In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children's Work and Apprenticeship

  • Introduction
  • Surveys and Anthologies
  • Running Errands and Marketing
  • Child Care
  • Animal Husbandry
  • Historical Perspectives
  • Gender
  • Historical Perspectives on Apprenticeship and Craft Learning

Childhood Studies Children's Work and Apprenticeship
David F. Lancy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • 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 Anthropological Perspectives on Children as Helpers, Workers, Artisans and Laborers (Lancy 2018, cited under Surveys and Anthologies), the first comprehensive survey of 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, while work is a common theme in ethnographic studies that highlight the lives of children (in itself an uncommon focus), relatively few publications have children’s work as the prime concern. 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 2018 is an overview of the anthropology of children as present and future workers and includes chapters on children as helpers, apprentices, and laborers, among others. MacDonald (2007) gives a survey of the literature available. Lancy 2016a is an anthology of recent field studies of children learning work-related skills. Lancy 2016b analyzes the “folk pedagogy” that underlies parental views on how children go about learning to be skilled and diligent workers. Lancy 2012 surveys children’s work as various “chores.” Liebel 2004 complements the work of 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 2015 presents a theory that explains why children seem to be precocious in their learning of critical skills.

  • 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.

    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. “Children as a Reserve Labor Force.” Current Anthropology 56.4 (2015): 545–568.

    DOI: 10.1086/682286

    This article advances the theory that children’s competencies in the world of work usually appear ahead of the period when they are required to apply them in earnest. But various triggers, including family crises, intensive labor requirements in agriculture, and catastrophic events (plague), may call for children to “step up.”

  • Lancy, David F., ed. Special Issue: New Studies of Children’s Work. Ethos 44.3 (2016a): 202–289.

    A collection of four papers including an overview of the field (Lancy), and ethnographies of children’s work from Mongolia (Michelet), Brazil (Medaets), and Papua New Guinea (Little and Lancy).

  • Lancy, David F. “Playing with Knives: The Socialization of Self-Initiated Learners.” Child Development 87.3 (2016b): 654–665.

    DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12498

    This article reviews relevant literature in anthropology to support a model of the cultural and psychological processes involved as children learn critical work skills, especially the use of tools.

  • Lancy, David F. Anthropological Perspectives on Children as Helpers, Workers, Artisans and Laborers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-53351-7

    A comprehensive overview of all aspects of children’s lives that involves work: in make-believe and object play; as willing helpers; as learners of skills such as butchering, fishing, trapping, etc.; as more mature workers with regular chores and; as wage laborers.

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

    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.

  • MacDonald, Katharine. “Cross-Cultural Comparison of Learning in Human Hunting: Implications for Life History Evolution.” Human Nature 18.4 (2007): 386–402.

    DOI: 10.1007/s12110-007-9019-8

    Quite comprehensive survey of the literature.

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

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

    DOI: 10.2307/2802504

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

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