001: The influence of culture on parenting

Have you ever thought about how common the murder of children has been in societies we now call “Western” in the past, as well as societies all over the world today?

In my naivete as a parent I figured there would be some differences in how people parent their children around the world, but I never imagined that people in my own back yards would parent completely differently from me.  And I sort of figured that the ‘around the world’ differences were mostly a function of the availability of products and services – wouldn’t everyone encourage artistic ability if they had access to paper and crayons?  Turns out it’s not the case.

Elders and even ancestors occupied the top of the family heap in most societies for most of our history.  In Western (also called “WEIRD”) societies, we’ve reversed this paradigm and children find themselves ruling the roost.  Yet we’re also starting to “borrow” elements of other cultures – like baby-wearing and elimination communication.  I’ll also examine how several other cultures approach topics like transmitting knowledge and shaping behavior.

You might ask yourself “but why do I care whether a three year-old Warao child in Venezuela can paddle a canoe?”  It was learning about these kinds of cultural differences that allowed me to take a step back and see the information I’m transmitting to my own daughter that’s based on my culture, and think through whether these are the kinds of messages I want to send to her.  How did your culture and experience shape you, and have you made a conscious decision to include these elements of your culture in your parenting style or are you just running on autopilot?


References for this episode

Bryant, A (no date). 7 reasons not to compare your child with others… Available at: http://parenting.allwomenstalk.com/reasons-not-to-compare-your-child-with-others

Heath, Shirley B (1983). Ways with words. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

Lancy, D. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

McNaughton, S (1996). Ways of parenting and cultural identity. Culture Psychology 2:2 173-201.  Available at: http://cap.sagepub.com/content/2/2/173.short

Zero to Three (2016). How our history influences how we raise our children. Available at: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/286-how-our-history-influences-how-we-raise-our-children


Read Full Transcript


Have you ever thought about how common the murder of children has been in societies we now call “Western” in the past, as well as societies all over the world today?

I recently read a book called The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings by David F. Lancy, and it’s a tour de force that describes attitudes to children across cultures today and in history.  Lancy describes how children in a variety of societies, from the Olmec to the Aztecs and the Greco-Romans, children were sacrificed to the Gods to bring rain, and to function as intermediaries between the divine and the human worlds.  In other cultures the infant is viewed as threatening in its own right or as a vessel or avatar for ghosts and evil spirits.  In Micronesia women might give birth to ghosts; deformed children who were thrown into the sea, burned or buried.  Cannibalism survives in the Korowai, New Guinea, where infanticide is not considered an immoral act because birth practices are repulsive and dangerous and a newborn is demonic rather than human.  Neglect may be even more frequent in the cross-cultural literature than deliberate killing, even if the end result is the same.  A study in Hungary found that mothers of high-risk infants breastfed them for shorter periods than normal infants, and also smiled less often at them and played with them less frequently.  They became pregnant more quickly following the birth of a high-risk infant – they had scaled back their investment in the high-risk infant and acted as if they didn’t expect it to survive.

Children have been and continue to be in many places regarded as property and material goods, as well as a source of income for families.  Slavery is one obvious form of this, but children were also sold into the army (one boy, aged 15, was bartered into the Army by his stepfather as a substitute for a man who paid the stepfather a horse, bridle, and saddle).  At the end of 2012 the UN reported that 175 Malian children were bought from their parents for more than $1000US to serve the Islamic insurgency.  Chinese mothers sell babies to orphanages which then resell them to eager adoptive – often American – parents.

In very many cultures either ancestors or elders – certainly adults – occupy the top of the pyramid of importance in a culture, with adolescents near the bottom and children at the very bottom.  Which is to say that it’s actually pretty remarkable that in the couple of hundred years or so since children were usually to be found working in factories earning money for their families that in WEIRD countries children are now at the top of the heap, dictating our social and cultural structures as we subvert our needs to theirs.  Until the 19th Century, there was no need to cherish an infant, or to help it develop; the death of a child was no great cause for sorrow and newborns were often referred to as “it” or “little stranger.”  With the Protestant Reformation came the sacred duty of parents to rear children for a blameless life.  The Victorians used dress and hairstyles to create androgynous, angelic innocents.  In Japan, children had been seen as utilitarian until after the second world war, where they were romanticized as cute, dependent, and needing much tender care.  By the 20th Century infant death became cause for public concern, and the fight to limit parents from earning a return from their children had strong moral overtones – “neglect” began to replace the fatalistic “God’s will” as the most common post-mortem verdict after child death.  Incrementally, possibly without anyone even noticing, WEIRD cultures have shifted from the adults being most important to the children.

(This podcast is a little different from most of the ones I’m planning for the future but I wanted to start off with it because I think the historical context is so important to understand.  The thing that really struck me the most was that things I take for granted – a child’s right to not be hit or even shamed, the desire to do the best for your children and help them achieve their fullest potential is not the way everybody parents, but hardly anybody has parented that way throughout history and even today it’s not a given.  What I didn’t realize was that virtually every choice I make as a parent is determined by my culture, although I find myself in the privileged position of being able to select what aspects of that culture I believe are most important and even borrow elements from other cultures if I choose.  I’m also privileged because the vast majority of scientific research in WEIRD countries is conducted on White children and parents, so it’s probably at least somewhat applicable to my parenting style.  Parents in other cultures even within the U.S. may parent very differently – Shirley Brice Heath’s seminal book called “Ways with Words” chronicled her years living in and near two poor rural communities in North Carolina.  She noted that in the Black community, Trackton, children don’t expect adults to ask them questions because children aren’t considered appropriate conversational partners.  The most common kind of question asked of young children in Trackton was an analogy question, which calls for an open-ended answer drawn from the child’s experiences, designed to test the child’s ability to see things that are similar in their environment.  The adults use a lot of metaphors and similies in their own conversations, including comparing children to something else (“you act like some monkey”), so the questioning develops a skill that is critical to “fitting in” in that particular culture.  Far different from the popular press aimed at White parents today, which encourages parents not to compare their child with others so as to not damage their self-esteem, because every child is different and childhood isn’t a race so every child will get where they need to go at their own pace.

The parents of many toddlers will have weaned by now either because the milk ran out (like mine did) or due to cultural pressures – others may still be nursing and the decision of when to stop, and who decides when to stop (you and/or the child) and how to stop is one for which there are many approaches (Central African foragers apply hot pepper to her nipples which is apparently quite effective).  Providing stimulation to our babies and toddlers in the form of physical contact, the language of ‘motherese,’ and playing games like peekaboo to accelerate physical and intellectual development are a cultural decision.  In many cultures including the Inuit, nobody speaks to the child *at least* until the child is able to speak himself, and even then it is often ignored when it does speak up as it has nothing useful to add to a conversation.  In other cultures children defer to elders, rarely initiate topics of conversation, and take only brief speaking turns.  Adults are to be treated with deference and respect – children don’t express opinions, and adults are hardly likely to ask a child for their opinion.

North American mothers talk to and stimulate their babies to encourage the babies’ development as a unique person, while Japanese mothers comfort and lull babies and see the baby as an appendage – psychologically the boundaries between the two of them are blurred.  North American parents want their children to be popular with peers and well-liked by family and friends, and are willing to do a lot to make that happen.  In East Asia, high academic achievement is the primary objective and the child should willingly forgo popularity for exceptionality.

People control their children’s behavior in different ways.  I loved an example from the Ngoni of Malawi: “A proverb might suddenly be dropped like a stone into a pond.  The conversation rippled away into silence and the boy or girl who had refused to share some peanuts or had been boasting began to wonder to himself “Can that be for me? No? Yes? It is me. I am ashamed.” No one said anything but the shamed one took the first chance of slipping away to avoid further public notice.  The use of proverbs was an effective way of making a child learn for himself and apply the lesson.”  The Japanese use shame as well, as attention is called to filial obligations when children misbehave (“when you do that it makes mommy sad”).  Corporal punishment is still common around the world, from Morocco to Peru.  The rarest strategy, favored in WEIRD societies, is to “reason with” children, which may not be as effective at controlling behavior but does give some early preparation in negotiation skills and also facilitates the development of the (parent-as) teacher-pupil relationship.

Cultural issues have broad implications for the way we transmit knowledge to our children.  In many cultures children are expected to simply sit quietly and watch and learn – and they do.  Middle class North American parents set up learning situations with educational toys, pretend play, and in adjusting everyday activities like baking a cake to help the child learn how to cook.  In Southwest Madagascar an ethnographer observed a two-year old splashing alone in a tide pool, three boys aged around five clambering over a beached canoe, two boys aged about seven preparing and sailing model canoes, two boys aged about eight playing with an abandoned outrigger in the shallows – climbing on it, paddling it, capsizing it, taking turns as captain and mate; when two young men began to prepare to launch a full-size outrigger the two boys paddled over to watch this unfold; then a boy of about 10 came paddling in to shore in a half-size canoe.  An ethnographer who observed the Warao people in Venezuela said that “by the age of three all children know how to maneuver a canoe perfectly…it is truly breathtaking to observe a three year old child push off and paddle a canoe across an enormous river in full control of the craft.”  I know I assumed that everyone teaches their children things they think the children should know – but in the vast majority of non-WEIRD cultures parents don’t believe that knowledge must be crammed down children’s throats – instead the children will either learn because they want to, or because the physical or social consequences of not learning are too great.  In most places teaching is done for the benefit of the caretakers, to make the children easier to deal with, rather than for the child.  I’ve been reading a lot about scaffolding lately, which is the process of providing assistance to children to help them complete tasks that are just outside their current range of competence.  Lancy undercuts this by saying that “elaborate scaffolding is rarely seen in other cultures.  No one wants to waste time teaching novices who might well learn in time without instruction.  Play provides an alternative to adult scaffolding.”

One thing I haven’t seen in the ethnographic literature on other cultures is the concern for the child’s emotional wellbeing that I believe characterizes much of our interactions with our children in WEIRD countries.  We are moving away from hitting, ridiculing, and shaming because of the emotional consequences for both the child and later the adult, whereas I haven’t found any discussion of this at all related to other cultures.  I wonder if the adults resent the treatment they received as children or if, like college grads hired by investment banks, they simply look back on the experience as ‘character-building’ and perpetrate the same treatment on the next generation because, well, why not?  (At least, until the millennials came along…)

So what I’m going to do to tie this all up, which is the same thing I plan to do at the end of each of the future podcasts, is say “what the heck does all of this mean for me?  Why do I even care whether a three year-old Warao in Venezuela can paddle a canoe?”  My challenge both to myself and to you would be to recognize all of the decisions you make on an ongoing basis and just notice – not judge; just notice – the influence of culture on these and then to think about “what is the message I’m sending with what I’m saying or doing” and “is this the message I want to send?”  Dr. Dan Siegel did a great podcast as a guest with the group Zero to Three (look for the link on the blog page for this podcast) where he talks about parenting on automatic pilot: You’re aware you’re saying something or doing something but you didn’t really choose to say or do it; you’re just doing it.  And if you’re not conscious about how your own early experience shaped you, then whatever was said to or done to you ends up just being passed right on down to your kids. Then the interviewer makes a joke about why your parents push your buttons?  And the answer was because they installed them.

So what I encourage you to do is to be conscious of the things you’re saying and doing, and just notice for yourself whether or not these things are in line with the values you want to establish for your children.  So for example, when you’re at the dinner table, do you insist on children sitting up straight and keeping both writs on the edge of the table when his hands are not being used for eating like the French, or do you mostly ignore the children as you converse with the rest of the family, instead expecting the youngest to learn by watching? And I’m not the manners police here; I’m not here to say that one way of doing this is better than the other – I’m just describing two potential extremes that are currently practiced in different cultures today and wondering “how do I fit into this continuum?”  And “is what I’m doing likely to lead to the outcome I want for my child?”

Some other examples: when you’re working on one of your hobbies, how do you handle your child’s interest in the subject?  My two year-old daughter, Carys, is fascinated by cooking and in the past I’ve set up opportunities for her to cook – when we ran out of granola I would set up the kitchen, ingredients, and bowls so as to guide her through the process of making granola.  I’ve been using an approach to parenting called Resources for Infant Educarers, also known as RIE or respectful parenting (more on that in a future podcast), which advocates for not showing a child how to play (which is essentially what cooking is for Carys), but RIE advice officially “runs out” at age 2.  I’d had a hard time finding any information on anyone doing anything beyond that age other than providing educational opportunities to enhance children’s development, but now I see that in the grand scheme of things this is actually really uncommon and that providing her opportunities to simply watch me cook and later take on some of the simpler tasks herself would be just as much of a “learning” experience as the more elaborate set-ups I’d been doing.  When you’re around children who are playing and the play starts to get a bit excited and maybe aggressive, will you intervene or will you step back and let things play out?  Will you encourage sharing by forcing a child to give up a favorite toy to a playmate or by modeling sharing behavior?  And how will your own behavior be shaped by the expectations of your family, friends, and even strangers?  I know I feel the need to put on a bit of a “performance” when there are people watching.

As always, the references for this episode are on my website at yourparentingmojo.com; just go to Episode 1, The Importance of Culture in Parenting.

I’m looking forward to the next podcast, where we’ll be talking much more about the difficult topic of toddlers and sharing.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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