In This Article Children's Work and Apprenticeship

  • Introduction
  • Surveys and Anthologies
  • Running Errands and Marketing
  • Child Care
  • Animal Husbandry
  • Historical Perspectives
  • Gender

Childhood Studies Children's Work and Apprenticeship
David F. Lancy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0007


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 2014, cited under Surveys and Anthologies), 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 article Child Labor for more information on that subject.

Surveys and Anthologies

Lancy 2014 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, including work skills. Lancy 2012 offers the first broad survey of children’s work. Liebel 2004 complements Lancy by providing a sociological perspective—primarily on children working for wages rather than in the village. Zeller 1987 offers a brief survey of children’s work in thirteen societies. Spittler and Bourdillon 2012, an edited collection, highlights recent work on children and work in Africa.

  • 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.

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

  • Lancy, David F. “The Chore Curriculum.” In African Children at Work: Working and Learning in Growing Up for Life. Edited by Gerd Spittler and Michael Bourdillon, 23–56. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2012.

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    This chapter provides a theory (the chore curriculum) that accounts for the processes—psychological, ontological, and cultural—underlying children’s acquisition of subsistence and craft skills.

  • Lancy, David F. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

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    A comprehensive overview of childhood, from a cross-cultural perspective. It includes a review of children learning to work, contributing to the family workforce, and laboring for wages.

  • Liebel, Manfred. A Will of Their Own: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Working Children. London: Zed Books, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    This work covers a wide reach but is much more focused on children as laborers than as helpers and workers at home. “Cross-cultural” in the title should be “international.” The author is a sociologist and adopts the theoretical and analytical stance characteristic of that discipline. Though he does cite some anthropological literature on children’s work, it is drawn almost exclusively from the limited corpus of work published in German.

  • Spittler, Gerd, and Michael Bourdillon, eds. African Children at Work: Working and Learning in Growing Up for Life. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first volume to collect studies of children’s work, primarily in Africa. The main theme of the book is that children’s work is also the pathway to knowledge and that work must be studied in cultural context. Exploitative forms of children’s labor are discussed, but they are not the primary focus.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/2802504E-mail Citation »

    Cursory survey of children’s work in thirteen societies. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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