Getting Noticed: Middle Childhood in Cross-Cultural Perspective

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Lancy, David F. and Grove, M. Annette (Utah State University)

“Getting Noticed: Middle Childhood in Cross-Cultural Perspective”

Human Nature (in press, est. December, 2009)

Although rarely named, the majority of societies in the ethnographic record demarcate a period between early childhood and adolescence. Prominent signs of demarcation are: for the first time, pronounced gender separation in fact and in role definition; increased freedom of movement for boys while girls may be bound more tightly to their mothers; and heightened expectations for socially responsible behavior. But, above all, middle childhood is about coming out of the shadows of community life and assuming a distinct, lifetime character. Naming and other rites of passage sometimes acknowledge this transition, but it is, reliably, marked by the assumption or assignment of specific chores or duties. Because the physiological changes at puberty are so much more dramatic, the transition from middle childhood is more often marked by a rite of passage than the entrance into this period. There is also an acknowledgement at the exit from middle childhood, of near–adult levels of competence—as a herdsman or hunter or as gardener or infant-caretaker.

In Jean Piaget’s influential theory of human cognitive development, the period from 5 to 7 years is marked by a major transition from pre-operational to concrete operational thinking (Piaget 1963). From a historical standpoint there is a great deal of evidence that this age range also marked a major transition in children’s social standing, in particular that a 7 year-old could be held legally and morally accountable for his/her actions (White 1991: 13).
Anthropologists have been involved in the analysis and examination of Piaget’s theory through the use of Piagetian measures with children never exposed to western institutions such as schooling (Lancy 1983) and by searching through the ethnographic archive for evidence of a socially marked transition during this period. Unlike the transition to adolescence, associated with the evident biological markers of menarche and puberty, and often accompanied by an initiation or rite of passage, the transition to middle childhood is associated with neither biological nor community-wide events. However, in a landmark study, Rogoff and colleagues (1975) probed a sample of 50 societies available in the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) and found widespread evidence of a transition in children’s lives. Markers included: the assignment of chores and acknowledgement of the child’s sense of responsibility; awareness of gender differences and segregation by sex and; the emergence of rule-governed play. In a follow-up essay, Rogoff noted the need to expand the transition period under consideration finding societies where children were assigned chores at 3 (Watson-Gegeo and Gegeo 2001: 3-5) while in others, such as San foragers, children remain dependent and subordinate well beyond 7 years (Rogoff 1996: 276-7).
Further impetus to study middle childhood as an important stage in children’s development arises from advances in our understanding of biological development. In the brain, cortical maturation is now seen to begin around the age of 6 (Gogtay et al. 2004). The loss of juvenile teeth and the onset of adrenarche (increase in the adrenal production of the neurosteroid DHEAS) at about the same age suggest important somatic changes as well (see Campbell this volume). The end of this period is also reliably signaled by the onset of puberty.
In this article we revisit the ethnographic record to flesh out a more complete picture of the cultural processes that complement the now well-documented biological events. In addition to the cases examined by Rogoff et al. (1975), we include ethnographic material from the ensuing 30+ years. However, we have also elected to examine a wider age range in order to elucidate more fully the characteristics of this particular stage. This survey grew out of a comprehensive review of the ethnographic record pertaining to childhood (Lancy 2008). Hence, we fairly rapidly detected a theme in this material, namely that middle childhood was all about children “getting noticed.”
Not Getting Noticed
To appreciate why the idea of parents’ paying/not-paying attention to their children seemed salient from our literature review, we reproduce several telling observations:

  • Lepcha childhood is…a time of obscurity, of being unimportant; children are not taken much notice of and their tastes are little consulted [Gorer 1967: 314].

  • ‘In the Middle Ages, children were generally ignored until they were no longer children’ [Crawford 1999: 168].

Obviously, one cannot completely ignore one’s children or they’ll starve but note the distinction made in these two cases that we find quite representative. Gusii [Kenyan farmers] mothers respond promptly to their infant’s distress signals but largely ignore other kinds of communication (i.e., babbling). Nor do mothers look at or speak “…to their infants and toddlers, even when they were holding and breast-feeding them…”(LeVine 2004: 154,156). Bonerate [Sulewesi maritime traders] mothers are quick to nurse and calm a fussy baby, but “…do not establish eye contact with their nursing babies [who] are nursed quickly, without overt emotional expression either from the mother of from the child” (Broch 1990: 31).

We build our argument regarding middle childhood as a transition from children being largely ignored to a period when they are much more on adult radar by starting with infancy.
Invisible Babies
Our survey yielded a portrait of infancy that suggests babies should be, effectively, invisible. This invisibility is achieved through various means. First, post-partum seclusion is fairly common and cases can be found in every region of the world. In the rural agrarian community of Gapun in Papua New Guinea, mothers are isolated in a birthing house for 6 months (Kulick 1992: 94). New Yuqui [forest forager] mothers and infants are isolated in the forest and visitation is restricted because they believe that the baby is dangerous to members of the community until it can hold up its head. The mother is the only person protected from the infant’s mana (Stearman 1989: 89). Aside from protecting the baby from infectious diseases, keeping it inconspicuous and out of sight is often necessary to protect it against the magic and machinations of jealous and vengeful neighbors (Johnson 2000: 187).
Second, the infant will inevitably be tightly confined for months. In fact, the practice of attaching the infant continuously to its mother is so common, scholars refer to the child being “weaned from the back” (Maretzki 1963: 477) or infants may be confined in a cradle-board or similar device. The Navajo employed cradleboards in 4 graduated sizes which kept the child tranquil and out of its mother’s way (Chisholm 1980). In a rural Iranian community, a baby “happily moving arms and legs in its mother’s lap may be said to be tired and strapped back into a cradle—a happy (rahat, at ease) baby is quiet in voice and body” (Friedl 1997: 100). In the high Andes, babies are almost constantly confined to a “manta pouch,” which functions to reduce the baby’s metabolism and need for energy (Tronick et al. 1994: 1009-10). The consensus of opinion is that all these strategies for keeping the infant quiet and immobile serve to reduce the labor of childcare (Lee 1996).
Third, communities delay—by our standards—the conferral of personhood. It follows that, if babies are largely hidden from view and kept in a quiescent state, they might be seen as “non-persons.” Among Wari forest foragers “…babies of both sexes are called arawet, which translates literally as ‘still being made’” (Conklin and Morgan 1996: 673). Naming and the community’s recognition of the child are often delayed until the child’s viability is assured (Lepowsky 1985: 79). Among the strife-torn Korowai [forager/horticulturalists] of Western New Guinea this may not be until the child is 18 months (Raffaele 2003: 69). And an “…Ayoreo [forest forager] child is not considered a complete human being until the time he can walk and talk”(Bugos and McCarthy 1984: 510).
The next stage in the many folk theories of child development corresponds to our notion of “toddler” or, more formally, “early childhood.” The child is mobile and talking but it continues to occupy a marginal position on the periphery of adult attention.
Early Childhood
From Weisner’s and Gallimore’s landmark review of the literature, we can identify two very important processes which are indicative of the first major transition, following birth, namely “sib-care” and “toddler rejection” (1977:176). They found that a very high proportion of infants and toddlers had been turned over to older siblings as their caretakers (1977: 170-3), a finding also consistently reported in more recent ethnographies. Another important element in this period is the “mother-ground,” described by Lancy (1996: 84-7) as an open area in the village or farm where young children can play while being casually monitored by adults working or resting nearby (see also Hill and Hurtado 1996: 222).
Numerous examples of “toddler rejection” can be identified in the literature (Levy 1973: 454) Illustrative cases follow.

  • When the [horticulturalist Kwoma] child is no longer an infant, “…his mother gives him a little bag which she has netted for him and his father the betel-chewing accoutrements to go with it. They tell him that he has become a little man. He now turns to the play group and spends his time playing games with other children, roaming in the forest” [Whiting 1941:38].

  • With the arrival of the next sibling, dénanola (infancy) is over. Now, play begins and membership in a social group of peers is taken to be critical to the forgetting of the breast to which the toddler has had free access for nearly two years or more. A [Mandinka farmer] mother [says] “Now she must turn to play” [Whittemore 1989: 92].

This rejection is usually triggered by the need to wean the baby in anticipation of the next birth. A pregnant Luo [farmer] woman “is supposed to stop breastfeeding, since it is believed that…the milk will be poisonous to the nursing baby and will cause it to get the illness ledho (Cosminsky 1985: 38-39). A few societies also mark the transition to early childhood with some ceremony, such as the “first haircutting”(Fricke 1994:133).

These child-care practices and rites of passage call attention to the child’s new independence from adult care and supervision. The following examples illustrate the very marginal role children are expected to fulfill.

  • “Another important way in which Tongan children show respect is by remaining on the periphery of adult activities” [Morton 1996: 90].

  • Ganda [farmer] “…children over two years of age…sit politely, with their feet tucked under them out of sight, listening to the talk of their elders and speaking only when spoken to. If any young child becomes rambunctious and draws attention to himself, he is told to sit properly [and] be silent” [Ainsworth 1967: 12].

  • “In a Mayan [farming] community...children are taught to avoid challenging an adult with a display of greater knowledge by telling them something” [Rogoff 1990: 60].

The transition from infancy to early childhood is not marked by greater attention being paid to the child by adults—as happens in modern society when children of this age are now taught and supervised by adult baby-sitters, soccer coaches, pre-school teachers as well as their parents. On the contrary there seems to be the attitude that the weaned child should make fewer demands than the infant (Ritchie 1957: 83-5).

Opportunities to Learn
The out-of-sight, out-of-mind toddler is not entirely in a holding pattern. The notion that children are productively exercising their freedom from adult supervision to learn their culture is quite widespread. Now mobile, possessing some understanding of social etiquette, and attached to the play group, the child becomes responsible for learning the culture. Parents and other adults busy with subsistence activities or mothers with a new infant do not see themselves as teachers. Rather, the child is expected to explore, observe and absorb.

  • On Truk Island, with an economy based on fishing and gardening, there is no “…training of children in our sense” [Bollig 1927: 96].

  • “During this period there is no formal training [among the Mbuti Pygmies], but boys and girls alike learn all there is to be learned by simple emulation and by assisting their parents and elders in various tasks” [Turnbull 1965: 179].

  • There “…is remarkably little meddling by older [Inuit] people in this learning process. Parents do not presume to teach their children what they can as easily learn on their own” [Guemple 1979: 50].

  • “By age six, Meriam [Torres Straits] children have become fairly efficient reef foragers. The learning process involves little or no direct adult instruction” [Bird and Bird 2002: 291].

Another area where children are noted as appropriately orienting themselves towards adult models is in their play. While adults are generally indifferent or even opposed to children’s play (Fry 2005: 68), they do take notice of children’s first forays into the realm of skilled work. For example, a Yanomamö boy at age five “plays with a small bow and a reed-like arrow that his father or brother has made for him” (Peters 1998: 90). “Touareg boys who will eventually learn to herd camel, first care for a young goat that they treat like a playmate” (Spittler 1998: 343). A young Conambo girl “plays with clay, making coils, pinch pots, and miniature animals” (Bowser and Patton 2008: 110). Through skill-oriented play, the child can demonstrate maturity and persistence to potential mentors or to those who assign chores.

However, more active involvement in the household economy may actually be discouraged. Clumsy children might waste precious food if allowed to participate in grain processing (Bock and Johnson 2004: 15); they must be prevented from messing up planted rows in the garden (Polak 2003: 126) and; rambunctious boys threaten to scare off the prey during a hunt (Matthiasson 1979: 74) or fish during a fishing expedition (Broch 1990: 85). Although we see the belief that learning during early childhood should be child-initiated, attempts by the child to solicit instruction or recognition from adults will likely be rebuffed (Lancy 1996: 149-53; Edwards 2005: 91; Morton 1996: 90; Reichard 1934: 38). The child may still not be considered sufficiently mature to benefit from guidance (Gladwin and Sarason 1953: 414).
Lacking Sense
In a monograph focused entirely on childhood, Broch finds little evidence that the Bonerate (maritime traders from Sulawesi) think of children developing through a series of fixed stages, nor do they clearly define transitions from infancy to adolescence. Nevertheless, they, like many other people, differentiate between a child that has “…wisdom or knowledge of social norms and values…[and one that is] bodoh (stupid)” (Broch 1990:15). There is considerable unanimity about the child’s lacking a quality we can translate as intelligence or common sense until much before the age of 5 and sometimes later (Harkness and Super 1985: 223) viz:

  • “The Punan Bah [forager/horticulturalists] see little point in any systematic teaching of small children, due to the belief that only from the age of about five when their souls stay put, will children have the ability to reason” [Nicolaisen 1988: 205].

  • “An Ayoreo child is not considered a complete human being [until attaining]… aiuketaotiguei, which means ‘understanding’ or ‘personality’” [Bugos and McCarthy 1984: 510].

The child’s lack of sense is also cited to excuse them from misdemeanors that would be chastised in an older child (Maretzki 1963: 481; Read 1960: 89).

  • “When the [Sisala-Ghanaian farmers] child reaches the age of six years [he should display]…’sense’ or ‘knowing things’ (wijima)…he is expected to know the difference between right and wrong and to begin assuming minor responsibilities” [Grindal 1972: 28].

  • “The [Javanese-rice farming] child before he is five or six is…said to be durung ngerti, ‘does not yet understand,’ and therefore…there is no point in…punishing him for incomprehensible faults” [Geertz 1961: 105].

To this point in its development, the child has been largely on auto-pilot. With the notable exception of training in kin terms and manners (Lancy 2008: 125), there is little need to adjust the child’s trajectory. However, this laissez faire strategy may be adjusted in the face of children’s nascent sexual identity.

Middle Childhood and the Onset of Gender Differentiation
A rather surprising number of societies treat children as asexual. The infant’s genitalia are manipulated to soothe it to sleep (Friedl 1997: 139; Geertz 1961; 102), young children may remain nude or scantily dressed (Kent 1993: 490) and sex play may be tolerated (Nimmo 1970: 253; Williams 1969: 102). One signal therefore of the transition to middle childhood—if it hasn’t occurred earlier—is the requirement that children be clothed and limit interaction with the opposite sex (Lawton 2007: 46).
At around the age of six, there begins a distinct sexual segregation of roles, and, in the case of male [Berber] children, the close physical contact with the mother begins to end. Accession to this age-status is marked by the child being given a pair of under-drawers (serwal) to wear under his jellaba, and a small skullcap for his head [Hatt: 1974: 139].
The names assigned to children change, among Dusun farmers, boys are called “without loincloth,” girls “without a skirt” until 5 years and, then, “child man” or “virgin” (Williams 1969: 86). Segregation in play may be imposed and reinforced by hazing (Henderson 1970: 107). This transition often occurs earlier for girls than for boys (Barnett 1979: 6; Geertz 1961: 102)
A number of factors come into play here including segregation by sex and brother-sister incest avoidance (Cohen 1964: 160, 184). In many societies, boys have grown up in close proximity to women with little contact with men. Hence, abrupt steps may be taken to remove the boy or at least distance him from the feminine realm and place him more firmly in the masculine realm (Herdt 1990: 376; Hill and Hurtado 1996; 223; Ottenberg 1989: 49; Tuzin 1980: 26). For example, Tongan [farmer] boys “are eager to move into the boys’ huts, to be associated with the older boys, and to experience their comparative freedom” (Morton 1996:112). Even, in the absence of an official change in the child’s residence, girls become more tightly bound to their mothers, accompanying them everywhere while boys are expected to roam widely, only returning home for nourishment and rest (Watson-Franke 1976: 194). Friedl refers to boys in an Iranian village being “turned out in the morning like cows” (1997: 148) and in an analysis of observational data from six societies, it was noted that:
During middle childhood, boys aged 5-7 reduced contact and interaction with their mothers and other adult females, and were observed at greater distances from home than were girls… [exercising their greater] freedom to wander and play [Pope-Edwards 2005: 87].

We can identify four elements in the gender segregation that marks the onset of middle childhood although not all receive equal emphasis in every society. There is the acknowledgement and response to the child’s becoming aware of sex; there is the recruitment of girls as mother’s helpers while boys continue to play and/or are assigned gender-appropriate tasks (Bloch and Adler 1994: 167; Ember 1973: 426; Weisner 1996: 309) there is the wider range of permissible territory available to boys (Wenger 1989: 100) and last; the formation of same-sex, voluntary peer groups (Harkness and Super 1985: 223). Girls “get noticed” before boys do because of their greater perceived usefulness and because of their heightened vulnerability. This is an illustrative case from Iran:

Children…are well informed of goings-on in Deh Koh [village], a source of intelligence for their relatively house-bound…relatives…Girls are considered much better at such intelligence gathering than are their brothers, but…their radius of movement shrinks rapidly, for propriety’s sake [Friedl 1997:7-8].
Sex and gender are bound up with other, more subtle signs of change in the child and its status. A greater focus on the world of work, a willingness to act responsibly and persistence in the face of obstacles are all attributes that recommend a child to its appreciative elders.
Becoming Useful
Outside of foraging societies, ethnographers consistently report that parents see children as an investment (Kramer 2005: 168; Ember 1983) from which they expect an eventual return. “Defective” children may be culled (Hill and Hurtado 1996: 3), if the birth occurs too soon after the birth of a previous child or if a parent dies (Wilson and Daly 2002: 307), or if the birth of another child puts a strain on family resources or the environment (Dickeman 1975). The Tapirapé foragers from central Brazil only allow three children per family; all others must be left behind in the jungle. Seasonally scarce resources affecting the entire community, dictate these measures (Wagley 1977). One indication that little return is expected before middle childhood is the perfunctory mortuary treatment accorded children who expire before the age of 5 (Gorer 1967: 302).
However, by as early as age 3-4, in some cases, girls are considered sufficiently mature to mind their infant siblings. They are, however, expected to deliver them to the nursing mother at the earliest sign of distress (Lancy 1996: 146; Rogoff 1996: 286). Fetching firewood and water are also considered well within their capability (Broch 1990: 27) and from age six, Berber girls “learn to prepare an entire family meal unassisted” (Hatt: 1974: 139). Girls, said to develop “sense” earlier than boys (Friedl 1997: 297), begin to yield a return quite early, especially in agrarian societies (Grindal 1972: 28; Harkness and Super 1985: 223). In evolutionary terms, the contribution of a daughter’s labor to her mother’s fertility has been frequently noted (Crognier and Hilali 2001), including the documentation of prayers in traditional Japanese society for a female first-born to aid in caring for the, hopefully male, later-born children (Skinner 1987 as cited in Harris 1989: 218).

The play to work transition is elongated for boys (Blurton-Jones et al. 1997: 291, 304, 306; Edwards 2005: 87; Wenger 1989: 98-9). They may be assigned a goat or chicken to care for but the goat is more pet than project (Raum 1940: 200; Spittler 1998: 343). Charged with keeping birds from the rice crop, boys accomplish this chore with the aid of games of tag or slingshot practice (Lancy 1996: 186; Harkness and Super 1986: 99). Shepherds find ample opportunity to play while supervising the herd (Harkness and Super 1985:223). And young hunters with scaled down bows and arrows exhibit behavior that suggests play not work (Peters 1998: 90-91). This relative freedom may be curtailed, when, in the absence of a sister of the appropriate age, a boy may find himself conscripted for child care or other “women’s work” (Ember 1973: 425-6).

However, the most likely “first chore” for a boy will be an errand (Lancy 1996: 76; Wenger 1989: 98). From delivering messages or items of food or property in the complex village exchange to making small purchase or sales in the market (Lancy 1996: 156; Read 1960: 43), boys perform a vital function. Busy adults rely upon child couriers also because they are indemnified from the accusation of questionable motives (adultery, sorcery, theft) that might be attributed to their parents (Lancy 2008: 238). Aside from tending livestock, running errands and “fetching,” a boy or girl might also be nudged over the threshold into middle childhood by assigning them their own garden plot. Among the Kwoma (PNG horticulturalists) parents set aside an area of the garden for the child to work on their own. Any produce from this mini-garden is “put in a separate bin in the family storehouse as the child's private property” (Whiting 1941: 46-47). A four-year-old Bamana boy in Mali may have…
…already grasped the meaning of sowing and is able to perform the various movements…he is entrusted with an old hoe as well as with some seeds so that he can gain some practice in this activity. However…he has to be allocated a certain part of the field where he neither gets in the way of the others nor spoils the rows they have already sown [Polak 2003: 130].
Gardening is only one among several domains where very detailed studies of children’s acquisition of adult competency are available. These include, hunting (MacDonald 2007), herding (Read 1960; Spittler 1998), canoe-making (Wilbert 1976), weaving (Tanon 1994), and ceramics (Bowser and Patton 2008). Taken together, these accounts reveal a graded chore curriculum (Lancy 2008: 235-42). That is, each of these domains can be broken into subtasks which range in difficulty. With very high motivation to emulate older, more expert models, children reliably observe, copy and practice these sub-tasks leading, gradually, to mastery with remarkably little adult intervention. These studies of children carrying out productive work also affirm Weisner’s observation that “children care for other children (under a mother’s or other adults’ management) within indirect chains of support” (1996: 308, emphasis added). For example, when a Bamana 4-year-old is struggling to harvest his share of the bean crop, he will be aided by his 8 year old brother (Polak 2003), not his father who does, however, come to the aid of a 12-year-old son to demonstrate a particularly tricky technique involved in planting a row of sorghum (Polak ND).
Like our academic curriculum, whose structure is used to arrange children into developmental levels, e.g. “pre-schooler,” “first-grader,” the chore curriculum functions similarly, as the following examples (Fajans 1997:87) attest.

  • A [Giriama-farmer/pasoralist] girl, from about 8 years until…puberty, is muhoho wa kubunda, a child who pounds maize; a boy of this age is a muhoho murisa, a child who herds [Wenger 1989: 98].

  • Among the Tchokwe’, children are identified through the roles they assume… tchitutas are girls and boys around the age of five to seven, whose role is to fetch water and tobacco for the elders and take messages to neighbors. Kambumbu are children (especially girls), seven to thirteen years of age, who participate actively in household chores and help parents in the field or with fishing and hunting [Honawana 2006: 41-42].

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