Growing up Maya: The Roles of Boys and Girls in Mayan Culture

Most people today remember the ancient Maya for their architecture, their skilled workers, or their predictions about the future. Yet the Maya should also be known for their love of children. Although family members did not give baby showers in Mayan culture, parents eagerly anticipated the birth of their children. Mothers prayed to the gods for numerous healthy babies. If the mother delivered a boy, his name was determined by the Mayan calendar. For example, if a child was born on the seventh day of the month and the name of the day was Ahau, he was named Seven Ahau. Historians don’t know how girls received their names.

Both girls and boys received a lot of affection from their parents and extended family members. Once they were around the age of five, however, they had to help with chores. Like many other ancient societies, Maya children’s tasks were determined by their gender.

Most families lived on farms, so boys helped their fathers plant maize–another name for corn. They also learned to fish, hunt, and make their own tools. A farmer’s son would be expected to work for the Mayan king constructing temples or other buildings when he grew up.

No public schools existed for Maya boys or girls; however, wealthy families sometimes sent their sons to live with members of the priesthood so he would learn how to serve the gods as a priest someday. Boys could inherit their father’s occupations, which meant that family members often passed down their knowledge to the next generation. For elite families, this meant that boys trained to become scribes—one of the few professions that required literacy—or artisans.

Girls had fewer opportunities to work outside the home than boys. They learned to weave cloth from cotton and wool and to cook food. They made clothes for the family (loincloths for the men, skirts for themselves) and cooked tortillas from maize and dough. When the tortillas were cooked, they were stuffed with beans or meat. Although girls did much of their work at home, they spent a lot of time at the local market. Women and girls brought homemade food and dyed clothing to the market to sell. Here, girls learned to trade and barter by watching their elders.

Job opportunities for Maya girls were limited, though some became midwives or matchmakers. Historical evidence indicates that some Maya women learned to read and write and a few may have been scribes.

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