One thing that probably seems silly on the face of it, but which bears mentioning, is that not all children are child geniuses! Especially in SF/F, the category of child geniuses is drastically over-represented, possibly because it functions as a form of wish-fulfillment. Characters like Artemis Fowl, Andrew Wiggin from Ender's Game, and Manfred Manx are deliberately set up with incredible powers of mind and no parental oversight. We observed that one of the nice things about Harry Potter was that he wasn't great at everything (it makes sense, given his reputation, that he shouldnt - if he were good at everything and came in with an amazing reputation, I imagine he'd have been pretty insufferable). On the other hand, our discussants observed that the genius child usually appears in science fiction, while in fantasy you typically find the child of destiny, the child with power. Harry Potter, while not overwhelmingly powerful, is most definitely a child with a destiny. In fairy tales, you find that often the simple child is special. We agreed that you don't often find that played out in the SF/F genres more broadly.
When you are working with a story that has children in it, ask yourself: whose perspective do I tell this story from? Why? If you are using a child's point of view, ask, "What tools does a child have?"
Patsy noted that in The Hero and the Crown, you get magic when you grow up (or become a teen). This is similar to the way mutant powers develop in the X-men. A fascinating and different view comes from Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, where the child becomes a brain ship.
I mentioned the baby in Dan Simmons' Hyperion. Simmons gestures at the father's care of her, and maybe the father has an AI baby carrier or something to help him, but the baby's portrayal doesn't really involve the kind of care that babies so young require.
Children vary. The importance of this fact must not be underestimated. It's also helpful, if you can, to observe real children in interaction rather than relying on portrayals of them in media. The average trend is that they can sit at 6 months old, begin to read faces at 9 months old, and start to walk around 1 year. Some children crawl earlier, but others learn to crawl at the same time as they learn to walk, and some learn later (or even not at all!). Some babies love to put everything in their mouths, but others don't. Some are super-grabby, and some are not. Some climb everything they can find, and others don't.
When you have children, strangers will observe how you raise your child, and judge you. Often they will try to change how you raise your child, even if they don't have any experience with children themselves.
Kids get sick a TON. Especially when they have just entered a new social community like a preschool or a kindergarten, they can spend weeks at a time being sick (and making their parents sick).
Interestingly enough, people who have actual experience dealing with children and their idiosyncratic needs don't judge our parenting as much as non-parents who are coming from a stance of ideal, and totally hypothetical/stereotypical parenting.
I mentioned that kids will learn the words you use with them first. So if you don't want them to say "no" to you, then don't say "no" to them. Kat brought up that when we don't raise children to say no, sometimes they don't learn to enforce healthy boundaries. This is true inasmuch as a child should be able to refuse things to their parent, so that they can refuse things to other people also. My initial comment was more about the use of the specific word "no" than about the idea of refusal in general; I used explanations for my refusals to allow things as much as possible.
Patsy told us that she has a developmentally delayed child who uses augmented communication. There are a ton if different ways in which children can vary, and variation in the pace of development is one major one.
Parents are generally responsible for the path the child takes to becoming an adult. There are risks here. Don't threaten a punishment you can't reasonably carry out. Don't offer to let the child make a decision if you can't respect their choice.
Expectations for children are culturally based. Parents don't always interact with their children the same way. In some cultures, children are expected to participate in group activities in relatively sophisticated ways. I remember reading about how children are included in First Nations celebrations and learn very complex dances. There are also cultures where children don't learn language from their parents, but from siblings and older peers. Toddlers, while inexperienced, are already people. It is said that full cognitive maturity is reached at age 7, but we keep developing more subtly until about age 25. Thirteen is considered adult in many cultures, and is an age of independent social inclusion. Adulthood rituals are really important. The expectation is often that some will fail the trials. Independence increases risk, but also increases the child's ability to participate fully in society. The idea of the "teenager" is a recent cultural concept. Many cultures have apprenticeships that begin quite early.
Independence is relative to the expectations of society, and often relies on community support. I read an article about how small children in Japan are expected to be able to go to the store by themselves, or commute on the train by themselves. However, as Kat explained, they receive a great deal more support from the surrounding society. There is less of a perception of stranger danger, or police vs. community tension. The more dense population means there are more eyes on them, and thus more safety for children at young ages. We segued onto the New York City free-range kids movement. A car-centric culture is more hazardous for children.
We also talked about the idea of fostering children to other locations. This happened in Europe, and has also been depicted in fiction (as in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books).
One interesting question to ask is, "When is a child's counsel accepted in group decision-making with adults?" Another is, "When are kids listened to (and taken seriously)?"
Kate made some observations on sexism and its influence on the perception of women. Sexist culture causes us to expect women to be adult but infantilizes them at the same time. Men are sometimes portrayed as children so they can be construed as deserving of women's labor. Kat remarked that in these cases, whiteness trumps gender, in that black women are almost never portrayed as childlike.
Scandinavia has education for children specifically geared to teach them about gender differences.
It's important to ask "Who is marginalized and who is not? Does this have to do with class, caste, economics?"
Kate noted that black women of age 13-14 are given the message "we don't want you to reproduce but you can't get contraception."
Children can learn a lot by watching older siblings go through trials and learn life lessons.
We talked a bit about the concept of "The Talk." What do parents feel are the dire topics that they have to make sure to sit a child down and give them a talk on? Sex? Death? Some cultures are far more protected from death experiences than others. This leads us, of course, into how important it is to think about how your world deals with birth and death and other major life events.
If you are working with animal-based aliens, learn about the way that the animals you're using deal with offspring, birth, and death. Also consider whether the species you have chosen is one that raises its offspring or leaves them on their own. Is there metamorphosis? How does this intersect with our concept of childhood?
Thank you to everyone who attended for your contributions to our discussion.
Our next session will be this coming Monday, May 29th at 10am Pacific, and we'll be coming live from the BayCon convention, discussing Dystopias and Utopias.