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Chapter: Psychology: Development

The Role of Culture - Socioemotional Development in Infancy and Childhood

Another source of differences among children comes from the cultural context within which the child develops.



Another source of differences among children comes from the cultural context within which  the  child  develops. Some  cultural  influences  on  development  are  obvious. In ancient Rome, for example, educated children learned to represent num-bers with Roman numerals; modern children in the West, in contrast, learn to represent numbers with Arabic numerals. Modern children in the Oksapmin culture (in New Guinea) learn yet a different system, counting using parts of the body rather than numbers (Figure 14.27; Saxe, 1981). In each case, this culturally provided tool guides (and in some  cases,  limits)  how  the  children  think  about  and  work  with numerical quantities.


In addition, some social and cultural settings involve formal schooling, but others do not, and schooling is a powerful influence on the child’s development (Christian, Bachman, & Morrison, 2000; Rogoff et al., 2003). Cultures also differ in what activities children are exposed to, how frequently these activities occur, and what the chil-dren’s  role  is  in  the  activity. These  factors  play  an  important  part  in  determining  what skills—intellectual and motor—the children will gain and the level of skill they will attain (M. Cole & Cole, 2001; Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 1983; Rogoff, 1998, 2000).


In understanding these various cultural influences, though, it is crucial to bear in mind that the child is not a passive recipient of social and cultural input. Instead, the child plays a key role in selecting and shaping her social interactions in ways that, in turn, have a powerful effect on how and what she learns.


Part of the child’s role in selecting and shaping her social interactions is defined by what Lev Vygotsky (1978) called the zone of proximal development. This term refers to the range of accomplishments that are beyond what the child could do on her own, but that are possible if the child is given help or guidance. Attentive caregivers or teach-ers structure their input to keep the child’s performance within this zone—so that the child is challenged, but not overwhelmed, by the task’s demands. Importantly, the child herself provides feedback to those around her that helps maintain this level of guid-ance. Thus, caregivers are able to monitor the child’s progress and, in some cases, the child’s frustration level, as a project proceeds, and they can then adjust accordingly how much help they offer.


The child also plays an active role whenever the processes of learning or problem solving involve the shared efforts of two or more people (after Rogoff, 1998). In such cases, it is clear that we cannot understand development if we focus either on the child or on the social context; instead, we must understand the interaction of the two and how each shapes the other.


One example of this interplay is seen in the child’s capacity for remembering life events. This capacity might seem to depend entirely on processes and resources inside the individual, with little room for social influence. Evidence suggests, however, that the capacity for remembering events grows in part out of conversations in which adults help children to report on experiences. When the child is quite young, these conversa-tions tend to be one-sided. The parent does most of the work of describing the remem-bered event and gets little input from the child. (“Remember when we went to see Grandma, and she gave you a teddy bear?”) As the child’s capacities grow, the parent retreats to a narrower role, first asking specific questions to guide the child’s report (“Did you see any elephants at the zoo?”), then, at a later age, asking only broader questions (“What happened in school today?”), and eventually listening as the child reports on some earlier episode. Over the course of this process, the parent’s specific questions, the sequence of questions, and their level of detail all guide the child as he figures out what is worth reporting in an event and, for that matter, what is worth pay-ing attention to while the event is unfolding (Fivush, 1998; Fivush & Nelson, 2004; K. Nelson & Fivush, 2000; Peterson & McCabe, 1994).


Of course, parents talk to their children in different ways. Some parents tend to elaborate on what their children have said; some simply repeat the child’s comments (Reese & Fivush, 1993). For example, Mexican Americans and Anglo-Americans differ in how they converse with their children and in what they converse about, with Mexican Americans’ emotion talk tending to be less explanatory than Anglo-Americans’. There are also differences in adult-child conversations if we compare work-ing-class and middle-class parents (see, for example, A. R. Eisenberg, 1999).


In each case, these differences in conversational pattern have an impact on how the child structures his or her memory. As one example, evidence suggests that American mothers talk with their children about past events much more than Asian mothers do (Mullen & Yi, 1995). These conversations may help American children to start organiz-ing their autobiographical recall at an earlier age than Asian children. Consistent with this suggestion, when Caucasian adults are asked to report their earliest childhood memories, they tend to remember events earlier in life than do Asian adults (Fivush & Haden, 2003; Mullen, 1994). The same logic may help explain why women tend to remember events from earlier in their lives than men do. This difference in memory may result from differences in the way parents converse with their sons and daughters (Fivush & Haden, 2003; Fivush & Nelson, 2004).


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