by an adult. There “is remarkably little meddling by older people in this learning process. Parents do not presume to teach their children what they can as easily learn on their own” (p. 50).

  • Harkness, Sara, Charles M. Super, Moisés Ríos Bermúdez, et al. “Parental Ethnotheories of Children’s Learning.” In The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood. Edited by David F. Lancy, John Bock, and Suzanne Gaskins, 65–81. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2010.

Harkness and Super initiated the study of parental ethnotheories and have, along with colleagues, made substantial contributions to the literature. The Kipsigis of western Kenya characterize an intelligent child (ng’om) as respectful, polite, and responsible; “a girl who is ng’om . . . sweeps the house because she knows it should be done. Then she washes dishes, looks for vegetables in the garden, and takes good care of the baby” (p. 67).

  • Howard, Alan. Learning to Be Rotuman: Enculturation in the South Pacific. Anthropology and Education Series. New York: Teachers College Press, 1970.

Commenting on the parent as teacher, the author asserts: “In contrast to American parents, who seem to feel that knowledge is something like medicine—it’s good for the child and must be crammed down his throat even if he does not like it—Rotuman parents acted as if learning were inevitable because the child wants to learn” (p. 37).

  • Sánchez, Martha Areli Ramírez. “‘Helping at Home’: The Concept of Childhood and Work among the Nahuas of Tlaxcala, Mexico.” In Working to Be Someone: Child Focused Research and Practice with Working Children. Edited by Beatrice Hungerland, Manfred Liebel, Brian Milne, and Anne Wihstutz, 87–95. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, 2007.

Study closely parallel with Harkness, et al. 2010, among an Indian population in Mexico. In the village, all children (from the age of three) contribute to the family through work: “Work is something that is shared, that unites people and is dignifying” (p. 91).

  • Weisner, Thomas S. “Cultural and Universal Aspects of Social Support for Children: Evidence from the Abaluyia of Kenya.” In Children’s Social Networks and Social Supports. Edited by Deborah Belle, 70–90. Wiley Series on Personality Processes. New York: Wiley, 1989.

Weisner makes a widely applicable observation that, if children want someone older to pay attention and offer assistance, this is most likely to occur as they attempt to carry out a chore or assist in the fields (p. 176).

  • Whittemore, Robert Dunster. “Child Caregiving and Socialization to the Mandinka Way: Toward an Ethnography of Childhood.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1989.

This is a very important study of infancy and early childhood that includes work as a matter of course: “As a young girl explains matter-of-factly, ‘you must (work) for your elders. They will bless you.’ Implicit in her statement is the acknowledgement of elders’ authority over her. . . . She, in turn, exercises such authority . . . over children younger than she” (pp. 173–174).

Historical Perspectives

The historical literature can be divided into two epochs: before c. 1950 (Shahar 1990, Mitteraurer and Sieder 1984, Heywood 2001, Lassonde 2005) and after c. 1950 (Ochs and Izquierdo 2009, Bowes and Goodnow 1996, Rheingold 1982, Wihstutz 2007). In the earlier period, parental views closely paralleled the ethnotheories described in anthropology: children are expected to help out by doing chores from an early age. More recently, we see a role reversal, in which children are no longer expected to assist with household maintenance or the domestic economy, and children’s chores are now undertaken by parents or hired help.

  • Bowes, Jennifer M., and Jacqueline J. Goodnow. “Work for Home, School, or Labor Force: The Nature and Sources of Changes in Understanding.” Psychological Bulletin 119.2 (1996): 300–321.

In the modern middle/upper class, children no longer work. When queried, children treat “the term work as having one meaning only: waged work outside the home. Work is something that one ‘goes to’ and that is done in exchange for money” (p. 302).

  • Heywood, Colin. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA: Polity, 2001.

“As late as the nineteenth century, the majority of children . . . were  . . . to begin supporting themselves at an early . . . age[;] 7 was an informal turning point when children were generally expected to start helping . . . with the little tasks around the home, the farm or workshop” (p. 37).

  • Lassonde, Stephen. Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working Class, 1870–1940. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

One study, among many, that documents the resistance to universal schooling, on the basis that children are lost to their parents as workers or wage earners.

  • Mitterauer, Michael, and Reinhard Sieder. The European Family: Patriarchy to Partnership from the Middle Ages to the Present. Translated by Karla Oosterveen and Manfred Hörzinger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

One carries away the message that, among peasants, the parent–child relationship was analogous to employer–employee. Emotional ties were weak, and the child’s obligation to obey and assist the parent was stronger than the parent’s obligation to nurture and bring up the child (p. 100).

  • Ochs, Elinor, and Carolina Izquierdo. “Responsibility in Childhood: Three Developmental Trajectories.” Ethos 37.4 (2009): 391–413.

In dramatic contrast to the ethos of the village, this study describes chore assignments in middle-class American families. Here, parents struggle to get children to take responsibility for their own self-care, let alone care for the family and household. A common scenario shows the parent serving the child, valet-like or pleading with the child to cooperate in the completion of a chore.

Rheingold, Harriet L. “Little Children’s Participation in the Work of Adults, a Nascent Prosocial Behavior.” Child Development 53.1 (1982): 114–125.

A laboratory study done in the United States that demonstrates the willingness and capability of children as young as eighteen months to help out and take on chores. Parents acknowledged, however, that they do not permit their young children to become involved in household maintenance.

  • Shahar, Shulamith. Childhood in the Middle Ages. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Peasant children observe parents at work and help by running errands, tending animals, and harvesting food from a young age: “They acquired their various skills in the course of work beside adults and under their guidance” (p. 243).

  • Wihstutz, Anne. “The Significance of Care and Domestic Work to Children: A German Portrayal.” In Working to Be Someone: Child Focused Research and Practice with Working Children. Edited by Beatrice Hungerland, Manfred Liebel, Brian Milne, and Anne Wihstutz, 77–86. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, 2007.

Study of families in Germany. Middle-class German parents do not expect children to do household work, and the children do not volunteer. Contrast immigrant families: “With us Africans it is tradition that you help doing the shopping and the household chores. It means showing respect to your parents” (p. 82).

Running Errands and Marketing

Often the very first chore assigned to children is to send them on errands. Delivering messages and presents (and bringing back gossip!) segues easily into marketing. The “errand” curriculum incorporates many “grades,” from carrying messages (at age five); to fetching firewood and water; to marketing produce, hard bargaining, and making change for customers (by age eleven). Boys, whose virtue is less vulnerable, may be preferred over girls for many errands and as market stall operators. The articles highlighted provide a representative sample of cases in which children’s errand running/marketing is described in detail. Locations cover Guatemala, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Venezuela, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, and Mexico (Nerlove, et al. 1974; Lancy 1996; Gottlieb 2000; Wenger 1989; Ruddle and Chesterfield 1977; Raum 1997; Clark 1994; Schildkrout 2008; Paradise and Rogoff 2009).

  • Clark, Gracia. Onions Are My Husband: Survival and Accumulation by West African Market Women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Children are not always merely pawns of those older; they may themselves “initiate . . . errand-running relationships in order to establish relationships with neighbors, more distant kin, or influential adults such as schoolteachers that may prove beneficial” (p. 367).

  • Gottlieb, Alma. “Luring Your Child into This Life: A Beng Path for Infant Care.” In A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies. Edited by Judy S. DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb, 55–90. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The Beng make the point that it is best to establish the child’s subservient status early: “Remember that in our language, one word for ‘child’ really means ‘little slave.’ As soon as the little one can walk confidently, don’t hesitate to send your child on errands in your . . . neighborhood” (p. 87).

  • Lancy, David F. “Children’s Work.” In Playing on the Mother-Ground: Cultural Routines for Children’s Development. By David F. Lancy, 144–162. Culture and Human Development. New York: Guilford, 1996.

This chapter describes children’s work in a Kpelle village, with particular attention to errand running. Children are favored as mobile messengers and traders because adolescents or adults seen in close proximity to neighbors’ houses might be suspected of adultery, theft, or witchcraft.

  • Nerlove, Sarah B., John M. Roberts, Robert E. Klein, Charles Yarbrough, and Jean-Pierre Habicht. “Natural Indicators of Cognitive Development: An Observational Study of Rural Guatemalan Children.” Ethos 2.3 (1974): 265–295.

A good example of the curricular nature of chores.

  • Paradise, Ruth, and Barbara Rogoff. “Side by Side: Learning by Observing and Pitching In.” Ethos 37.1 (2009): 102–138.

Detailed description of a girl emulating her mother’s behavior and learning the skills needed to market produce.

  • Raum, Otto F. Chaga Childhood: A Description of Indigenous Education in an East African Tribe. Classics in African Anthropology. Hamburg, Germany: Lit, 1997.

Parents can be quite strategic in sending children to deliver food and presents to potential caretakers: “Children . . . take . . . cooked food to their grandparents. . . . One sees little troops of children carrying pots and moving hither and thither throughout the country. They are taking supplies to their relatives” (p. 197). Originally published in 1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  • Ruddle, Kenneth, and Ray Chesterfield. Education for Traditional Food Procurement in the Orinoco Delta. Ibero-Americana 53. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

An illustrative case from South America: “Between eighteen and thirty months of age, depending on its physical ability, the child begins to act independently as a messenger. . . . Seven - or eight-year-olds fetch water in the morning, enough for the whole day. Each afternoon they must collect one day’s supply of firewood” (p. 31).

Schildkrout, Enid. “Children’s Roles: The Young Traders of Northern Nigeria.” In Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. 13th ed. Edited by James P. Spradley and David W. McCurdy, 221–228. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2008.

Because of restrictions on women appearing in public, children act as agents for their mothers in running errands and conducting marketing transactions.

  • Wenger, Martha. “Work, Play, and Social Relationships among Children in a Giriama Community.” In Children’s Social Networks and Social Supports. Edited by Deborah Belle, 91–115. Wiley Series on Personality Processes. New York: Wiley, 1989.

An ethnographic study of children’s work, with an emphasis on the early years. Giriama mothers acknowledge that assigning chores, especially errands, conditions children to become good workers: “A mother who does not expect her children to help is remiss, even neglectful” (p. 93).

Child Care

Anthropologists had consistently observed that much of the care of the very young is in the hands of somewhat older siblings, but Weisner and Gallimore 1977 brought this truth to a broader audience. “Sib-care” has become an important part of the anthropology of childhood. Representative descriptions of sib-care are provided from Sulawesi, Mexico, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, the Marquesas, Afghanistan, Central Africa, and Burkina Faso (Broch 1990; Maynard and Tovote 2010; Harkness and Super 1991; Sorenson 1976; Martini and Kirkpatrick 1981; Casimir 2010; Ivey Henry, et al. 2005; Riesman 1992).

In this excellent ethnography of childhood, Broch makes an observation that is frequently echoed in the literature: “Bonerate children have little need or desire to play with dolls or to play mother, father, and child because they are integrated into many daily household chores including looking after babies and toddlers” (p. 110).

  • Casimir, Michael J. Growing Up in a Pastoral Society: Socialisation among Pashtu Nomads in Western Afghanistan. Kölner ethnologische Beiträge 33. Cologne: Druck & Bindung, 2010.

Discusses the importance of sib-care in pastoralist society.

  • Harkness, Sara, and Charles M. Super. “East Africa.” In Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective: An International Handbook and Research Guide. Edited by Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, 217–239. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

Among the Kipsigis of Kenya: “Child nurses are expected not only to carry the baby around, but also to play with it, sing lullabies to it, feed it porridge if the mother is unavailable, and help the baby in learning to talk and walk” (p. 227).

  • Ivey Henry, Paula, Gilda A. Morelli, and Edward Z. Tronick. “Child Caretakers among Efe Foragers of the Ituri Forest.” In Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods: Evolutionary, Developmental, and Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Barry S. Hewlett and Michael E. Lamb, 191–213. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction, 2005.

Sib-care in a forest-foraging society (p. 200).

  • Martini, Mary, and John Kirkpatrick. “Early Interaction in the Marquesas Islands.” In Culture and Early Interactions. Edited by Tiffany M. Field, Anita M. Sostek, Peter Vietze, and P. Herbert Leiderman, 189–213. Child Psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1981.

The primary focus of the study is on sib-care and the role of the play-group in the lives of young Marquesans. Because Marquesan playgroups range further afield, unlike the Maya, the wishes and moods of young charges may be ignored.

  • Maynard, Ashley E., and Katrin E. Tovote. “Learning from Other Children.” In The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood. Edited by David F. Lancy, John Bock, and Suzanne Gaskins, 181–205. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2010.

Survey of children being cared for and learning from older siblings.

  • Riesman, Paul. First Find Yourself a Good Mother: The Construction of Self in Two African Communities. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

In this study of child care, the author notes the importance of sib-care by girls as training for motherhood (p. 111).

  • Sorenson, E. Richard. The Edge of the Forest: Land, Childhood, and Change in a New Guinea Protoagricultural Society. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1976.

This is a very thorough study of childhood in the Eastern Highlands and one of the few detailed descriptions of sib-care (pp. 180, 187).

  • Weisner, Thomas S., and Ronald Gallimore. “My Brother’s Keeper: Child and Sibling Caretaking.” Current Anthropology 18.2 (1977): 169–190.

Landmark study highlighting the importance of sib-care..


Foraging is a form of subsistence in which the community depends on wild resources, including trapped, fished, or hunted meat; edible and medicinal plants; and plant material, for shelter and clothing. In one of the earliest and most thorough studies of (Ju’Hoansi) foraging (hunting and gathering), the physical and intellectual challenges of successful foraging kept children at home in camp until they were into their teen years (Hames and Draper 2004). This first section focuses on children gathering plant material among the Hadza in Tanzania (Blurton- Jones, et al. 1997; Marlowe 2010), several groups in Botswana (Bock 2002), the Maya in Belize (Zarger and Stepp 2004), and the Bakkarwal of India (Rao 2006).

  • Blurton-Jones, Nicholas G., Kirsten Hawkes, and James F. O’Connell. “Why Do Hadza Children Forage?” In Uniting Psychology and Biology: Integrative Perspectives on Human Development. Edited by Nancy L. Segal, Glenn E. Weisfeld, and Carol C. Weisfeld, 279–313. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1997.

In contrast to the Ju’Hoansi, Hadza children are able to acquire calories from gathering (baobab fruit) and hunting (small game) from as young as four.

  • Bock, John. “Learning, Life History, and Productivity: Children’s Lives in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.” Human Nature 13.2 (2002): 161–197.

Bock has done several quantitative studies to assess the productivity of children in differing subsistence systems.

  • Hames, Raymond, and Patricia Draper. “Women’s Work, Child Care, and Helpers-at-the-Nest in a Hunter-Gatherer Society.” Human Nature 15.4 (2004): 319–341.

Surveys literature showing that, in some foraging societies, children contribute little to subsistence (pp. 325, 334).

  • Marlowe, Frank W. The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. Origins of Human Behavior and Culture 3. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Although this work is quite broad, Marlowe’s particular interest is childhood and foraging skills. The Hadza are noteworthy, especially among foragers, for the early onset of self-provisioning through foraging (pp. 153–158).

  • Rao, Aparna. “The Acquisition of Manners, Morals and Knowledge: Growing into and out of Bakkarwal Society.” In The Education of Nomadic Peoples: Current Issues, Future Prospects. Edited by Caroline Dyer, 53–76. New York: Berghahn, 2006.

Discussion of children’s acquiring ethnobotanical knowledge (p. 58).

  • Zarger, Rebecca K., and John R. Stepp. “Persistence of Botanical Knowledge among Tzeltal Maya Children.” Current Anthropology 45.3 (2004): 413–418.

Reviews several studies demonstrating Mayan children’s “precocity” in learning salient aspects of ethnobotany. That is, without instruction or even much encouragement by adults, children, foraging in groups, effectively identify and gather a range of useful plants.

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