Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Social Roles of Children: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

I had actually lost my notes for this one, but now they have been found - whew! I really enjoyed this discussion and didn't want to deprive all of you who couldn't make it. I was joined by Glenda Pfeiffer, Dale Emery, Kyle Aisteach, and Jaleh Dragich.

This topic was a follow-on from the Pregnancy and Parenthood discussion. We started with the question of child-rearing. I noted that things have changed a lot in the last couple of generations, from the "children should be seen and not heard" rule to the "latchkey child" to the "helicopter parent." In my own home, learning was prioritized over a lot of other things - our job as children was to learn. Not that we didn't do chores, of course!

Kyle said that he felt parenting swung between two ends of a continuum, from hypercontrolling to hands off, in a 3 or 4 generation cycle.

We remarked that what is considered "safe for children" varies widely within our own culture and across cultures. I personally mentioned that the MPAA movie ratings scale is grossly inadequate to determine what is appropriate for my children. Typically, they will get freaked out by far more G movies than PG movies, because the problems encountered in G movies tend to be more personal, involving personal coercion, alteration of one's own body, threats from adults to children, etc. while the PG movies generally involve more action and less threat to the self. Jaleh mentioned that in Monsters vs. Aliens her child was very upset when Susan was taken away from her friends. Kyle asked, "what makes sex worse than violence?" We agreed that glorification of violence was a big problem.

So back to child-rearing. Who is doing it? We usually think of child-rearing as being done by parents, but I'm sure most of us have seen the science-fictional scenario of children being taught by computers. Very often in our society now, we see children being raised by nannies and babysitters, or by daycare employees. Children are also raised by grandparents (as Glenda mentioned) when both parents are working, or by older siblings, or a parent-in-law (as Jaleh mentioned). In fact, in some world cultures the older siblings are the ones taking primary responsibility for child-rearing and even teaching children to speak (I read about one where parents don't speak to the youngest children until they are already able to engage verbally). Dale asked whether there were designated child-rearers in every society, and indeed there are not - some societies take joint charge of children from the very beginning without designating a particular person as child-rearer. Kyle noted that special relationships can crop up almost anywhere - an unexpected bond with a friend's child, a neighbor, a teacher, etc. As children grow and move out into social interaction (school being one big factor), peers also become a force for a child's maturation and education. Jaleh mentioned her own experience of being befriended by her 6th grade teacher after she experienced psychological bullying - the teacher let her borrow books and just hang out, and was an enormous help to her.

There is also the question of physical affection... and liability. Studies have shown that babies languish if they are not cuddled and held, but currently in our local elementary school we have rules against inter-student touching which are intended to stop unwanted poking etc. Teachers give hugs but must be very careful. I knew a case some years ago where a teacher was struggling with a rule that said not to touch students at all, because there had been recent problems of inappropriateness. It's hard to know where to draw the line here, to allow for human feeling and yet not permit possible abuses.

Dale noted that the role of caregiver is mixed, between nurturing and education. Teaching is not only educational in the academic sense, but in the social sense, including instruction in the nature of authority and instruction in the complex rules of politeness.

Kyle followed on to this by pointing out that there are phases in a child's life of acceptance vs. rebellion against authority. We talk about the terrible 2's, and everyone talks about the terrible teenage years. I would remark though that these phases depend a lot on the surrounding culture and the individuals involved. "Terrible 2's" for example is a phrase that really didn't apply to my kids... we had far more difficulty with 3's and 4's!

Children also have a special role in fiction (several, in fact). Very often, they see things that adults can't see, or say things that adults can't say. They can play the role of "fool" in the Shakespearean sense, able to engage with problems that other people shouldn't because of the rules of social politeness. The little child in "The Emperor's New Clothes" is another classic example of the reaction of a child bystander. Children can also bring conflict and danger, and be motivators for action (as in kidnapping stories). Dale quoted Virginia Satir's idea of the freedom to see and hear what is here. As we grow, we learn what to feign not to see, or what literally not to notice. A child can also serve as a confidant for an adult who wouldn't normally reveal his/her feelings.

Glenda mentioned that children can take an outsider role in storytelling. This can actually be very important for authors, since the outsider role is the role of ignorance and learning, and allows the author to take time to explain things in the narrative more naturally.

Kyle said that our society extends adolescence, having the age of adulthood come much later than in some other societies. When do you start to engage with the question of romantic relationships? And what are the ages of the two people in a romance? Juliet was 13 years old in Romeo and Juliet, and I didn't get married until age 24!

Coming of age is a prominent theme in fiction. Dale asked, "What are we 'raising' children toward?" Essentially, this is the idea of lifting children up into their culturally established adult roles. Often rituals are involved (whether official or not). One of the great things to explore in fiction is the question of what makes an adult, and what kind of qualities give an adult legitimacy. Kyle mentioned that in our culture, having your "own voice" and "independence" are very important, but they may not be so in other cultures. Dale noted that we are supposed to have our "own voice" in a culturally approved way! Fitting in and being independent are terms that can be defined differently depending on local culture.

The position of children in a family can also become political. We encounter all kinds of politics and propaganda from outside concerning the role of children, and the value of children. Children and their safety and wellbeing are invoked often in politics, often in directly opposing viewpoints. Different subcultures will try to define what the role of children should be, and how they fit into the ideal family; in fact children's roles vary as widely as families do. Then of course, there is internal family politics, as when a child is used as a pawn or a go-between in divorce. Kyle mentioned that Jay Lake had written about the position where children sit in the car and how it can be indicative of family politics .

There is also the question of who gets to speak for a child and when. Children are very often spoken for by parents - this is a form of social modelling that scaffolds children into appropriate social interaction, but it also can be restrictive and cause resentment. When you are a child, people are inclined to talk about you as though you were not there, even though you are. Shopkeepers and other adults can assume that you will be unable to carry out the required social moves for appropriate interaction, and be rude as a result. Kyle mentioned a situation in which a family member hovered over him until he proved he could handle a situation well on his own... after which the hovering stopped. Dale mentioned salespeople putting children in front of them. Children can be used as shields, or as an invitation to talk. They can be used to give an opening for a pickup line, as Kyle mentioned. Because children are in the process of being initiated into a cultural set of rules, they can be permitted to break those rules themselves, and they can also be used by adults as a reason to cross social barriers they ordinarily wouldn't.

Thanks so much to the folks who came out for this discussion. I look forward to speaking with you again soon.


  1. How very insightful - I hate/love how you do that. If I can add my 2 cents: I think the moment you "become an adult" is when the damned lightbulb goes on that you're now thinking like your parents. All of a sudden all the warnings and unwanted advice and hovering and restrictions and "because I said so" make perfect sense.

    I don't have kids of my own yet, but I see this my nephews and niece. The 2 year old was scared by The Tale of Despereaux and he's adorably innocent, the 4 year old is scared by Batman and asks "why?" all the time even though I swear he doesn't even care what your answer is, the 9 year old (niece) loves building fairy houses in the yard with me, and the 11 year old and I had a lengthy conversation about dragons and Skyrim.

    Kids are sponges (so watch your mouth, and watch what they watch). They just want to be listened to, engaged with, paid attention to. We want them to grow up and then complain about how quickly they do. Let them be kids! Let them chatter and dance and get filthy and get scared and get into fights and make their own mistakes. If we protect them forever they will NEVER grow up.

    1. Thanks, Realmwright! I do owe a lot to my co-discussants, who really open up the topic into new directions. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, and maybe you can join us sometime when the hangouts resume.

    2. I don't precisely know what that means, but sure, I'm game for "wasting time online"....especially when I ought to be working :)

  2. Sounds like a fascinating discussion. And for we pre-artificial-womb humans, an extremely important topic!

    A great book on modern adolescence is Thomas Hine's "The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager."
    He says, in most traditional cultures, kids went straight ito being adults. Even in the USA, 150 yeras ago, boys of 12 or 13 might join the military, or get a factory job, or head west as a pioneer.

    It was mandatory High School attendance (with a draft exemption), coupled with the growth in disposable income (for the kids especially), that created a burgeoning Youth Culture, which has spread to nearly all the world.