Childhood in Maya society

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Mayan children in 2009

The role of the children in ancient Mayan civilization was first and foremost to help their elders. Once children turned five or six they were expected to contribute to the family and community. They were treated as young adults and received more responsibilities as they grew older.


Young girls were expected to perform household duties, while young boys were to help their fathers in farming.

Mostly women raised the children, but "When a boy was about four or five his father began the training of his son."[1]

When adolescents turned 15, they were expected to be independent. Today, this tradition of work ethic still applies to adolescents.

Rituals and children[edit]

The Maya desired some unnatural physical characteristics for their children. For instance, at a very young age boards were pressed on babies' foreheads to create a flattened surface. This process was widespread among the upper class.

Another practice was to cross babies' eyes. To do this, objects were dangled in front of a newborn’s eyes, until the newborn’s eyes were completely and permanently crossed. In addition, there were a few unique customs regarding children. For example, most Maya children were named according to the day they were born. Every day of the year had a specific name for both boys and girls and parents were expected to follow that practice.


Most burial sites for children were not as elaborate as adult burial sites. "Infants/toddlers generally lacked offerings… for [children] who died before reaching the age of five, the only elaboration or special treatment consisted of inclusion within a probable family group…"[2] However, some burial sites for children did contain more gifts than other youngsters. This suggests that the family had a great deal of remorse, and/or the child had high standings.

Values in children[edit]

Several values were stressed to Maya children. Not only was a strong work ethics desirable, but working for the betterment of the community was necessary.

Families were extremely important to the Maya culture, and respecting the leaders in one’s family was imperative. "A sense of responsibility is another important quality which children have to learn. This includes independence, self-confidence and the ability to make decisions."[3] It is believed that the most important quality for children to have was common sense, and they received this by shadowing their parents.

Among Yucatec Maya parents, the ceremony called hetsmekʻ is still practiced even among professionals living in Mérida, the capital of Yucatán.

Maya children today[edit]

Maya populations are present today in many areas of Central and South America, such as Guatemala. There is limited research on the lives of Maya children, mostly because developmental research has primarily involved European-American children.[4] However, it is evident that the goals for Maya children's socialization and daily activities differ from those of other cultures, especially those that are most studied.[5]


Children in many Maya communities often engage in different socialization patterns than those commonly found in European-American communities.[5] Specifically, Maya cultures commonly emphasize the primacy of community activities (in which adults and children are participants), the importance of parental beliefs, and the independence of children's motivation in their socialization.[6][7] Children in Maya communities develop within the context of work and other family activities.[5] They commonly learn through observing and engaging in work with others.[6]

Children in modern-day Maya communities observe and participate in work with people of all ages.[8] Young children in Maya communities such as San Pedro La Laguna have been observed listening in on the work of older children, adults, and elders.[8] These children are expected to observe the activities going on around them in order for their learning to take place.[4] The mix of interaction between age groups in Maya communities is important to their learning. Age segregation does not play an active role in the learning patterns of Maya children, as they interact with both adults and children of all ages.[9] Maya siblings also play an active role in directing each other’s learning.[10]

Children in Maya communities also observe and participate in adult work in order to become active members in their community.[11] Though children in European American communities do not engage in as much productive or goal-driven work, Maya children see this work as embodying their sense of self-worth.[12] Maya children engage in less imaginary play than children from many middle-class Western communities.[9] When European-American adults play with children, the play is seen as an educational exercise, but play that Maya children partake in is often an emulation of mature work happening around them[13] For example, a child will pretend to "weave" on a make-believe loom, or "wash clothes" by pouring water on a cloth.[14] In this way, Maya children are learning through play.

Engaging in play that emulates work, and providing actual contributions to work, are characteristic of a style of learning referred to as Learning by Observing and Pitching In (which was previously called Intent Community Participation[15]). This approach involves the learner observing and listening, directed by their own initiative and concentration. This individual drive to learn is coupled with the learner’s expected participation in shared endeavors. In other words, Maya children learn through Intent Community Participation because they are self-motivated to learn, and are included and given responsibilities. Maya children are respected as capable contributors to their community from as young as age 3 or 4.[15]

This style of learning can be contrasted with other learning styles, such as assembly-line instruction.[15] Assembly-line instruction is the approach taken by most Westernized schooling. Assembly-line instruction is based on the transmission of knowledge from experts to subordinates, in a way that does not facilitate purposeful activity. Maya Children do not participate primarily in this style of learning, because they learn through inclusion and hands-on experience. Because of this form of learning, Mayan children are much more observant in their environment as compared to European-American children.[citation needed] Learning through observation and participation develops skills such as dual attentiveness which supports their way of life and learning. Through methods such as Learning by Observing and Pitching In, Maya children work as a community to build their skills for contributing in their community.


  1. ^ Sharer, 482
  2. ^ Ardren, 67
  3. ^ Heckt, 325
  4. ^ a b Morelli, G., Rogoff, B., & Angelillo, C. (2003). Cultural variation in young children's access to work or involvement in specialized child-focused activities. International Journal of Behavioural Development, 27, 264-274.
  5. ^ a b c Gaskins, S. (2006) The Cultural Organization of Yucatec Mayan Childrenís Social Interactions. Peer relationships in cultural context, 283.
  6. ^ a b Gaskins, S. (1999). Children's Daily Lives in a Mayan village: A Case Study of Culturally Constructed Roles and Activities. In A. Göncü (Ed.), Children's Engagement in the World: Sociocultural Perspectives (pp. 25-61). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  7. ^ Gaskins, S. (2000). Children's Daily Activities in a Mayan Village: A Culturally Grounded Description. Cross-Cultural Research, 34, 375-389.
  8. ^ a b Rogoff, B., Morelli, G. A., & Chavajay, P. (2010). Childrenís Integration in Communities and Segregation From People of Differing Ages. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 431-440.
  9. ^ a b Göncü, A., Mistry, J., & Mosier, C. (2000). Cultural variations in the play of toddlers. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24(3), 321-329.
  10. ^ Maynard, A. E. (2002). Cultural teaching: The development of teaching skills in Maya sibling interactions. Child development, 73(3), 969-982.
  11. ^ Nimmo, J. (2008). Young children's access to real life: An examination of the growing boundaries between children in child care and adults in the community. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 9, 3-13.
  12. ^ Woodhead, M. (1998). Children's perspectives on their working lives: A participatory study in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Stockholm: Save the Children Sweden.
  13. ^ Morelli, G., Rogoff, B., & Angelillo, C. (2003).
  14. ^ Rogoff, Barbara (2011). Developing Destinies: A Mayan Midwife and Town. Cambridge: Oxford University Press
  15. ^ a b c Rogoff, B., Paradise, R., Arauz, R. M., Correa-Chavez, M., & Angelillo, C. (2003). Firsthand learning through intent participation. Annual Review of Psychology, 54(1), 175-203


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  • Maynard, A. E. (2002). Cultural teaching: The development of teaching skills in Maya sibling interactions. Child Development, 73(3), 969-982.this website is terrible!
  • Rogoff, B., Paradise, R., Arauz, R. M., Correa-Chavez, M., & Angelillo, C. (2003). Firsthand learning through intent participation. Annual Review of Psychology, 54(1), 175-203.
  • Rogoff, Barbara (2011). Developing Destinies: A Mayan Midwife and Town. Cambridge: Oxford University Press