Everyone is born into a cultural environment. Cultures vary widely in belief systems, settings, languages, and processes of transmission, such as child socialization and teaching. Culture also provides a set of “rules” for interaction and a kind of blueprint for human development. The study of cross-cultural development is concerned with the varieties of human behavior across time and across cultural places.
What Is Culture?
Culture and ethnicity are often used interchangeably without distinction. Ethnicity is the label one uses to identify one’s social identity, usually defined as race, national origin, or religion. Culture can be thought of as the set of beliefs, values, and practices of a particular group that are transmitted across generations. Culture is dynamic, constantly shaped, and produced by members of its group.
Culture has qualities that are internal, external, and interactive. Internal qualities to the individual include knowledge, skills, and values. External qualities to the individual include tools or institutions. Culture has an interactive nature as well, such as shared social activities among people. The role of culture in behavior is pervasive and should be considered in any examination of human development across the life span.
What Is Human Development And Why Is Culture An Important Part Of It?
Human development can be understood as the lifelong interactional processes of perceiving and experiencing culture as triggered from the outside, shaped from the inside in one’s mind, and cocreated with others in interaction. In other words, developmental and cultural processes are constantly intertwined. Groups of people share culture and negotiate cultural issues. At the same time, culture is subjectively experienced by the individual. Cultural experiences vary even among members of the same group.
Early studies of cross-cultural development were often ethnocentric, using the researchers’ own values, beliefs, and practices as the standard for interpreting and evaluating the developmental processes and outcomes in other cultural groups. More recently, researchers have emphasized that every cultural group has its own standard and should be interpreted in its own right. This includes not only research that is conducted across cultures with national boundaries, but also for diverse cultural groups within a single society.
Systems In The Study Of Cross-Cultural Development
The developmental niche is a useful theoretical framework proposed by Charles Super and Sara Harkness to integrate findings across cultures and disciplines. The developmental niche is composed of three interacting subsystems surrounding the child: the settings in which the child participates, the psychology of the caretakers, and the customs of the community regarding child care.
Settings in Which the Child Participates
Children develop by increasing their participation in cultural activities of multiple settings. This development occurs as activities in one’s daily experiences help to build the cultural beliefs and values under which the person operates. Culture becomes a kind of software built into the hardware of the biological system of the human body. The software is built through everyday interactions and practices that shape development, such as schooling, reading and writing, playing sports, carpentry, or weaving. The ways that children are engaged in these and other kinds of activities provide clues as to the rules for human behavior in a particular cultural place.
The Psychology of the Caretakers
Parental goals vary across cultures, and they shape child care practices and outcomes. Robert LeVine proposed a universal hierarchy of parental goals. Once parents have ensured the survival and health of their children, they can focus on training children in skills needed for adult life, such as providing food, shelter, and clothing for themselves and a future potential family. Upon meeting these parental goals, they can then focus on ensuring that children are involved in activities to learn the cultural values of their group. In the case where child survival is low, parents may not reach the last goal because they will spend much of their efforts reaching the first goal of ensuring child survival.
Customs for Child Care
Cultures differ widely in child-rearing practices. A predominant practice for many in the United States is to provide infants with active stimulation in cognitive and social areas. Cognitive stimulation is provided in the form of toys that teach or build skills of reading or counting; social stimulation is provided with a great deal of face-to-face contact and talk to babies and children.
In many of the world’s cultures, however, there is a belief that children should not be actively stimulated, and child-centered conversations are minimal. For example, in the Gusii culture of Kenya, there is a predominant belief that infants can be easily overstimulated and that this can lead to illness. As such, low levels of cognitive and social stimulation are provided to infants; parents rarely speak directly to infants, they avoid eye contact, and they are careful not to excite infants’ emotional responses. Although there are differences between the Gusii and Americans, children grow up with a sense of emotional well-being in either cultural context.
Domains Of Study In Cross-Cultural Development
Cross-cultural researchers focus on understanding the cognitive and social domains of development. Research on cognitive development across cultures has included schooling, literacy, categorization, counting, and the use of tools. The use of tools can vary widely across cultures, and it can influence the ways that people think about the world. Familiarity with the cognitive goals of a cultural group helps researchers to avoid underestimating children’s abilities. For example, among Maya children of Mexico, Ashley Maynard and Patricia Greenfield found that those children who knew how to weave performed better on a task of cognitive development that tapped weaving knowledge than they did on a task that tapped the same underlying knowledge, but in a different format.
Cross-cultural researchers also study social development. Areas of study include attachment, friendship, peers, and parent-child interactions. Attachment is a universal process by which infants and caregivers build close bonds with one another. The cross-cultural study of attachment has shown that the different patterns across cultures can be attributed to the dissimilarity of cultural goals across groups. In some cultures, such as the European-American middle class, the goal of the attachment relationship is to maximize children’s independence, and the baby sleeps in a separate crib in a separate room. In other cultures, such as the Maya of Mexico, the goal of the attachment relationship is to encourage children’s interdependence, so that the baby sleeps with the mother and is carried during much of the day on the caregiver’s body.
Application To Minority Immigrant Children
The study of cross-cultural development has implications for understanding the development of minority immigrant children. Historically, studies on the developmental processes of immigrant and minority children have followed a “deficit” model. This model takes mainstream cultural values as the standard for evaluating minority/immigrant children’s behaviors. For example, immigrant students’ lack of eye contact while interacting with teachers at school is sometimes interpreted as students’ lack of self-confidence or unassertiveness. Yet, immigrant parents transmit to their children the cultural belief that looking directly at authority figures signals disrespect.
Ancestral values of minority groups in the United States and other multicultural societies shape the distinct patterns of socialization and development. For example, the values of ancestral homelands influence immigrant parents’ participation in their children’s schooling. Compared with the mainstream American value that places emphasis on parental participation to ensure children’s school success, many recent Latino immigrant parents believe that teachers alone are responsible for children’s schooling and that they should not micromanage it. Despite the fact that immigrant parents are likely to value education as highly as other parents, immigrant parents’ lack of direct participation in children’s schooling is often interpreted by teachers and administrators as lack of advocacy and support for their children’s educational endeavors.
It is also important to recognize a power dynamic between ethnic groups, because the relationship between dominant and less dominant groups has an impact on development. For instance, social science curriculum in high schools is more likely to emphasize and to reflect the experiences of the majority rather than minority groups in the United States. To move away from this deficit model of educating minority children, it is important to incorporate the child’s cultural values or language in school curriculum. Recent findings show, for example, that bilingual education that incorporates children’s heritage language in instruction can actually improve their mastery of the English language. It was long believed, however, that “English-only” language instruction was critical for children’s mastery of the English language.
The study of cross-cultural development generates knowledge about developmental processes and experiences in different cultures around the world. Cross-cultural researchers also generate findings about the minority and immigrant groups and about the interactions of different cultural groups when they come together. This knowledge is used to advance our study of development more generally.
In an age of increasing globalization, the study of cross-cultural development is central to our understanding of the variety of experiences available to people around the world, the varying pathways for development, and the increasing diversity of many multicultural societies. Understanding the cultural variation in developmental processes furthers the understanding of the underlying construct itself.
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