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Kids These Days

Culture Shock

Some child-rearing “virtues” are just social norms

One of the first things you see upon entering my home is a large painting of boys playing stickball in a barrio in the Dominican Republic. It’s clearly an improvised game—the “ball” the batter stands poised to hit is actually a bottle cap—and the players are of widely different ages. The spectators are neighbors, not just parents. In the far left corner, a girl no older than seven is caring for an infant.

Many Americans would find a lot to puzzle over in this picture. Believing that children are most naturally matched with their age-mates, they might think it odd that big kids and little kids are playing together. They might also be surprised to see that the children seem to have organized a real sporting event on their own, since adult-organized youth sports are so common in our country. Those who feel cut off from their neighbors and unsafe in their neighborhoods might wonder at the portrayal of a neighborhood where people are apparently interconnected, where the streets are almost an extension of the home itself. And certainly the image of the little girl caring for an infant would stand out. Few people in the United States allow young children to take on such responsibility.

The point here is that when it comes to raising children, the differences between cultures can be striking. In fact, sometimes we don’t even know that our beliefs result from our culture. We think of them simply as “the truth.” For example, in our culture we take it for granted that infants need a great deal of stimulation—that otherwise their cognitive development will suffer—but in fact, there are places in the world where infants are hardly stimulated at all.

In certain Andean villages, for example, infants are covered from head to toe and kept on their mother’s back for much of the first year. As it happens, this practice makes sense: they are thus protected from the intense ultraviolet radiation found at high altitudes. Later on, when they’re older and face fewer health threats, they’re immersed in the culture’s highly stimulating activities and given plenty of cognitive challenges that more than compensate for an early lack of stimulation.

Cultures differ in how they define maturity as well. In mainstream American culture, children are considered mature to the extent that they become independent, and so we have them sleep in separate rooms and dress and feed themselves early on. In adolescence, we encourage them to “spread their wings and fly away.” Yet parents in many Caribbean cultures find it strange that we deny young children the comfort of the family bed. Italian parents prefer to extend the intimacy created when they feed and dress their young children, and may not understand why we don’t do the same. And to parents in the Confucian-influenced cultures of rural China, the idea that adolescents should “fly away” is anathema. They encourage their own adolescents to “sink roots” and stay closely connected to family.

Then there are the small, seemingly straightforward matters such as reading to children, providing them with guidance, and sending them to school. Many African cultures find us unimaginative and lazy because we merely read to children, rather than make up our own stories. In dealing with behavior problems, Japanese teachers put no great emphasis on guiding children; instead, they encourage their pupils, even the youngest, to guide one another. And in many cultures, educating children is not the same thing as packing them off to school. In the days of Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, education was not equivalent with schooling in American culture, either.

All this is to say that, when it comes to child rearing, no one size fits all. Nor do we need to go halfway around the world to find profound cultural differences in the way children are raised. In some neighborhoods of our multicultural society, we need only go halfway down the street.

Living in such a society entails risks. There could be a mismatch between a child’s culture and that of, say, a teacher. The result could be miseducation and, later on, lost opportunities. But happily, culture is at the forefront of discussions among today’s social scientists, educators, and child-care providers. There is reason to hope that we as a society will become skillful at meeting the needs of children of all cultures.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. His book Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management (Sage) is due out later this year.

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155