Skip to content

Playing with Children and other cultural oddities…

14 August, 2007

The article’s a month old now, but I find myself still thinking about it, so I thought I’d share. The Boston Globe ran a piece entitled, ‘Leave Those Kids Alone,’ about the adult practice of playing with children. You can find the original article here.

The article commits its own grievous errors of cross-cultural universalizing, but it makes some worthwhile points about the peculiarity of certain Western conventions of childrearing. For example:

“Adults think it is silly to play with children” in most cultures, says Lancy, who teaches at Utah State University. Play is a cultural universal, he concedes, “but adults aren’t part of the picture.” Yet middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans — abetted, he says, by psychologists — are increasingly proclaiming the parents-on-all-fours style the One True Way to raise a smart, well-adjusted child.

There is now a concerted effort to spread adult-child play beyond its stronghold in the upper- and middle-classes of wealthy countries. To this end, many cities and states support programs of some sort. Massachusetts will give the Parent-Child Home Program, which has 33 sites in the state, $3 million this year (up from $2 million last year). Through the program, staff members visit the homes of low-income residents and offer tips not just on good books for toddlers but also on “play activities” for parents and kids. Likewise, the eminent Yale psychologist Jerome Singer has partnered with a media company to devise imaginative parent-child games (examples: “My Magic Story Car” and “Puppets: Counting”) that librarians and social workers can teach to low-income parents.

Similarly, my former colleague at the University of Notre Dame, Dr. James J. McKenna (profile and info about his sleep lab here), has written extensively about how Western childrearing practices dealing with sleep are idiosyncratic and may even contribute to certain health problems in infants.

This work is hardly unusual (see, for example, Barbara Rogoff 2003), but it bears frequent repeating because of the normatizing power of certain Western ‘scientific’ discourses about child care that emerge out of some branches of the medical and psychiatric fields. Certainly, there is a space for anthropology to undermine these aggressive authorities who do so much to create anxiety in young parents.

What’s worse is that so much of the scarce resource base for child care in the United States, slashed by ‘family values’ politicians (ahhh… irony is delicious….) is being spent on force-feeding one social groups norms of parent-child interaction to groups that don’t particular like to behave that way.

But there’s also a theoretical point to be made here on child development. In fact, lots of different techniques and traditions are out there for raising children. I haven’t done anything approaching exhaustive research on the subject, but I’ve been surprised the degree to which anthropological research about the diversity of child rearing methods doesn’t penetrate the obdurate Western normatizing field that surrounds childcare (not just the work of McKenna and Rogoff, but also of Meredith Small, Jermoe Kagan, Judy Loache, Alma Gottleib, and a host of others in psychological anthropology and the anthropology of education). Western ‘authorities’ about development wield such enormous power over anxious parents.

In fact, the paths to ‘normalcy’ seem to be quite varied — and ‘normalcy’ itself so contextual — that these authorities and their singular notions about what produces ‘health’ should be undermined more easily. From a theoretical perspective, most social scientists have a confirmation bias when we read the science news (that is, we all tend to see our favourite pet theories confirmed in any new discovery, however ambiguous the results), but I do think that the variation in paths to (at least relatively) ‘normal’ functioning are so many that it provides strong evidence for a dynamic system approach to child development (see, for example, Thelen and Smith 1996). Rather than get roped back into the same nature v. nurture fight about the percentage contributions of environment and genes (as if the two were the only variables contributing to the outcome), however, I just want to point out that if children were so fragile, even more of them would be messed up. As Jim McKenna frequently pointed out to me, the goal is not to impose another single sense of what parents must do with their children, but to recognize and support many ways of parenting.

Rogoff, Barbara. 2003. The Cultural Nature of Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thelen, Esther, and Linda B. Smith. 1996. A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: