Culture starts early


multiracial-babiesI am punching away at my final manuscript, which is due in 1 week, so I probably shouldn’t be blogging. But, its an excuse to take a quick break… plus, I read an article in the Chicago Tribune that I thought was really interesting, and reveals some insightful realities about culture.

It’s entitled “Americans apply unique style to raising children,” and is written by Nicholas Day Slate.  He opens the article by saying this:

New parenthood is a desperate search for certainty: When you start knowing nothing, you are desperate to know something. And when you finally figure that something out — how to get this creature to eat or sleep — that becomes the answer. Any parent this side of sanity clings to that certainty for dear life.

He goes on to cite some research from Sara Harkness.  She is a professor of human development at the University of Connecticut, and has spent decades compiling and analyzing the answers of parents in other cultures.  What Dr. Harkness concluded is that the perspective on what it means to be a “good” parent changes radically in every culture. There are different approaches, different styles, different emphases… so much so that, what is viewed as important by one culture is often perceived as a disadvantage by another. Here is one excerpt from the article:

In a study conducted by Harkness and her international colleagues, American parents talked about their children as intelligent and even as “cognitively advanced.” (Also: rebellious.) Italian parents, though, very rarely praised their children for being intelligent. Instead, they were even-tempered and “simpatico.”

So although both the Americans and the Italians noted that their children asked lots of questions, they meant very different things by it: For the Americans, it was a sign of intelligence; for the Italians, it was a sign of socio-emotional competence . The observation was the same; the interpretation was radically different.

Every society interprets its children in its own way: The Dutch, for example, liked to talk about long attention spans and “regularity,” or routine and rest. (In the Dutch mind, asking lots of questions is a negative attribute: It means the child is too dependent.)

The Spanish talked about character and sociality, the Swedes about security and happiness.

Intelligence is Americans’ answer. In various studies, American parents are seen trying to make the most of every moment, to give their children a developmental boost. From deep inside the belly of American parenthood, this is so obvious it isn’t even an observation. It is only by looking at other societies that you can see just how anomalous such a focus is.

Here’s one more interesting contrast that was made:

In a survey Harkness and her colleagues conducted of parents in Western cultures, the last question was: “What’s the most important thing you can do for your child’s development right now?” “The American parents almost to a person said, ‘Stimulation. Stimulation is what my child needs.’

Meanwhile in Spain, everyone — experts, doctors, mothers — stressed the importance of a stimulating daily walk: You see people in your neighborhood. Objects aren’t stimulating. People are stimulating.

Many of these specific contrasts were interesting in and of themselves, but the article also makes an important point about culture at a macro-level: “Culture operates at a deeper level than any individual parenting choice.”

I think that’s an important thing for all us to remember. Whether its parenting style, views on faith & religion, perspectives on family, etc. there is a tendency to categorize our personal view as “normal.” But “normal” is most often just a reflection of a person’s culturally shaped worldview.

“Normal” for American children might mean individual stimulation, while “normal” for Spanish children might have a much more communal connotation.  “Normal” for American children might push them towards asking lots of questions, while “normal” for Dutch children might mean the opposite.

One of my deeply held beliefs is that our own personal growth is directly tied to an honest assessment of how we already see the world, and then being willing to explore what is healthy and what is unhealthy about the worldview that we have culturally inherited. One of the most efficient ways to do that is by putting words around our cultural perspectives, and then comparing and contrasting that to the cultural perspectives of other groups.

Much more can and needs to be said about that, but this article provided a good jumping off point. If our cultural lens shapes the way parents see “normal” when raising children, then it goes without saying that culture has a profound impact on us from the day we are born. The way we define intelligence, stimulation, community, questions, conversation… everything really… is shaped in us by the culture we are born into.

This is of course, one of the great advantages of living in multi-cultural community. The more diversity of lifestyle and perspective that you are connected to, the broader your worldview tends to become. And as your worldview broadens, you become freer to pick and choose which of your inherited cultural viewpoints you want to keep, and which ones you want to let go of for a more healthy and robust viewpoint that you found in another culture.

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