Mothers and Infants Around the World:
A Report of the Cross-Cultural Data Collection at Five Months
- A Family is Born
- The Importance of Culture
- Coding the Observations of Mother and Infant
The long-standing issues of child development are: What are the universals of child development and childcare in our species? How do infants participate in and shape the environments of child development? How do mothers and fathers parent infants and organize the effective environment of infancy? What are the contributions of culture to infancy, parenting, and parent-infant interaction? No study of a single society can answer these broad questions. It is possible, however, to learn lessons from different societies that may shed new light on these questions and perhaps lead to their more meaningful reformulation for future research.
Each day more than three-quarters of a million adults around the world experience the joys, embrace the rewards, assume the responsibilities, and face the challenges of becoming new parents. According to a nation wide survey conducted by the National Center for Children, Toddlers, and Families, more than 90% of parents say that when they had their first child they not only "fell in love" with their baby, but were personally happier than ever before in their lives. But, what are parents' newfound responsibilities and challenges? And are they universal, or do the responsibilities and challenges of parenting vary with context? Do individual parents respond to their newborn children (as often seems the case) in an ad hoc and idiosyncratic fashion, or is parenting an organized system geared to meet the universal responsibilities and challenges of childrearing? Parenting a human infant is a full-time job, for infants are utterly dependent and their ability to cope alone is minimal. Infancy is also the phase of the life cycle when adult parenting is thought to exert its most important and enduring influences. Not only is the human infant totally dependent on parents, but infants may be especially susceptible and responsive to external events. Not surprisingly, then, the sheer amount of interaction between parent and child is greatest during the infancy period; parents spend more than twice as much time with their infants as they do with their children in middle childhood. Furthermore, parents everywhere appear highly motivated to meet the new-found responsibilities and challenges of parenting a new baby.
Early maternal care is more common than paternal care, and mothers and fathers do not share the same parenting investment strategies. Cross-cultural surveys also attest to the central role that mothers play in human infant development. For these reasons, theorists, researchers, and clinicians of childrearing and child development have historically concerned themselves primarily with mothering. Mothers participate in childrearing activities at significantly higher rates than do fathers (or other infant caregivers), and mothers generally have more opportunities to acquire and practice skills that are central to infant caregiving than do fathers. On average, mothers spend between 65 and 80 percent more time than fathers do in direct one-to-one interaction with their babies. This is not to deny or minimize the considerable contributions to infant care made by fathers and other caregivers in and outside of the family.
Infants profoundly affect their environments and the people in them, just as they are affected by their environments and those people. Infants command the attention and stir the emotions of their parents; they alter their parents' sleeping, eating, and working habits; and they affect how parents define themselves. Infants thus engender particular responsibilities and create undeniable challenges. Reciprocally, for newly minted parents, the first months with an infant constitute a period of radical adjustment and transformation. Many of young infants' worldly experiences stem directly from interactions they have with their parents, and parents directly influence infant development both by the beliefs they hold and by the behaviors they exhibit and the direct experiences they provide. From an individual perspective, infants and parents have their separate needs and goals. From a relational perspective, infants and parents must work in concert to meet one another's needs and goals.
Infants' and parents' needs and goals are also shaped by the contexts in which the two find themselves. All cultures prescribe certain characteristics that their members should possess (as well as those they should not) if they are to "fit into" the culture. Some of these expectations may be universal across cultures, such as the requirement for parents to nurture and protect children. Other standards and values vary greatly from one cultural setting to the next. In all societies, training of children occurs to ensure that children are socialized in such a way that each new generation acquires that society's prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and behavioral practices. Central to every concept of culture is the expectation that different peoples possess different beliefs and behave in different ways with respect to parenting. Actively or passively, to a greater or lesser degree, intentionally or unwittingly, parents "pass on" their "culture" to their offspring. Parenting is a principal reason why individuals in different cultures are who they are and often differ so from one another.
We developed a coding system for the hour-long naturalistic videotapes that we filmed. It included a small number of "core" domains of caregiving that capture the most important of human parents= activities with their babies (that is, each domain meets a fundamental developmental task of infancy). A small set of infant domains captures important aspects of the baby's behavior and roughly correspond to the maternal domains. Taken together, these categories encompass virtually all of parents= and infants' important activities. Each videotape was coded 11 times in order to generate information that was then collapsed into the domains of behavior listed below. Coding was done using a specialized computerized coding system that captured the continuous behavioral record.
The 6 maternal domains, encompassing 12 primary parenting tasks and abilities were:
Nurture (feed/burp/wipe, bathe/diaper/dress/groom, and hold);
Physical and verbal encouragement of the baby's large motor skills (to sit/stand and to roll/crawl/step);
Social exchange (encourage baby to pay attention to mother, social play, express affection to baby);
Didactic ("teaching") interaction (encourage baby to pay attention to the object world);
Providing materials for exploration (including quality and quantity of play materials);
Speech to infant.
The 5 infant domains, representing 15 key developmental and performance competencies that are critical to successful adaptation of the infant in the middle of the first year of life were:
Physical development (prelocomotion-upper body, prelocomotion- lower body, locomotion, and sitting);
Social interaction (look at mother, smile, alert expression);
Exploration (look, touch, mouth objects);
Distress communication (negative facial expression and negative vocalization).
We have found that 5-month-old infants around the world are surprisingly similar. Although individual babies differ by gender and temperamental style, in general their repertoire of behavior is remarkably similar in all of the cultures that we have examined. We believe that this reflects the fact that young infants are "protected: by having a basic set of behaviors that can adapt to a wide range of conditions after birth. Anyone who has adopted an infant has been struck by the fact that the child who would have learned to speak one language easily becomes fluent in another. Further, that adopted child develops trusting relationships with parents, regardless of when the baby comes home to live with the parents. The repertoire of behaviors that an infant brings into the world is designed for survival in a wide range of conditions, regardless of the gene pool from which or the cultural setting into which s/he is born.
We have compared maternal behavior in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya and the United States. Importantly, the 6 categories of maternal behavior that we coded adequately accounted for all of the behavior that we observed in all of these countries. Of course, mothers around the world all feed, wash, diaper, talk to, play with, and give toys to their babies. They also do not do anything significant when they interact with their babies that falls outside of these categories, regardless of culture. We believe that this is true, in part, because infants elicit a limited number of very basic types of responses from parents, no matter the circumstances into which they are born. When an infant cries, mothers around the world look, approach, and soothe. Some of these "connections" may be "wired in." We also believe that human infants everywhere must succeed at the same basic developmental tasks in growing up; likewise, it is the task of parents everywhere to prepare children for the physical and psychosocial, educational and economic situations that are characteristic of the environment and culture in which their children are to survive and to thrive. Human parents constitute the "final common pathway" to oversight and caregiving, development and stature, adjustment and success in early childhood. In the end, regardless of the specific cultural setting, all parents must help their infants meet similar developmental tasks, and all parents presumably wish to promote similar general competencies in their offspring. We can only confirm this through cross-cultural study.
The behavior of mothers in all countries was also comparable to the extent that it fell statistically into two distinct categories: (1) dyadic behavior (meaning that the mother was involved in social exchanges with the baby such as looking, talking, smiling, social play), and (2) extradyadic behavior (meaning that the mother encouraged her baby to pay attention to play materials, sounds, sights, or other people besides herself). There were no differences in the way that behaviors grouped themselves for mothers of sons and daughters. All mothers in all groups that we studied engage in these two statistically distinct types of behavior. Interestingly and importantly, the two types of behavior are largely unrelated to one another. That is, the extent to which mothers engage their babies in dyadic social interactions does not predict how often they will encourage the baby's attention to the larger environment.
The two clusters are reminiscent of the two behavior systems that attachment theory proposes as being critical for healthy development in children - the affiliative system and the exploratory system. Parents ensure that their babies develop secure social relationships with them (and, as a result the baby is more likely to be well-cared for and to be both physically and emotionally safe and healthy), and they encourage the baby to be interested in, explore, and learn about the world (and, as a result, the baby is able to learn about and begin to "master" the world as well as to identify and avoid the dangers "out there").
To illustrate the importance of these systems, imagine a newborn infant. Then, think ahead and imagine that same infant as a grown adult who may live far from where s/he was born, who holds a job, has a circle of friends and a family, and who may travel widely for business or pleasure. How does that baby, who is dependent for its very survival on its parents, become able to function as a capable, confident adult? The process is a long one that unfolds throughout the lifespan, but it begins the day a baby is born and it is fascinating!
Although the newborn is not able to survive along, the baby is born with some very powerful tools for survival. For example, s/he is able to nurse, s/he cries to elicit caregiving when in need, and s/he is naturally attracted to the human face and voice. This set of behavioral responses sets the stage for the development of social relationships with the parents and other nurturing figures. These relationships - which we call "attachments" - function to insure that the baby survives, grows, and flourishes.
As s/he grows older, the young infant's world gradually widens. While a tiny baby's world is focused on home and parents, infants become increasingly interested in exploring the wider environment as they mature. This starts with the early natural inclination to look at faces, toys, etc. Then, as the abilities to reach, grasp, and move around develop, horizons widen and the baby moves further and further afield, exploring as s/he goes! As any parent knows, the world is a very interesting place to a toddler!
This presents a conundrum. The baby wants and needs to explore in order to learn about the world out there, but s/he also needs to be safe from danger. The attachment relationships that the child develops with parents serve both of these needs. They provide the child with a "secure base" from which to explore and a "haven of safety" to which s/he can return when feeling tired, hungry, ill, unsure, or frightened. The bond with the parent serves to keep a child safe while s/he is learning about the world and becoming gradually and increasingly confident in dealing with it.
We found that mothers in different cultural groups were somewhat more alike in the types of behaviors that we characterized as "compulsory" (that is, caregiving behaviors that minister to the most basic physical needs of babies) than they are in the behaviors that we called more "discretionary." Around the world the hungry infant must be fed to live. In our samples, mothers were very similar in the extent to which they attended to the baby's physical needs. Given that survival is insured, however, there is room for more variation in the experiences that parents provide on a daily basis, and our research confirms that there was greater variation in more discretionary types of behavior (for example, playing with the baby and providing toys for exploration).
Our study also supports the idea that parenting allows mothers to specialize and interact with their infants in culturally specific ways. In this way they are able to rear a child who is a well-functioning member of the culture in which s/he has to live and prosper. Hence, the extent to which mothers engage in the six types of maternal behavior tends to differ in each culture. For example, it turns out that language experiences vary dramatically for children growing up in different lands. Babies in Italy and Argentina are spoken to much more often than they are in Belgium. American mothers, who are often thought of as being high verbal, actually fall somewhere in between other groups. With respect to social interaction with their babies, Argentine mothers again top the charts, while Belgian mothers are once again more restrained. The same is true for maternal efforts to call the baby's attention to sights and sounds in the surroundings. Argentine and Italian mothers do this most often, while Belgian mothers do it least often, followed by Israeli and American mothers in that order. However, American mothers are most likely to actually give toys to their babies, Argentine mothers are least likely to do so, and Belgian mothers are right in the middle of that pack. American mothers also encourage their infants' postural and locomotor development (sitting alone, rolling over, crawling) more often than any other group. One begins to get a picture of cultural differences, which we believe are related to and reflect the general values of the culture in which the parenting is being done. Is it an accident that American mothers, living in a culture that values individual freedom and competence, are the group most likely to give their babies the incentives to explore (as measured by the presentation of a variety of different toys) and to move about independently, even in the first half of the first year? Our findings support the view that mothers, who have many choices about how to interact with their infants, tend to differ in the (conscious and unconscious) decisions that they make in different cultural settings.
We have also learned from our analyses that the behavior of mothers and even very young babies is coordinated. Infants who achieved higher levels of physical development had mothers who encouraged their physical development more often. Infants who were more social had mothers who engaged in more social activities with them. And infants who explored the environment more had mothers who engaged in more "teaching" activities and provided a richer environment for them. That is, mothers and babies are not only "in tune," but they tend to be singing the same song! We find that this "meshing" of maternal and infant behavior is widespread and is similar in different cultural groups, suggesting that this behavioral coordination is a very basic and fundamental characteristic of human parenting and child development.
Taken together, the findings from our study of mothers and infants around the world paint a picture of the infancy period as complex and yet organized in very interesting ways. The findings speak to the universal survival function of the parent-infant relationship irrespective of cultural context. But they also clearly demonstrate that important cultural variation occurs in the early rearing of children. This, in turn, confirms how important it is to include different cultural groups in basic research designs. We leave you with this compelling illustration of the pitfalls monocultural study is heir to.
Before Dr. Brazelton and Dr. Spock, Arnold Gesell, who died in 1961, was "America's pediatrician." On the basis of extensive and painstaking observations, he constructed detailed cinematic atlases of what normal psychomotor development entails. Universal and culture-free concerns occupied Gesell, for he worked out of a maturationist theoretical framework, with very young infants, and on behaviors thought to be almost wholly under biological control. The regularity of motor development which he observed no doubt reinforced his beliefs. Gesell conceived psychomotor development to be under unfolding genetic control. In fact, some data do support a hypothesis of genetic differences or even prenatal influences among infants. Although Gesell's tests, and those of other developmentalists, were continuously refined, infant testing did not reach beyond the confines of the Gesell Institute in New Haven, CT, and beyond the middle-class European American society that it served until the 1940s.
At that time, however, results of emerging cross-cultural surveys among native peoples in America, in Bali, and in Africa, challenged Gesell's conclusions and undermined Gesell's assumptions. These studies showed that babies from different cultures deviated from the accepted "norms" for American middle-class society with respect to both the stages and the timing of motor development in the first years. Hopi infants, from the American Indian tribe from the Southwest, begin to walk alone late; Balinese infants follow a different series of stages on their way to walking; and Ghanda and Wolof infants from Africa tend to be more advanced in motor development than U.S. age norms would predict. In the absence of a "generalized precocity" among infants, another investigator was led to study Kipsigis mothers in Africa and their parenting practices: He found that over 80% deliberately taught their infants to sit, stand, and walk. Another study found that Dutch infants, who are stimulated less than American infants, scored lower than Americans infants on scales of psychomotor development. Other studies found that African infants (Ghanda and Kipsigis, respectively) reared in the manner of European babies lose the advantage that their traditionally reared, genetically similar compatriots maintained.
Thus, modern cross-cultural developmental data demonstrate that psychomotor differences among infants must reflect in some substantial degree the influence of parents' childrearing practices and that those practices vary with culture. In summary, the norms of psychomotor development that Gesell strived to canonize on biological bases were derived by working with infants in only one culture. They were accepted by many as scientific fact until, gradually, anthropological and developmental studies showed that, in fact, psychomotor abilities in infants must be viewed as susceptible (within limits) to the influences of culture and parenting. The lens through which we examine the world profoundly shapes our understanding of it. In our work, we strive to take a very broad view of child development and parenting and to include the broadest possible array of data, with the hope that this will lead to a solidly constructed knowledge base.
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Bornstein, M. & Cheah, C. (2004c). The Place of "Culture and Parenting" in the Ecological Contextual Perspective on Developmental Science