Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Childrearing in speculative fiction
In a lot of speculative fiction – even that set on other worlds and taking place in other societies – the nuclear family is the norm. Parents raise children. But there are variations on this here on earth, and there can be even more pronounced differences elsewhere.
Some Native American tribes were matrilinear, meaning that descent was traced through maternal lines. A child was brought up by its mother and her oldest brother. One advantage was that they were sure that the child was related to them, whereas a biological father doesn’t always have the same certainty. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few alien societies like that.
Children can be reared communally (a la the kibbutz system) or by trusted and/or trained individuals other than their parents – nannies, guardians or household demons. In Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines, children of the Riding Women are born into a small group of women – one of whom is the bloodmother, who actually gives birth and one of whom is the heartmother, who will be closest to the child. The others are sharemothers.
The system takes into account the fact that humanoid children require so much care that it can be difficult for one (or even two) people to provide it all. It may well take a village.
On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be the child’s own village. That’s the premise of Bernard Taylor’s The Godsend, which begins when a pregnant stranger seeks shelter at the home of a family with four small children. She gives birth that night, but seems curiously unattached to her baby daughter, and leaves the next morning - alone. The family decides to adopt the little girl.
When their youngest son dies suddenly, they believe the new baby is a godsend. At least they have someone to fill the void. Then another child dies… and the father remembers what cuckoos do with their young.
If certain traits – those that will be the most evolutionarily advantageous for passing on genes – are coded in those genes themselves, a child doesn’t need to be taught much by whoever raises it. Nature counts for more than nurture. It may need a parent to feed and protect it until it grows to adolescence, but that’s all. Or children might be born with an adult’s knowledge or memories, as they were in the universe of Dune if the mother underwent spice agony.
Children’s education is fun to imagine as well. The best story I ever read on this topic is R. A. Lafferty’s “Primary Education of the Camiroi”, in the anthology Asimov’s Extraterrestrials. The Camiroi have a rather unique way of bringing up children.
First Year Course:
Playing one wind instrument.
Simple drawing of objects and numbers.
Singing (this is important. Many Earth people sing who cannot sing. The early instruction of the Camiroi prevents that occurrence).
As someone raised in a family and culture that stressed achievement at all costs, I can sympathize. As for what’s done with children who fail (in the Camiroi, not in my original culture), well, there’s a judicious winnowing of the herd.
That could also be done in a race which produced dozens or hundreds of offspring and which couldn’t realistically allow them all to grow to adulthood. It’s not pleasant to contemplate. But it’s also not human, and that’s what makes it interesting.