Culture and Child Development

With increased contact across cultural and ethnic groups, the notions of childhood and the kid himself have become areas of intense research. Anthropologists, historians, and cultural child psychologists have endeavoured to analyse the lives of children and their perceptions of childhood in various cultural situations. These difficulties are exacerbated by the constantly shifting social and political contexts in which children grow up.

They underscore the very social and historical framing of childhood constructions. Ethnic differences in parenting may reflect adjustments to various settings for child development needed by divergent ecological, social, and cultural goals rather than inherent, unchanging 'ethnic distinctions'.

Developmental Niche and Ecocultural Pathways

The concept of a developmental niche was introduced as a framework for studying the production of child health and development through the interaction of the physical and social settings of the child's everyday life, culturally determined childcare customs, and parental theories about children. The components of the niche comprise the more comprehensive strategy for childcare and the child's daily routines.

In specific ecocultural contexts, children's daily routines express the main aims and construct cultural developmental paths. Carrying, co-sleeping, nursing, quick responsiveness to crying, and substitution care by siblings when the mother is working are all examples of how intimate physical connection with the infant is maintained in places of the globe where child survival is hazardous. The quest for knowledge is put on hold until survival is ensured. Physical interaction and stimulation boost the growth and development of attentional processes and neuromuscular competence.

In contrast, in technologically advanced North America, where child survival is less critical but preparation for competency in future occupational roles graded by mastery of literacy-based skills is essential, mothers emphasise the acquisition of language skills and mastery of the object world through communicative interaction and object naming from an early age, rather than close physical proximity. The models are also helpful for analysing changes in parenting methods due to changes in the ecocultural milieu.

Childhood and Parenting across Cultures

As most accounts of children's development and needs are framed within writings from North America and Europe, the normative description of childhood is often based on children growing up within Northern cultures. Differences across class and socioeconomic strata are subsumed within this. Culture is frequently relegated to the function of an 'add-on' element to assumed normative criteria that are uniformly applied.

On the other hand, recent cultural studies of children have called into question beliefs about 'cultural universals' and underlined the importance of culture in moulding human actions, particularly those of parents and children. How influential is culture to notions such as childhood, child development, and the ideals guiding parental raising of children?

Although children develop along broadly similar species-specific lines, and the goal of parenting is similar across cultures, namely for children to become competent adults in their own cultural, moral, and economic world, there are significant differences in what constitutes the desired competencies and how to achieve them. Shweder argues that any aspect of human nature we try to understand must have a central essence.

However, that essence is a heterogeneous collection of structures and inclinations substantiated by the historical experiences of different cultural communities, resulting in "One mind, many mentalities: universalism without uniformity." This is not the same as culture being regarded as deviations from a normative standard. James offered an incisive question for youngsters: 'One childhood or many?' These challenges are further examined using examples from cross-cultural work.

Cultural Influences in Different Child Stages


The concept of developmental phases is culturally formed. Developmental psychologists identify the end of infancy as the start of 'toddlerhood,' which begins at the age of two years and is characterised by linguistic and motor proficiency. This, however, is a cultural norm based on the belief that life phases should be delimited by decisive moments in time. It differs from cultural standards in which the acquisition of moral sensibility is the critical reference point. Puritans in New England began harsh discipline at the age of one year, believing that infancy had ended and the Devil had taken control. The ethnographic record suggests that active teaching begins at least after five years in most regions of the world since it is considered that children before this age are too immature or lack sense to be taught critical things. The Baganda of Uganda frequently encourages newborns to sit independently as early as four months because sitting up and smiling is a valuable asset among the Baganda, who place great importance on face-to-face communication.

Middle Childhood 

Middle childhood has gotten comparatively less attention in cultural activity since the advent of compulsory schooling in most areas of the world. A deeper look, however, uncovers remarkable disparities in how children's lives are arranged at this point. The Girima (Kenya) ethnographic account captures some deviations from the conventional expectations of children during this period in North America. However, these discrepancies are also evident in many other ethnic groups in the developing globe. Girima believes that giving children responsibilities that teach responsibility and mutuality is essential for future adult cooperative roles. Children as young as two years old take satisfaction in running errands, and by the age of eight, a girl may be expected to pound corn and a boy to herd. Work allows children to gain skills for future gender-specific tasks and participate in cooperative activities with other children. These activities are frequently paired with school attendance. On the other hand, wage work is still a reality for children from socioeconomically disadvantaged households in many areas of the world, and it helps keep commodity prices low globally.


Adolescence appears to exist globally as a period between childhood and maturity in which people act and are evaluated differently. This stage may not be a cultural product, although many of its descriptions are. In many cultures, where socialisation into adult occupational duties begins early, it is less a period of identity issues about future responsibilities, as characterised in the West, and more a time of preparation for future reproductive tasks, within which individuation is submerged. The emphasis on individuation and identity development at this period, which is adaptive for industrial and ever-changing capitalist economies, is not shared among cultures that emphasise the social-relational self.

Ethnicity and Mental Health

Before offering a cultural explanation to explain differences between ethnic groups, important methodological considerations must be made, specifically whether 'like is being compared with like' in terms of sampling, socioeconomic variables, ethnic groupings, population versus clinic rates, cross-cultural validation of instruments and diagnostic categories, and service accessibility.

Cross-cultural epidemiological research is too variable to draw clear conclusions regarding global rates and trends. There is limited evidence for culture-specific syndromes. However, dissociative disorders such as trance and possession in adolescence associated with fast societal change have been documented in regions where possession beliefs prevail.


Because culture and race are constantly shifting, a conclusion to the dispute is never feasible. A more fruitful option would be to create a framework for understanding the importance of culture in child development based on the extensive cross-cultural literature available. However, because familiarity with one's cultural norms is sometimes the beginning point for researching differences, "cultural difference" is frequently subsumed by the subject of "different moralities."

However, for mental health professionals, culture is a powerful instrument for encouraging reflexivity and broadening our views by including knowledge about the daily lives of children from regions of the world where most children reside.

Updated on: 09-May-2023


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