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March 24, 2003

New book shows how culture shapes human development

By Jennifer McNulty

The thought of young children handling knives makes many American parents shudder, yet toddlers in parts of Africa safely use machetes. Similarly, infants in middle-class communities in the United States are often expected to sleep alone by the time they're only a few months old, while Mayan children typically share their mother's bed through their toddler years.

book cover

Although there is more variation in child development than psychologists have written about, the variation is not random, notes Barbara Rogoff.

These striking differences in child-rearing practices reflect the diverse range of what is considered developmentally appropriate for children around the world, depending on their cultural circumstances.

The contrasts reveal the extent to which notions of human development are culturally defined, says Barbara Rogoff, a UCSC professor of psychology and author of the new book The Cultural Nature of Human Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

"All children grow as members of cultural communities," said Rogoff, an expert on learning and development who holds the UC Santa Cruz Foundation Chair in Psychology. "So understanding how childhood is supported, constrained, and constructed in any community is part of understanding child development."

Research on human development has tended to focus on determining when children are capable of certain skills without examining the cultural processes that shape their development, said Rogoff. Coupled with the assumption that "early is good, late is bad," age-related theories of child development become problematic. "The racetrack approach often has damaging effects on children," she said.

The very notion of familiar developmental "milestones," such as the ability to sleep independently, walk and read by certain ages, and "move away from home" in early adulthood, reflects European American middle-class culture.

"People think that what they have experienced is natural," explained Rogoff. "It's normal to take one's own community's ways for granted, but that involves cultural blinders. Once we look beyond our own assumptions, it becomes clear that there is not just one best way, as tempting as it is to think there is."

Although there is more variation in child development than psychologists have written about, the variation is not random, noted Rogoff. "One of the aims of my book is to go beyond saying 'culture matters' and begin to describe the regularities involved in the cultural variations," she said. For example, a key variable is whether children are routinely included in the range of events of their community or are often segregated into specialized child-focused settings.

The United States is a highly age-segregated society, with children spending much of their time away from the activities of adults. That segregation removes children from important opportunities to observe and learn from elders by participating in valued community activities, said Rogoff. In communities that are age-segregated, childhood is often viewed as 'preparation' for later entry into the adult world, she noted. Adults arrange for children's involvement in exercises--in school or at home--to prepare for community involvement in adulthood.

In contrast, Rogoff was struck by what she has observed during nearly 30 years of research in a Mayan community in Guatemala, where children often learn through a process of observation and supportive guidance as they engage in community activities. Young Mayan girls, for instance, regularly observe women weaving complicated patterns because weaving is a daily household activity. Experienced weavers watch for their daughters to express interest and then set up a simple weaving project beside their own, which allows them to offer what Rogoff calls "guidance embedded in activity."

Unlike in middle-class communities in the U.S., where learning is often pegged to age and managed in specialized child-focused settings, instruction in this Mayan community is generally triggered by the child's interest in becoming involved in valued family and community activities. "Measuring development with age milestones has been foreign because, until recently, many people have not kept track of how old they are," said Rogoff.

Compulsory schooling has embedded the chronological approach to child development in the U.S. over the past 150 years. For bureaucratic efficiency, schools segregate children into narrow age groups and process their learning by age, an approach that plays into adult concerns about the speed of development.

Developmental psychologists have much to learn from a more culturally inclusive approach to human development, said Rogoff. And, she suggests in The Cultural Nature of Human Development, children benefit from opportunities to engage responsibly with people of all ages and to learn by contributing to valued community activities, regardless of their age.

Rogoff holds the UC Santa Cruz Foundation chair in Psychology.

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