Around the world, childhood is regarded as preparation for adulthood, but some adulthoods can be incredibly tough. While kids in the UK are guaranteed an education, there are children in Tibet who have to risk a six-day ice trek to get to school, while the most important education for some Mongolian children takes place in the saddle of their horse.

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About Childhood

The one thing that can be said with any certainty about childhood is that there is no such thing as a typical one. Children’s lives come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of play, school, work, and chores.

In the UK, most of us probably take our schooling for granted. Not so the Tibetan children of the Zanskar valley. Here, in the heart of the Himalayas, winter snow makes roads impassable, largely cutting people off from the outside world. As a result, the only way for children to get to school at the beginning of term is by trekking 100 kilometres down a frozen river. Six days later - having braved sub-zero temperatures, deadly avalanches and freezing waters - they finally make it into class.

For some children, though, regular schooling isn’t even an option. In the UK there are many children whose lives are devoted to looking after their parents, while children in the Andes are often charged with looking after their younger siblings so that it’s not uncommon to see a seven-year-old carrying a toddler on her back. In the highlands of Ethiopia, meanwhile, children are often put to work protecting the family crops from marauding gelada baboons.

In other places, it isn’t the crops but the animals that are most important. In Mongolia, for example, horses are at the heart of the community and there is a popular saying that Mongols are born in the saddle. And no wonder. Children learn to ride at the age of four or five, and the biggest festival of the year is the annual Nadaam festival in which children race their horses over 30 kilometres of Mongolian steppe.

But while horse racing is going to give children their fair share of scars, it’s nothing compared to the scars that a child from Benin might expect. There, being part of a tribe and the identity this holds is very important and children are sometimes scarred as a rite of passage. But for the Somba tribe, one scar just isn’t enough. They use a razor blade to cut their children’s face around 300 times, leaving linear scars all around their head that make them more attractive to other members of the tribe.

It may seem a far cry from the child beauty pageants of the USA and India, but really both activities have a similar role to play. Just like the trekking in Tibet and the protecting of harvests in Ethiopia, they both prepare the children for later life, a crucial element of every childhood.