Child Development and Culture Research Paper

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Human development occurs in a cultural context. Obvious as this statement may be, its realization in developmental science is far from adequate. Most mainstream research and theory that derives from the Western (particularly American) academic centers and informs the field tends to approach human development in and of its own, without much attention to its cultural aspects. This state of affairs has implications for how child development is construed, how it is assessed, and what is done (if anything) to enhance it. This research paper presents the current knowledge regarding the interface of culture and child development, with the main processes and dynamics involved, and also provides a brief overview of the scholarship on the subject. The main theoretical conceptualizations regarding child development, as well as their implications in significant spheres of applied fields, are reviewed.

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  1. Study of Child Development in Psychology
  2. Development in Context
  3. Development of Competence
  4. Nature–Nurture Debate and Plasticity
  5. Implications for Application
  6. Conclusion

1. Study Of Child Development In Psychology

A main issue in the psychological study of child development is the scarcity of a contextual approach. The prominence of the mechanistic and organismic models in developmental psychology and the stress on the individual as the unit of analysis have worked as deterrents to contextual conceptualizations of child development. The mechanistic model, used by behaviorism, has construed ‘‘environment’’ in a very limited sense as proximal stimuli. The organismic model has stressed biologically based maturation, ignoring the context of development. These perspectives are of both historical and contemporary influence. Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience, genetic research, and the like have further strengthened the ‘‘biological shift.’’ The focus has been on the individual organism as a product of these two major influences—more recently, as a combination of the two. Thus, a vast majority of current psychological research on child development is conducted in the laboratory and does not take the larger cultural context into account.

Notwithstanding this state of affairs, there is also a rich tradition of research and thinking in child development, particularly in anthropology, that takes culture seriously. Introducing culture into child development has been done, starting mainly during the second half of the 20th century, first in anthropology and then in ecological, cross-cultural, and cultural psychology. Although this work remained rather marginal for some decades, it is beginning to be better recognized, to increase in volume, and to leave its mark on mainstream research and conceptualizations in developmental psychology. One reason for this changing orientation is the fact that research informed by cultural context is now being done in modern nations, including those in the Western world, rather than in isolated small human groups, as was the case with classic anthropological work. So, it is seen as more relevant by psychologists. A second reason is the fact that Western societies, especially the United States where there is the greatest amount of research production, have become multicultural societies. The growing cultural diversity has again made culture more relevant in the psychological study of development.

1.1. Study of Child Development Within Culture

Research on child development that takes culture seriously is being done within two different paradigms. One of these, known as cross-cultural psychology, uses a comparative approach in which theory testing is of high priority. Cross-cultural comparative methodology works as a corrective to the rather ethnocentric assumption of the pan-human generality of findings obtained in unicultural studies. The view here is that the findings may in fact have universal generality, but this has to be demonstrated rather than assumed. Indeed, the theoretical basis for a comparative methodology is the ‘‘universalism’’ of psychological processes, although their manifestations in behavior differ due to cultural factors. The methods/ instruments used are similar to those used in unicultural psychological studies of development; however, the issue of equivalence in measurement emerges as much more significant in cross-cultural methodology.

The other paradigm is cultural psychology, which claims that cultural context gives meaning; thus, human behavior is context specific and should be studied within culture, not comparatively. For example, topics such as the cultural organization of human development within family and society and the cultural construction of intelligence are studied. This is akin to an anthropological perspective stressing the uniqueness of each cultural context. Accordingly, research tends to be based on observations within context and descriptive qualitative analysis rather than on experimentation and standardized measures with a comparative orientation that are typical in cross-cultural research. For example, observational studies have been conducted extensively within the tradition of ‘‘everyday cognition’’ or ‘‘informal learning’’ by children of culturally relevant skills such as tailoring, woodcarving, weaving, pottery, and other handicrafts as well as street mathematics.

The two paradigms have also been called etic and emic, in analogy with phonetics and phonemics in linguistics. Phonetics studies general aspects of sounds in languages, whereas phonemics studies sounds in a particular language. The different perspectives underlying cultural and cross-cultural psychology and the etic and emic approaches are posited as conflicting; however, they both contribute to our understanding. They both have emerged as correctives to the ‘‘culture-blind’’ orientation of mainstream developmental psychology’s organismic and mechanistic paradigms. However, they both entail some risks when taken to an extreme. The comparative cross-cultural approach can claim ‘‘false universals,’’ whereas the cultural approach can assume ‘‘false uniqueness’’ (of each cultural context). The challenge is to combine the benefits of each in understanding the unity and diversity within the dynamics of culture and child development.

1.2. Life Stages and Culture

Over the past few decades, the study of human development has moved from a focus on childhood to a focus on the life span. The span of development is seen to be continuous and to cover the whole spectrum, from prenatal period to old age and death. This approach renders culture even more relevant because cultural differences emerge quite significantly during the various phases of the life span. Thus, although there tends to be a great deal of commonality in the meaning attributed to, and the socially described role of the growing human during, infancy and early childhood, cultural variations start and increase progressively during the subsequent stages of middle and later childhood, adolescence, young and later adulthood, and old age. For example, early anthropological work showed that adolescence and gender roles during adolescence in some preliterate societies are quite different from those in Western technological societies. Even when less diverse socioeconomic cultural contexts are compared, such as more affluent/urban and less affluent/rural ones, the roles of both adolescents and children in family and society are found to differ. In particular, a much greater proportion of children and adolescents work, carrying out household chores or family business, and are economically productive in less affluent/rural and more traditional society. For example, the fact that children in Africa spend less time in ‘‘play’’ and more time in ‘‘work,’’ as compared with children in the United States, can be attributed to many factors such as the necessities of less affluent lifestyles but also the cultural meaning of childhood and children’s work. Nsamenang claimed that child work in West Africa is a social learning process for adult roles and, therefore, an inherent part of development. From a Western human rights perspective, however, child work can be seen as child ‘‘labor’’— and, therefore, child abuse—especially if it interferes with formal education. This is a case in point for the various cultural meanings accompanying different lifestyles that can be a source of debate or even conflict.

Thus, cultural meanings associated with different life stages reflect lifestyles, social norms, and social values. Old age is another life stage that is defined and understood variously. Whereas old people in Western technological societies tend to lose social status and experience some isolation from the community of young people, old people in many traditional societies remain very much integrated within family and community and are respected for their life experience, knowledge, and wisdom. They also tend to be more active in important domestic and communal roles involving imparting of traditions to the young, moderating dispute settlements, and the like.

Thus, culturally informed life span perspectives show that age does not have the same meaning across space and time. What is universal is possibly the tendency of all cultures to use age as a basis for defining the individual and assigning him or her with certain roles, responsibilities and privileges. With this in mind, this research paper focuses on the life stage of childhood in the cultural context.

2. Development In Context

The context of child development includes numerous levels of influences, all interrelated with and embedded within one another. One way of conceptualizing contextual variables is in terms of their degree of comprehensiveness as encompassing systems. This ecological perspective has been influential in the study of child development in the cultural context. For example, Bronfenbrenner differentiated among four levels, increasing in complexity and comprehensiveness from micro-, to meso-, to exo-, to macrosystems. Determining which of these ecological systems is to figure in the study of child development at any particular time is an empirical issue. An important component of the macrosystem of the ecology of child development is societal values regarding children that are reflected in parental beliefs, values, and child-rearing orientations.

The recognition of the significant implications of the ecological perspective for child-rearing orientations and the resultant child outcomes have led to concepts such as ‘‘ethnotheories’’ or ‘‘naive theories’’ (e.g., LeVine’s theory of parental goals). Super and Harkness proposed the concept of the ‘‘developmental niche,’’ consisting of the physical and social setting, child care and child rearing, and the psychology of the caretaker, to explain the cultural structuring of child development. Similarly, the ‘‘ecocultural niche’’ (suggested by Weisner), and the ‘‘developmental microniche’’ (suggested by Worthman) have been proposed as organizing concepts to model the relationships of biology, behavior, and culture in shaping human development. Other theoretical models have also entailed an ecological/cultural contextual framework, such as Berry’s ‘‘ecocultural framework,’’ further combined with ecological systems theory by Georgas and with the developmental niche by Dasen.

An ecological perspective also calls for situating parental beliefs and child-rearing orientations within the socioeconomic and social structural context. This is important to understand why certain belief systems show systematic variation across different parental populations. The answer often lies in the underlying functional relations. Ecological perspectives have also figured in other analyses. For example, bringing the temporal dimension into an ecological perspective in forming a sociological life events approach, Elder studied intergenerational relations and adolescent adjustment and development at various historical periods. Similarly, concepts of developmental pathways and ‘‘canalization’’ over an epigenetic landscape were used by Waddington to analyze variations and self-stabilizing constraints that restrain the variations in the organism– environment system as it changes and evolves over time. These conceptualizations aim to deal systematically with the myriad spatial and temporal environmental influences that provide developmental pathways for the individual. Nevertheless, the individual not only is acted on but also acts on the environment so as to create its own developmental pathway that is unique yet also has common characteristics with others. This view is stressed particularly by European-based theories of individualization.

2.1. The Value of Children and Family as Developmental Niche

Study of parental values and child-rearing orientations can serve as an example of an ecological approach to development in the cultural context. Values attributed to children and how childhood is conceptualized provide important clues as to the place of children in the family and society. A cross-cultural study on the Value of Children (VOC), conducted during the 1970s and currently being replicated in several countries, points in particular to the economic/utilitarian and psychological values attributed to children. The economic/utilitarian value is stressed in sociocultural contexts where children’s material contributions to the family are significant. This often takes the form of contributing to family income while young and providing elderly parents with old-age security during later years. Psychological VOC, on the other hand, is stressed in contexts where children entail more economic costs than economic assets. These dynamic relations among ecological factors, family/parental values, and child outcomes are dealt with by another ecological theory, namely the ‘‘family change model’’ (proposed by Kagitcibasi).

In sociocultural contexts of low affluence, rural/agrarian/low-socioeconomic status standing where children in fact contribute to the family’s material well-being, the economic/utilitarian VOC is salient, child work is common both in and out of the house, and the family is characterized by intergenerational material interdependencies. This is the family model of ‘‘interdependence.’’ In contrast, in more affluent contexts where children are in school and are costly to raise, the psychological VOC is salient, child work is negligible, and intergenerational material interdependencies are weak. This is the family model of ‘‘independence.’’ The interdependent pattern is more prevalent in collectivistic cultures or ‘‘cultures of relatedness’’ with closely knit human relations. The independent pattern is more typical of the individualistic societies or ‘‘cultures of separateness.’’ Thus, there is a general correspondence among societal conceptions of childhood, parental values, family patterns, and children’s actual lifestyles.

In the family model of interdependence, there is obedience-oriented child rearing that does not promote the development of autonomy. This is because the independence of children is not valued and might even be seen as a threat to the family livelihood because independent offspring may look after their own self-interests rather than those of the family. Intergenerational interdependence is manifested through the family life cycle first as the dependence of the children on their parents, with this dependence being reversed later on as the dependence of the elderly parents on their adult offspring for their livelihood.

A contrasting pattern is seen in the family model of independence, characteristic of the Western (mostly American) middle-class nuclear family, at least in professed ideals. Here, child rearing is oriented toward engendering self-reliance and autonomy, and independence is also valued between generations, where objective social welfare systems and affluence render family interdependence unnecessary or even dysfunctional. Individuation–separation is considered a requisite for healthy human development and is also reinforced by (popular) psychological teaching.

It is commonly assumed (e.g., by modernization theory) that there is a shift from the model of interdependence to the model of independence with urbanization and economic development. However, recent research shows that the changes in family interaction patterns often do not follow such a linear route. In collectivistic cultures of relatedness where interpersonal distances are small between connected selves, individuals and families do not shift toward individualistic separateness with urbanization and economic development. Connectedness continues, although mainly in the realm of psychological interdependencies, while material interdependencies weaken with changing lifestyles. This leads to a third pattern proposed by Kagitcibasi, the ‘‘family model of psychological interdependence.’’ In some ways, it is different from both the traditional (rural) family characterized by total interdependence and the individualistic (urban) family characterized by independence.

Child rearing involves control rather than permissiveness because the goal is not individualistic separation. However, autonomy also emerges in child rearing, mainly for two reasons. First, autonomy of the child is no longer seen as a danger because elderly parents are no longer dependent on their grown-up offspring for their material livelihood. Second, autonomy of the growing person is functional in urban lifestyles where, for example, decision making (rather than obedience) is required in school and in more specialized jobs.

2.2. Development of the Self

Thus, the family is the developmental niche for the self. Studying the family provides insights into understanding the self, in particular how and why the different types of self-develop. For example, a distinction is made between the independent self and the interdependent self, and the cognitive and behavioral concomitants or consequences of these two types of self are examined. Thus, current work on culture and self focuses on cross-cultural variability, particularly along the dimension of independence–interdependence. However, why and how these different types of self-develop is not well understood except in reference to macrosocietal characteristics such as individualism and collectivism.

Family is the significant mediating variable here that sheds light on the functional underpinnings of self-development. In the family model of interdependence the ‘‘related self’’ develops and is interdependent with others. In the family model of independence, the ‘‘separate self’’ develops and is independent. The third family model of psychological interdependence is more complex because it entails both autonomy and connectedness in child rearing, with the resultant ‘‘autonomous-related self’’ (proposed by Kagitcibasi). The coexistence of autonomy with connectedness is important because the two are often seen to be antithetical in psychology. Under the influence of psychoanalytic thinking, particularly object relations theory and the separation–individuation hypothesis, separation is considered to be a requisite of autonomy in human development. Therefore, the implication is that connected selves cannot be adequately autonomous. This is a central debate, particularly in understanding adolescence. A psychoanalytically oriented individualistic perspective, such as that proposed by Steinberg and Silverberg, considers adolescence to be a ‘‘second separation–individuation process’’ where detachment from parents is seen as a requisite for the development of autonomy. Others, such as Ryan and colleagues, suggest that individuation during adolescence is facilitated not by detachment but rather by attachment. Recently, there also has been some recognition of the compatibility of relatedness and autonomy in the adolescent and adult attachment literature. The autonomous related self-challenges the individualistic assumption. It also goes beyond the dualistic conceptualization of the independent self-versus the interdependent self that is prevalent in cross-cultural psychology.

Current research provides support for the compatibility of autonomy and relatedness, indeed pointing to their combination as being a psychologically more healthy state that satisfies the two basic human needs for autonomy and connection (merging). The family model of psychological interdependence also finds research support in both the Western and non-Western contexts. For example, a more positive relationship is found between autonomy and relatedness than between autonomy and separateness in both Korean and American samples; positive links, rather than negative links, are found between relatedness to parents and autonomy in adolescents in the United States; combined autonomy and control orientation is noted among Chinese and Korean parents; parental autonomy goals do not imply separateness, and achievement values are associated with parental collectivism (rather than individualism), among Turkish parents in Germany; family interdependencies coexist with some individualistic values in Hong Kong; and Chinese and Chinese American parents are found to endorse both relatedness and autonomy, together with high control of and closeness with their children.

Parental orientations are of crucial importance in leading to diverse developmental outcomes. Systematic variations are noted even in parents’ orientations to infants, providing evidence that the various developmental pathways and their combinations may have their roots all the way back to infancy and are reinforced throughout the life span. Such research, informed by cultural and cross-cultural perspectives, opens up new vistas in the development of the self that can shed light on the interface of culture, parenting, and the individual through time.

3. Development Of Competence

Child rearing is goal oriented, although this is mostly not made explicit. Often, the goal is competence in the sense that socialization, by definition, implies becoming a competent member of a social group. Competence in this perspective refers to what is culturally valued, thereby showing variation across cultures. This sphere of child development is the meeting ground for the development of the self and cognitive development.

In more traditional contexts, particularly with closely knit human ties and interdependent family systems, cultural conceptualizations of cognitive competence include a strong social component. Because much research from Africa has pointed to this, it has been called ‘‘African social intelligence’’; however, it is much more widespread, particularly in traditional collectivistic cultures of relatedness with closely knit human ties. It reflects cultural valuing of social responsibility and sensitivity to others’ needs and expectations. Obedience orientation in child rearing, discussed earlier, is also involved here because it engenders dependent children who grow up to be loyal adult offspring. Independence and separation are not socialization goals. Research also shows that, particularly in nonindustrialized rural/agrarian contexts of low levels of affluence, children develop practical skills that serve the family and reflect material dependence on children’s work. For example, from early on, children do household chores, take care of animals and babies, and even cook food for the family—tasks in which most urban middle-class children would perform poorly. However, the same children often do poorly in simple cognitive tasks with which urban middle-class children have no difficulty. Clearly, children’s cognitive competence in culturally valued domains gets promoted, whereas development in other domains lags behind if it is recognized at all. For example, Serpell showed that ‘‘folk’’ conceptions of intelligence in a Zambian village differed significantly from what is measured by intelligence tests, even culturally sensitive ones. Dasen found in Ivory Coast (West Africa) that intelligence involved mainly social and practical skills (e.g., ‘‘being good with hands’’).

3.1. Environmental Change

An issue in the development of competence in cultural context is social change. The channeling of competence toward culturally valued domains is adaptive so long as there is stability in lifestyles and societal demands. A problem emerges, however, in contexts of social change when adaptive mechanisms get challenged by modifications in lifestyles. Such modifications often accompany social structural and economic changes, especially urbanization and migration. For example, rural-to-urban mobility in developing countries is of immense proportions, also feeding into international migration. Although the young population (10–19 years of age) in developing countries was mainly rural in 1990 (approximately 600 million rural vs 300 million urban), the rural and urban populations of youth are expected to become equal before 2015. Thus, this significant global human mobility calls for a better understanding of what is adaptive and what is maladaptive in the cultural construction of children’s developmental niches in contexts of social change. For example, research on ethnic minorities in North America and Europe, mostly migrants from other parts of the world, points to misfits between parental beliefs and values and to new environmental demands emerging from urban living conditions, particularly schools. In the face of social change and mobility, the question of whether there is an optimal fit between (traditional) child-rearing orientations and children’s developmental trajectories becomes relevant. Such a question challenges cultural relativism, which assumes that what is culturally valued is by definition the right channel of child socialization. The matter turns into an empirical issue open to investigation by research. Such research calls for the possibility of using common (minimal) standards of child development and competence. It also points to the potential of applied work involving intervention.

3.2. Cognitive Development: Piaget and Vygotsky

A great deal of developmental research in the cultural context has focused on cognitive development. A general conclusion is that basic cognitive processes appear to have cross-cultural similarity; however, their manifestation in behavior shows variability given the diversities in cultural/environmental factors that may serve as constraints or reinforcers. The distinction between capacity and performance comes to the fore, as does the issue of culturally sensitive assessment of cognitive competence.

Most theory in psychology, and also in developmental psychology, claims universality, particularly with the weight of the organismic perspective mentioned previously. This is true for Piagetian theory, the generality of which has been subjected to a great deal of cross-cultural empirical testing with variable results. The most important cross-cultural support for the theory is given to the sequencing of stages of cognitive development. Although the particular ages at which the stages or substages are attained, or whether they are attained, show cross-cultural variability, reversal of stage sequence is never found. Beyond this, the first stage of sensorimotor intelligence is found to be a ‘‘strong’’ universal, shown in all studies with infants. The preoperational period is also considered to be a candidate for a strong universal. Even during these early periods, however, differences emerge, for example, in terms of whether objects or social stimuli are handled or attended to more (apparently due to the different types of stimuli, language use, and maternal responsiveness to which infants and young children are subjected in different cultures).

During the period of concrete operations, cultural differences become more important such that in some cultures, some children fail to engage in concrete operations even when they reach adolescence. Dasen suggested that the qualitative characteristics of concrete operational development (reasoning types) are universal but that the rate of development in certain domains, particularly quantification and spatial reasoning, is influenced by environmental factors. Finally, individuals in many societies never achieve the formal operational stage of cognitive development. Schooling is the main factor that plays a role in whether formal operations are mastered. Actually, this factor is not confined to the nonindustrialized, non-Western contexts. Not all adults in Western technological society achieve this type of thinking. When confronted with this research evidence, Piaget accepted the role of experience and culture for the development of formal operational thinking. Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of development takes human development out of the confines of the individual and into the cultural and historical realms. As such, it has been important for contextualist perspectives, particularly those of cultural psychologists. Vygotsky stressed the role played by culture, language, and the child’s ‘‘zone of proximal development’’ in cognitive development. This is not a stage theory, but the evolution of speech through ‘‘social,’’ ‘‘egocentric,’’ and ‘‘inner’’ speech periods is sequential. Research on infant–mother interaction across several cultural groups, and informed by Vygotskian thinking, pointed to cultural differences, particularly in various types of maternal responsiveness and speech. Later, the child is aided by the adult through verbal interaction and instruction to reach beyond the current level of competence. The theory that proposes a continuous process of interaction between persons and sociocultural factors is used as a framework in ‘‘everyday learning’’ or ‘‘apprenticeship’’ situations involving ‘‘scaffolding’’ (i.e., temporary support and guidance in problem solving) by an adult. However, it is also criticized as vague and not conducive to measurement or hypothesis testing. As is also apparent from this glimpse of the two most significant theories of cognitive development, diversity and commonality across cultures challenge developmental theory.

4. Nature–Nurture Debate And Plasticity

Cross-cultural research can help to provide insights into some of the basic issues in child development. This is mainly because a cross-cultural developmental approach uncovers a greater range of variation than does a single culture study. With increased coverage of diversity, a wider perspective emerges according to which what is typical and what is atypical might need to be redefined. It also becomes more possible to distinguish between biological and environmental influences. That is, the greater the commonality found across varied cultural contexts, the greater the likelihood of a biological basis for a developmental process, whereas a finding of increased diversity across cultures implies environmental causality. The perennial nature–nurture debate is a case in point. Although there is much greater sophistication in the treatment of the issue today compared with the earlier, rather simplistic comparisons, the issue stands unresolved. In several spheres, including temperament, personality, intelligence, and gender identity, the nature and malleability of child development can be better understood if cultural context is taken into consideration. ‘‘Heritability’’ refers to the portion of variability in a trait that results from heredity. As such, high heritability is often understood to mean high genetic causality and, thus, a negligible role for the environment. Yet even with extremely high heritability, the environment can still have a powerful influence. For example, a surge in the heights of second-generation Japanese children raised in the United States was reported. The heritability in this group was more than .90, yet the American-reared sons were substantially taller than they would have been if they had been reared in Japan. Similarly, it is reported that the heights of young adult males in Japan increased by approximately 3½ inches since World War II. If a trait as highly heritable as height can show such fluctuations in relatively short time periods and across societies, other traits with lower levels of heritability, such as intelligence and personality, can change as well. A currently popular view stressing biological determination is Scarr’s genotype–phenotype theory, which holds that each individual picks and chooses from a range of environments those that best fit his or her genetic potential/orientations. Thus, the theory claims that genetic endowment creates the environments that individuals choose for themselves. When cultural context is taken seriously, however, the limitations of the theory become obvious. The theory assumes that people have equal opportunity or options from which to choose, yet a great many people in the world are not in a position to choose much at all. Environmental opportunities vary greatly; particularly in deprived environments, the genetic human potentials might not be realized. Thus, heritability for intelligence, for example, would be expected to be lower in deprived conditions than the .50 estimated for the general population and would be expected to be higher in ‘‘good’’ environments than in ‘‘poor’’ ones because the former provide the resources for the biological potential to be realized. Indeed a great deal of research points both to lower levels of measured intellectual performance and to other indicators of poor competence such as school failure in socioeconomically deprived environments. Other evidence regarding the powerful influence of the context of development and the plasticity of human development comes from studies of adoption after privation and the effects of schooling.

An early study reported massive intelligence quotient (IQ) gains in children born to low-IQ mothers after they were given up for adoption into environmentally enriched middle-class homes. Although children’s IQs still correlated with those of their biological mothers, indicating genetic influence, they were much higher than the mothers’ IQs and even higher than those of the general population. This study was criticized for its methodology, but its findings were corroborated by later research. For example, recent work with Romanian adoptees from orphanages after the fall of the Ceaucescu regime points to the crucial importance of both early environmental deprivation and plasticity of human development. It was found that severely malnourished children (below the third percentile in head circumference, body size, and developmental level) recovered to normal development by 4 years of age if they were adopted into English homes before 6 months of age. Those who were adopted later, however, did not fare as well.

There is debate concerning the long-term effects of early deprivation. Some consider the deleterious effects to be critical and long-lasting, even referring to the first 2 years as possibly a ‘‘critical period’’ in human development. Others are less certain due to the limited capacity of infants to process their experiences cognitively and/or due to plasticity, particularly with regard to catching up in physical growth. Nevertheless, there appears to be consensus that whatever the genetic potential, environment, particularly during the early years, has an important impact on human development and that even quite high values of heritability still leave plenty of room for environmental enhancement or reduction of human potential.

5. Implications For Application

Beyond ‘‘saving’’ children from deprivation through adoption, there are other more common implications for application of the significant cultural/environmental impact on human development. Some examples of implications for application, involving advocacy and program and policy-relevant research, would help to put the issues and their possible solutions into perspective.

5.1. Developmental Norms

Growth norms for infants and children have been established by pediatricians. Some of these have a great deal of cross-cultural validity. However, developmental norms paralleling physical growth norms are largely missing and are badly needed for assessment, screening, and detection of developmental risks. With better public health measures such as immunizations, significant increases have been achieved in the rates of infant and child survival globally. However, the circumstances that used to put infants at risk for death continue to put the survivors at risk for arrested or delayed development. Thus, the question of what happens to those who survive assumes great importance. With new policy shifts focusing on early childhood care and development, developmental psychologists are now being called on for their expertise. This is required especially for the cross-culturally valid conceptualization and assessment of human development.

Interactive conceptualization of nutrition, health, and psychosocial development, with each one acting on the other two, is proposed to better represent the dynamic processes of child development in the cultural context. For example, the effectiveness of health and nutrition programs can be increased by combining them with early childhood stimulation and education. The role of the proximal environment, particularly child care, is of importance here as a mediator of the macro-level influences. Thus, within the same poverty situations, some children thrive, whereas most others stay behind. Mother–child (or caretaker–child) interaction emerges as an important ‘‘shield’’ factor in promoting the child’s resilience, conceptualized as ‘‘positive deviance.’’ Here, supporting and training the mother or caretaker goes a long way toward leading to better child outcomes.

In dealing with disadvantaged contexts of child development, culturally valid assessment tools and developmental norms are crucially important. The challenge is to develop child development indicators that have cross-cultural validity to function as ‘‘standards’’ of development and also have cultural validity. Environmental indicators are also of crucial importance and are even less well established cross-culturally. For example, research points to the positive effects of maternal literacy and education on child survival, longer intervals between pregnancies, better child physical growth, and more developmentally facilitative maternal child-rearing patterns. A concept such as ‘‘optimal parenting’’ becomes relevant here. When made applicable to large numbers of children and parents, such knowledge can be used for detection and screening of risk cases and for establishing and promoting the environmental factors conducive to healthy child development.

5.2. Schooling

Schooling is another case in point. A great deal of evidence points to the significant contributions of education, particularly schooling to societal development. Of greater relevance for psychology is the contribution of schooling for cognitive development. For example, Ceci showed that each additional month that a student remains in school may increase his or her IQ score above what would be expected if the student had dropped out. Other research provides similar evidence. Furthermore, a causal relationship is implicated from education to IQ, rather than the other way around, on the basis of higher IQ children choosing to stay in school longer, as claimed by genotype–phenotype theory mentioned previously. There are different types of evidence supporting this causal relationship, including the effects of intermittent school attendance, delayed school entrance, length of school year, summer vacations, and early-year birth dates.

Given the overwhelming evidence regarding the societal and individual benefits of schooling, there needs to be strong advocacy for increased schooling for all, particularly for girls. Access to schooling is behind schedule in most of the world. For example, during the 1990s, when overall school enrollment reached 92% in North America, it remained at a mere 42% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although it is developmental psychological research that reveals the positive effects of schooling on cognitive competence and human potential development, psychologists play only a marginal role in efforts to make ‘‘education for all’’ a reality in the world. At the same time, schools should be improved so as to entail better pedagogy and both culturally relevant and globally shared knowledge. Psychologists have a role to play here as well. For example, Stevenson and colleagues studied the cultural contexts of schooling and its cognitive products, focusing on the values and practices of Japanese, Chinese, and American schools and parents, with significantly different achievement outcomes for children. The implications for educational policy and practice are far-reaching.

5.3. Early Enrichment

The importance of early experience for the development of competence is well recognized, notwithstanding the significance of organismic factors. Therefore, concerted efforts have been expended to provide deprived children with early enrichment in attempting to enhance their ability to benefit from formal schooling. ‘‘School readiness’’ is defined in terms of the child’s activity level, social competence, psychological preparedness, and cognitive abilities, including preliteracy and prenumeracy skills. It is also reflected in the positive orientation and support of the child’s family.

Research and applications during early childhood education abound in North America and Europe but are few and far between in developing countries. An important issue is whether a ‘‘center-based’’ or a ‘‘home/community-based’’ contextual approach is to be used (a related distinction is that between a child focused and a parent-focused orientation). A general conclusion that can be drawn from research in various cultural contexts is that if the child’s family environment can provide the child with the necessary stimulation, a center-based, child-focused approach is effective; otherwise, parental involvement is needed to improve the home environment. A home-based contextual approach has the potential to create lasting effects that would continue to support the child even after the completion of the early enrichment program, as evidenced by longitudinal research. It also tends to have multiple goals and multiple effects in supporting and changing the home environment, particularly the parents, together with the child. Given the crucial importance of the proximal environment and particularly of parenting, a contextual and culturally sensitive early enrichment can go a long way toward increasing the possibility that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can enter adulthood on a more equal footing with those from relatively advantaged backgrounds.

5.4. Problems in Development

Various problems in child development arise from environments that fall far short of presenting an optimal fit with children’s developmental trajectories. Most of these emerge in social–cultural–economic deprivation (discussed earlier). Even more serious developmental problems may be encountered in especially difficult circumstances such as war, family violence, child abuse and neglect, abject poverty involving malnutrition, debilitating and fatal morbidity (e.g., HIV/AIDS), and homelessness (e.g., street children). Under such difficult circumstances, beyond arrests in physical and cognitive/ language development, emotional and social development also suffers greatly with possible psychopathology. Beyond medical and other research and interventions, there is a need for research that examines the cultural aspects involved such as societal values, parental views of children’s needs, and parental behaviors and priorities for survival. Culturally sensitive assessment of the situation and interventions that are informed by cultural knowledge would be expected to have a greater chance for success. In particular, cultural strengths, such as closely knit human ties and social support mechanisms, could be identified and buttressed further, whereas vulnerabilities and weaknesses could be ameliorated. Thus, especially in the most difficult circumstances, a cultural/ contextual approach is valuable. This is an important area of applied developmental psychology.

6. Conclusion

Child development occurs in culture and has to be studied in cultural context. Such a cultural/ecological perspective is necessary for both scientific and applied work. Understanding, assessing, and possibly enhancing child development requires that both a ‘‘whole child’’ perspective, attending to different spheres of development, and a contextual perspective be used. In so doing, both the unity and diversity of human development across cultures need to be recognized. Finally, developmental scientists should strive to go beyond understanding child development to use this understanding optimally in enhancing human development and wellbeing within and across cultures.


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