Culture and Community
As your child’s inner foundation becomes established, and he learns to relate to others, he also reaches out to understand and connect to his environment. He looks to his culture and community at large, to find a sense of belonging and to discover more about who he is.
Culture is the pattern of behavior and way of life of a social group. It includes values, beliefs, traditions, kinship and economic systems, assumptions, child rearing practices, and many more aspects of life. Culture is learned, shared, and ever-changing. Most people participate in both a larger mainstream culture and smaller cultural groups. Some people think of themselves as having no culture, but everyone has an individual and unique way of being part of a culture. Just as a fish does not know that he is in water until he is out of water, you may take your culture for granted.
When I moved to Japan from Mississippi, I experienced culture shock as I noticed the differences in lifestyle practices. I did not think that I had an accent, and I did not realize the extent of my cultural habits, until I had the opportunity to compare my values, beliefs, and behaviors with those of another culture. While in Japan, I made a list of some of the Japanese cultural practices that were opposite to my own:
- Driving on the left side of the road
- Writing from top to bottom and right to left
- Addressing a person with the family name before the personal name
- Addressing a letter with the name of the country first and the person’s name last
- Addressing God as “She” (I grew up calling God “He”)
The experience of being in another culture and recognizing differences, both extreme and moderate, helped me understand my own way of life and culture. It also gave me the framework to question what I had always known and to make informed, proactive choices about my beliefs and how I wanted to live.
Culture influences a child’s development through expectations of goals and aspirations; values related to gender roles; religious or spiritual values; and ideas about sleeping, feeding, and playing. These factors shape his cognitive, linguistic, and social-emotional development.
Harvard anthropologist Robert LeVine, PhD suggests that parents from all cultures have a common set of goals for their children, and that these goals build on each other:
- Physical survival and health
- Development of the capacity for economic self-maintenance
- Development of the behavioral capacities for maximizing other cultural values—morality, prestige, wealth, religious piety, intellectual achievement, personal satisfaction, and self-realization
Much of the research on culture has come from European and American scholars who believe that the ideas and findings from their own communities can be applied to people everywhere. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists had a basic assumption that social evolution progresses in a linear path from primitive to civilized, and that “Western” schooling and culture would support any civilization.
Such ethnocentrism prejudged other cultures as inferior and denied the importance of deeper understanding. For example, these scholars did not consider that literacy might not be as important to a child in West Africa as understanding weather and other patterns in nature. Because different cultural circumstances give rise to different needs, it is invalid to suppose that all cultures should share a single desirable set of criteria for a child’s success in life.
When I was in Japan, I experienced the dramatic cultural difference between individualism (which predominates in European and North American societies) and interdependence (which prevails in Asian, African, and Latin American societies). Individualistic societies are concerned with individual achievement and self-fulfillment, while interdependent cultures encourage their children to focus on responsibilities to others and the value of collective goals.
At Dream Window Kindergarten [where I worked in Japan], the idea of wagamama, or self-centeredness, was highly discouraged. Children were encouraged to consider the group’s needs over their individual desires. In contrast, in the United States, through my experiences in teaching and my involvement with my daughters’ education, I found that individualism and competitiveness played more prominent roles in school than encouraging students to make a contribution to a collective group.
I believe there are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches. Both sets of values helped their respective cultures progress in their own way. My opinion today, as we become a more global community, is that an integrated and satisfying life includes both individual and collective achievement.
During the past 150 years, with industrialization and the systemization of education and medical services in the United States, the cultural concept of age has become a measure of development and a way of sorting people. In the past, students progressed in their education as they learned, regardless of their age. For generations, however, our education system has been very age conscious: students of the same age expected to be at the same level in their studies, without regard to their unique abilities and sensibilities.
The separation of home and workplace in American culture also brought the segregation of children into child-focused settings. In many cultures, however, young children learn to be autonomous and responsible beginning in infancy. As part of a young child’s daily play and work, he helps with younger siblings, works in a garden, goes to the market, or completes other tasks.
Different cultures have different assumptions for children’s capabilities and skills, and these expectations can influence a child’s ability. In her book Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman, who is American, tells her story of raising her children in France. She points out that the French expect their children to eat certain foods and to act a certain way, and these expectations influence their capabilities and behavior.
In comparing two cultures, it is impossible to reduce the differences to a single variable. People in different cultures may move toward the same purpose with different means. Other times they may use similar means to accomplish different goals. In Mei-Ling Hopgood’s book, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting, she describes the special ways that parents in 11 different cultures traditionally take care of their children.
Hopgood acknowledges that globalization has changed the ways that people in many cultures feed, sleep, teach, and play with their children; many people have left behind their customary ways and means. She says that looking at parenthood through the eyes of parents in different cultures has opened her mind and changed some of her beliefs and practices. Hopgood believes that, despite cultural differences, most societies share the desire to raise children who can thrive in the reality in which they live. She concludes that parenting is an evolving process and that there is more than one way to be a good parent in the world.
You can understand your own cultural heritage by observing the perspectives of other cultural communities without a value judgment and with an open mind. This does not necessarily mean that all ways are acceptable to you or that you have to give up your own ways. However, examination of different circumstances can open up possibilities that do not exclude each other. Like individuals, cultural communities change.
Variations in cultures are a resource to draw from and to use when building new ways of understanding human development. My experience of parenting in Japan inspired me to observe and to question my own cultural history and habits, and to use that understanding to parent intentionally.
Here are some ways that you can support your child’s awareness of his cultural experience:
- Bring awareness to the beliefs and values of each parent’s family of origin, and talk about how they come together to create your family culture. Discuss common ground, as well as differences.
- Make a list of some of your nuclear family’s cultural behaviors.
- Observe and talk about cultural habits in a group in which you participate, such as a church, extended family, neighborhood, parent’s group, or play group.
- Travel to different cultures with your child. If you live in a city, you may only need to go around the corner to find a different culture. If you live in a rural area, you may need to travel farther to experience a different culture.
- Discuss with your child what customs from other cultures you would like to borrow and incorporate into your family’s culture.
Awareness of his own culture, in the context of understanding other cultures, opens your child’s mind to different areas of life and increases empathy and other social competencies. This awareness also helps him realize that there are many ways to look at issues, to solve problems, and to be in the world.