Different cultures, different childhoods (2023)

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Different cultures, different childhoods (1)

When I look back on my own childhood in the 1970s and 80s and compare it with children today, it reminds me of that famous sentence ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ (from L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between).

Even in a relatively short period of time, I can see the enormous transformations that have taken place in children’s lives and in the ways they are thought about and treated.

Looking further back I can see vast differences between contemporary and historical childhoods. Today, children have few responsibilities, their lives are characterised by play not work, school not paid labour, family rather than public life and consumption instead of production.

Yet this is all relatively recent. A hundred years ago, a twelve-year-old working in a factory would have been perfectly acceptable. Now, it would cause social services' intervention and the prosecution of both parents and factory owner.

American colonial families: Industrious girls treated with respect

The differences between the expectations placed on children today and those placed on them in the past are neatly summed up by two American writers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. Comparing childhoods in America today with those of the American Colonial period (1600-1775), they have written:

Today, a four year-old who can tie his or her shoes is impressive. In colonial times, four-year-old girls knitted stockings and mittens and could produce intricate embroidery: at age six they spun wool. A good, industrious little girl was called 'Mrs.' instead of 'Miss' in appreciation of her contribution to the family economy: she was not, strictly speaking, a child’.

Childhood: A social construction?

These changing ideas about children have led many social scientists to claim that childhood is a ‘social construction’. They use this term to mean that understandings of childhood are not the same everywhere and that while all societies acknowledge that children are different from adults, how they are different and what expectations are placed on them, change according to the society in which they live.

Social anthropologists have shown this in their studies of peoples with very different understandings of the world to Western ones.

Canadian Arctic: Acquiring understanding

Jean Briggs has worked with the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and has described how, within these communities, growing up is largely seen as a process of acquiring thought, reason and understanding (known in Inuit as ihuma).

Young children don’t possess these qualities and are easily angered, cry frequently and are incapable of understanding the external difficulties facing the community, such as shortages of food.

Because they can’t be reasoned with, and don’t understand, parents treat them with a great deal of tolerance and leniency. It’s only when they are older and begin to acquire thought that parents attempt to teach them or discipline them.

Tonga: Closer to insanity than adulthood

Different cultures, different childhoods (2) Royal New Zealand Navy Petty Officer Richard Boyd dances with school children during a Pacific Partnership 2009 community service project at Faleloa Primary School, Tonga. But some chilldren have a tougher time of it on the island. [Image: US Navy].

In contrast, children on the Pacific island of Tonga, studied by Helen Morton, are regularly beaten by their parents and older siblings.

(Video) Childhood Across Cultures

They are seen as being closer to 'mad' people than adults because they lack the highly prized quality of social competence (or poto as the Tongans call it).

They are regularly told off for being clumsy and a child who falls over may be laughed at, shouted at, or beaten. Children are thought of as mischievous; they cry or want to feed simply because they are naughty, and beatings are at their most severe between the ages of three and five when children are seen as particularly wilful.

Parents believe that social competence can only be achieved through discipline and physical punishment, and treat their children in ways that have seemed very harsh to outsiders.

The Beng: Arrivals from a spirit world

In other cases, ideas about children are radically different. For example, the Beng, a small ethnic group in West Africa, assume that very young children know and understand everything that is said to them, in whatever language they are addressed.

The Beng, who’ve been extensively studied by another anthropologist, Alma Gottleib, believe in a spirit world where children live before they are born and where they know all human languages and understand all cultures.

Life in the spirit world is very pleasant and the children have many friends there and are often very reluctant to leave it for an earthly family (a fictional account of a spirit child’s journey between the spirit and the earthly world is given in Ben Okri’s novel, The Famished Road).

When they are born, they remain in contact with this other world for several years, and may decide to return there if they are not properly looked after. So parents treat young children with great care so that they’re not tempted to return, and also with some reverence, because they’re in contact with the spirit world in a way that adults aren’t.

The UK: Dependency

There’s a tendency to view children in the UK, and in the Western world in general, as incompetent and dependent. But this isn’t the case throughout the world. In many societies children work and contribute to the family in whatever way that can from a very early age.

A good example of this is child care. In the UK, it is illegal for a child under the age of fourteen to look after another child unsupervised, because they’re deemed incompetent and irresponsible.

The Fulani: Working by the age of four

In other cultures, this is not the case. Michelle Johnson has written about the Fulani of West Africa describing how by the age of four, girls are expected to be able to care for their younger siblings, fetch water and firewood and by the age of six will be pounding grain, producing milk and butter and selling these alongside their mothers in the market.

The Yanamamo: Girls marry earlier than boys

Different cultures, different childhoods (3) Yanomami children [Image by Ambar under CC-BY-SA licence].

Across the world, among the Yanamamö of the Amazonian rainforest, another anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, has shown how different these children’s childhoods are from Western ones, and also how differently boys and girls grow up in comparison with other parts of the world.

He has written how a Yanamamö girl is expected to help her mother from a young age and by the age of ten will be running a house. By the age of twelve or thirteen she is probably married and will have started to have babies.

Boys on the other hand, have far fewer responsibilities. They don’t marry until later than girls and are allowed to play well into their teens. Western notions of childhood simply do not ‘fit’ in these cases, where children’s competence and responsibilities are understood very differently.

Studying very different communities

Social anthropologists ask questions about how childhood, and the role of children, is seen within the communities they study, rather than how it fits into Western ideas about childhood.

By doing this they seek to avoid imposing outside ideas onto people with very different understandings of the world or of making value judgments on other people’s ways of raising their children.

(Video) Childhood Across Cultures

While Westerners might take exception to eight-year-old girls working or to twelve-year-old girls marrying, within their own communities such activities are seen as a normal and positive part of childhood. Indeed, seen through the eyes of non-Westerners, many ‘normal’ Western childcare practices are seen as extremely bizarre and possibly harmful to children.

Placing children in rooms of their own, refusing to feed them on demand, or letting them cry rather than immediately tending to them, are viewed very negatively in many societies and lead some to think that Westerners don’t know how to look after children properly.

A changing phenomenon

Childhood is a changing social phenomenon, of continual fascination and concern. Looking at it from a cross-cultural perspective shows the wide variety of childhoods that exist across the world and warns against interfering in or criticising people whose lives, and understandings of the world, are very different to our own.

All societies recognise that children are different to adults and have particular qualities and needs; what anthropologists and other social scientists are interested in are the ideas that each society has about the nature of childhood and the impact these views have on children’s lives.

Find out more

Never in Anger
Jean Briggs, Harvard University Press.

Yanamamö: the fierce people
Napoleon Chagnon, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

For Her Own Good
Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English, Pluto Press.

The Afterlife Is Where We Come From. The culture of infancy in west Africa
Alma Gottleib, Chicago University Press.

The Go-Between
LP Hartley, Penguin.

The View From The Wuro: A Guide to Child Rearing for Fulani Parents
Michelle Johnson.

A World of Babies. Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies
Edited by Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottleib, Cambridge University Press.

Becoming Tongan: An Ethnography of Childhood
Helen Morton, University of Hawaii Press.

The Famished Road,
Ben Okri, Vintage.

Editor's Note: This page was originally published with an photograph of The Shilluk people in their village Yom - in Tonga, Sudan, rather than the Pacific Island of the same name to which the article referred.

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How does culture affect childhood? ›

Cultural background gives children a sense of who they are. The unique cultural influences children respond to from birth, including customs and beliefs around food, artistic expression, language, and religion, affect the way they develop emotionally, socially, physically, and linguistically.

How does culture affect determine children's childhood experience? ›

Cultural differences in interactions between adults and children also influence how a child behaves socially. For instance, in Chinese culture, where parents assume much responsibility and authority over children, parents interact with children in a more authoritative manner and demand obedience from their children.

Why is it important for children to learn about different cultures? ›

Diversity activities teach young children to respect and celebrate the differences in all people. Learning about different cultural aspects offers new experiences for children. It also helps them realize that we're all humans, despite differences in how we look or dress, or what we eat or celebrate.

How does modern culture affect childhood? ›

Growing up in a technology surrounded environment prevents children from spending time doing other activities. This could later trigger bad habits and depression in their teenage years. Social media especially has a negative influence on young and growing minds.

How does culture influence who you are? ›

Our culture shapes the way we work and play, and it makes a difference in how we view ourselves and others. It affects our values—what we consider right and wrong. This is how the society we live in influences our choices. But our choices can also influence others and ultimately help shape our society.

How do you explain cultural differences? ›

Cultural differences are the various beliefs, behaviors, languages, practices and expressions considered unique to members of a specific ethnicity, race or national origin.

What are the 3 ways to understand cultural differences? ›

How to Understand and Admire Cultural Differences
  • 1 Broadening Your Horizons at Home.
  • 2 Staying Open-minded while Traveling.
  • 3 Accepting Odd or Extreme Cultural Practices.

Why is it important to know about different cultures? ›

Understanding cultures will help us overcome and prevent racial and ethnic divisions. Racial and ethnic divisions result in misunderstandings, loss of opportunities, and sometimes violence.

How does culture affect childhood trauma? ›

Culture shapes the way individuals experience childhood and how they raise their children. Behaviors that are considered abusive in one culture, such as corporal punishment or harsh verbal discipline, may be considered acceptable in another.

How does cultural background affect learning? ›

Cultural differences can often be subtle; however, they do impact students' learning. For example, learners from different cultures can have different views on classroom behavior, such as student-teacher interaction, as well as different views on the value of education.

What is cultural identity in early childhood? ›

Cultural identity refers to how individuals are affected by their culture and establish a sense of belonging. Learn how culture identity impacts early childhood development, including cognitive, emotional, social, physical, and language development. Updated: 01/20/2022.

How can we help children with different cultures? ›

expand children's awareness of difference through social events, books, songs or play materials. research biographical stories of local people and people from around the world and introduce these stories to children. encourage children to recognise and appreciate people for the things that make them unique and special.

How do you teach children about different cultures? ›

How to Teach Your Child About Different Cultures
  1. Prepare a Food to Try. ...
  2. Learn Some of a Different Language. ...
  3. Find Out About a New Holiday. ...
  4. Discover a Custom. ...
  5. Listen to Traditional Music. ...
  6. Learn About a Role Model. ...
  7. Find the Country or Region on a Map. ...
  8. Make a Photo Collage.
16 Dec 2021

What makes people cultures different not the same? ›

Education, social standing, religion, personality, belief structure, past experience, affection shown in the home, and a myriad of other factors will affect human behavior and culture.

Is modern culture ruining childhood Why or why not? ›

So, is modern culture ruining childhood? Not necessarily. It's true that there are a lot more dangers out there for modern children, but there's a lot more opportunity, too. If a child is equipped with the right tools for negotiating the dangers of modern life, then they can have a happy, fulfilling childhood.

How does culture affect early memories? ›

“Your culture influences what you perceive to be important around you,” Gutchess explains. “If your culture values social interactions, you will remember those interactions better than a culture that values individual perceptions. Culture really shapes your memory.”

How has culture affected families? ›

Cultural values can influence communication orientation, or the degree of interaction between family members, as well as conformity orientation, or the degree of conformity within a family. Both of these define the limitations of communication within the family.

How does culture affect my life? ›

Culture defines people's values, beliefs, and personal interests. It allows myself and others to maintain an identity in society, which I believe is important. We are the people we are today because of our upbringings. Culture plays a huge role in shaping our identity.

How culture is related to our life? ›

In addition to its intrinsic value, culture provides important social and economic benefits. With improved learning and health, increased tolerance, and opportunities to come together with others, culture enhances our quality of life and increases overall well-being for both individuals and communities.

How does culture shape the self? ›

Personality traits: Culture influences your personality and how it is displayed, such as if and how you value traits like humility, self-esteem, politeness, and assertiveness. Culture also influences how you perceive hardship and how you feel about relying on others.

What are some examples of cultural differences? ›

9 Unique Cultural Differences Around The World
  • People in Malaysia Use Their Thumb to Point. ...
  • Nicaraguans Point With Their Lips. ...
  • The French Go In For Kissing. ...
  • Nigerians Kneel or Prostrate Themselves When Greeting. ...
  • People Might Spit on the Bride at Greek Weddings. ...
  • In Russia, September 12 Is Known as the Day of Conception.

What are the biggest cultural differences? ›

Nine national cultural value differences
  • Individualism vs. Collectivism. ...
  • Power Distance. In high Power Distance societies, hierarchical systems of assigned roles organise behaviour. ...
  • Uncertainty Avoidance. ...
  • Orientation to Time. ...
  • Gender Egalitarianism. ...
  • Assertiveness. ...
  • Being vs. ...
  • Humane Orientation.
23 Jun 2015

How do you experience different cultures? ›

Consider spending a weekend learning about a different culture by taking part in one of the following activities:
  1. Visit your local museum. ...
  2. Read a book. ...
  3. Discover how other cultures express themselves… in music, film, and literature. ...
  4. Do your research. ...
  5. Try new cuisine.
8 Dec 2021

What are the 8 main types of cultural differences? ›

Cultural Inclusion Fundamentals: Eight Core Cultural Differences
  • Individualism vs. Collectivism. ...
  • Power Distance. ...
  • Uncertainty Avoidance. ...
  • Gender Egalitarianism. ...
  • Assertiveness (Cooperative vs. ...
  • Orientation to Time. ...
  • Being vs. ...
  • Indulgence vs.
9 Mar 2018

What is the most important reason to be aware of cultural differences? ›

The most important reason why we should be culturally aware is so we have an increased awareness of people all over the world. This helps us develop a deeper understanding of our own and other people's cultures, while broadening the mind and increasing tolerance.

Do different cultures express trauma differently? ›

Cultural differences can exist in the perception and interpretation of the trauma event, the meaning given to the traumatic event and beliefs about control over the event.

How does culture affect a child's mental health? ›

Culture significantly impacts various aspects of mental health including the perception of health and illness, treatment-seeking behaviour and coping styles. As such, simplified mainstreaming of mental health approaches may not cater to the needs of a culturally diverse population from different communities.

How cultural differences affect students? ›

Students who learn about different cultures during their education feel more comfortable and safe with these differences later in life. This allows them to interact in a wider range of social groups and feel more confident in themselves as well as in their interactions with others.

How does culture influence students Behaviour? ›

Cultural gaps can cause teachers to misinterpret students' behavior, which can lead to conflict. These conflicts can have a range of effects: students feeling misunderstood or marginalized, higher rates of discipline referrals, and students leaving school altogether.

How does culture affect the society? ›

Culture plays a major role in the lives of everyone in the society. Culture gives you a sense of belonging, especially when everyone speaks the same language. Language evolves with the culture as an intimate product of the way those within the society communicate.

Why is it important to support the cultural identity of children? ›

A sense of identity equals a sense of belonging

Identity plays a key role in healthy child development. When a child feels a sense of belonging to family, community and peers he or she is better able to deal with adversity.

How important is cultural identity in development? ›

Introduction. 'Culture' refers to the customs, practices, languages, values and world views that define social groups such as those based on ethnicity, region, or common interests. Cultural identity is important for people's sense of self and how they relate to others.

How does childhood affect identity? ›

The Role of Early Childhood Education and Play

Children develop self-identity, who they believe themselves to be, and begin to form relationships through play and peer relations which contribute to their emotional, social and cognitive development.

How do you ensure children learn about different cultures beyond their own experience? ›

Play materials, books and other resources can be offered in a constructive way by reflecting on how young children learn about culture and cultural identity. Shared culture is communicated through the events of daily life, such as food, ways of dress and familiar music or art forms.

Why is it important to learn about other cultures essay? ›

By immersing ourselves in other cultures beyond our own, we can learn about each other—where people came from, what their traditions are, and what they struggle with as a community. It also forces us to criticize assumptions held about our own daily life and practices, encouraging incredible personal growth.

Do people from different cultures think differently? ›

Cultures differ in their norms (what people are supposed to do in certain situations, e.g., greetings or what to eat) and values (what people regard as important, e.g., protecting the honor of the family or who to marry), but people from different cultures also differ in their thinking.

What happens when two totally different cultures meet? ›

Assimilation. The process of a assimilation when the two cultures meet often only happens when one is more advanced than the other and swallow up the other culture. This eventually leads to complete loss of cultural identity. It sometimes- like adoption, results in a complete new culture.

Why do different cultures behave differently? ›

The answer is that the environment where people live in shape their behaviors. In other words the behaviors of certain society is derived from its environment. Surely, a person who lives in a dessert would behave differently; than a person who lives in a city due to the differences in their environment.

What impact would your culture have on your parenting of a child? ›

Cultural norms about parenting practices typically influence how children are raised. These norms affect what beliefs and values parents teach their children, what behaviors are considered appropriate, and the methods used to teach these values and behaviors.

How does culture affect student development? ›

Culture includes what people actually do and what they believe. Culture influences greatly how we see the world, how we try to understand it and how we communicate with each other. Therefore, culture determines, to a great extent, learning and teaching styles.

How does culture affect children's cognitive development? ›

Culture contributes to cognitive development by providing children with structured, meaningful, and motivating opportunities to acquire, prac- tice, refine, and extend their understanding and skills (Rogoff, 2003).

What are some challenges faced by parents from different cultures? ›

Some of the things that can be difficult to manage with a parent from a different culture are: language barriers, if they don't speak English very well. different opinions on things such as discipline, curfews, expectations or alcohol. dating someone from a different culture.

How does culture affect emotional development? ›

Culture constrains how emotions are felt and expressed in a given cultural context. It shapes the ways people should feel in certain situations and the ways people should express their emotions.

How cultural differences affect learning? ›

Cultural differences can often be subtle; however, they do impact students' learning. For example, learners from different cultures can have different views on classroom behavior, such as student-teacher interaction, as well as different views on the value of education.

What is the importance of culture in your life as a student? ›

In children and youth, participation in culture helps develop thinking skills, builds self-esteem, and improves resilience, all of which enhance education outcomes.

What role does culture play in learning? ›

Culture helps us make sense of our social worlds and shapes our actions, thoughts, and feelings. For example, culture plays a role in the way we experience emotions, construct our self-concepts, and learn and problem-solve.

How do culture influence behavior and mental processes? ›

If culture fosters a more extroverted personality style, we can expect more need for social interaction. Additionally, Individualistic cultures foster more assertive and outspoken behavior. When the general population encourages these gregarious behaviors, more ideas are exchanged and self-esteem increases.

How does culture affect attention and memory? ›

Individuals from Western cultures tend to focus on that which is object-based, categorically related, or self-relevant whereas people from Eastern cultures tend to focus more on contextual details, similarities, and group-relevant information.


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