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.

Growing Up Mayan

Mayan children grew up with parents who wanted their early childhood years to be carefree. Children lived with their extended families in nalil, which were clusters of huts. In this environment, they were surrounded by adults and cousins of various ages.

In the average Mayan family, older family members soon became teachers to the children in the nalil. Most importantly, children were taught respect for their elders. Girls and boys learned the skills they needed to be successful in their culture. A boy’s father and other male family members showed him how to fish and hunt. If a hut needed to be built or a canoe repaired, the boy participated and learned another valuable skill. Sons of craftsmen learned their trade from their father.

Like many other ancient cultures, Mayan girls learned skills that differed greatly from boys. Girls were taught how to cook, weave, and perform other household tasks. Girls did learn some tasks outside the home, however. For example, they were expected to learn how to barter at the local market.

Both girls and boys were taught the Mayan religious traditions. Priests instructed children about the various gods. After a basic introduction to their religious traditions, priests also taught children how to perform ceremonial dances.

Children of nobles received more intellectual instruction. They studied astronomy and learned to read the hieroglyphs. Sports were considered important for boys to master. Regardless of their social status, boys and girls were taught separately from one another until they knew their duties well enough to marry.