Cultural and Societal Influences on Child Development

Culture plays an important role in influencing childhood development, and what is considered “normal” varies greatly from one culture to the next.

LEARNING OBJECTIVE

  • Examine the influence of culture on childhood development

KEY POINTS

    • The society and culture in which one grows up influence everything from developmental milestones and parenting styles to what kinds of hardship one is more likely to face.
    • While biological milestones such as puberty tend to be universal across cultures, social milestones, such as the age at which children begin formal schooling or individuate from their parents, can differ greatly from one culture to the next.
    • Effective parenting styles also vary as a function of culture. While the authoritative parenting style is the style that is most encouraged in modern American society, other cultures value more authoritarian styles.
    • Race and racial stereotypes can have detrimental effects on a child’s development. Children are taught the stereotypes that go along with their race(s) and the races of others, and these stereotypes can have a strong influence on their development.
    • Race is also closely linked to class, and children of color are still statistically much more likely to lack access to basic resources and to experience economic hardship.
    • The concept of intersectionality is important to keep in mind when examining the cultural influences of various forms of discrimination on child development.

TERMS

  • racializedCategorized or treated in a particular way based on race.
  • milestoneAn important event in a person’s life or career, in the history of a nation, in the life of some project, etc.
  • stereotypeA conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image.
 Child development refers to the biological, psychological, and emotional changes that occur in humans between birth and the end of adolescence, as the individual progresses from dependency to increasing autonomy. Culture plays an important role in influencing this development, and what is considered “normal” development varies greatly from one culture to the next. The society and culture in which one grows up influence everything from developmental milestones and parenting styles to what kinds of hardship one is more likely to face.

Developmental Milestones

The normative approach to development examines the question “What is normal development?” In the early decades of the 20th century, normative psychologists studied large numbers of children at various ages to determine the average ages at which most children reach specific physical, cognitive, and psychosocial milestones in development (Gesell, 1933, 1939, 1940; Gesell & Ilg, 1946; Hall, 1904). Not all of the milestones were universal, meaning they are not experienced by all individuals across all cultures. Biological milestones such as puberty tend to be universal, while social milestones, such as the age at which children begin formal schooling or individuate from their parents, can differ greatly across cultures (Gesell & Ilg, 1946).

Parenting Styles

Effective parenting styles also vary as a function of culture. While the authoritative parenting style (characterized by the parent giving reasonable demands, setting consistent limits, expressing warmth and affection, and listening to the child’s point of view) is the style that is most encouraged in modern American society, this is not necessarily the case in other cultures. American children raised by authoritative parents tend to have high self-esteem and social skills. In contrast, authoritarian parenting (characterized by parents placing high value on conformity and obedience, tightly monitoring their children, and expressing less warmth) is seen as more beneficial in other cultures. For instance, first-generation Chinese American children raised by authoritarian parents did just as well in school as their peers who were raised by authoritative parents (Russell et al., 2010).

The effects of parenting style: different parenting styles influence children differently depending on cultural norms and standards.

Race, Class, and Intersecting Identities

Race and other identities are often sites of discrimination and oppression in societies; as such, they can have a tremendous impact on childhood development. The United States is a very racialized society, and children—especially children of color—often become aware of the dynamics of racism at a very young age. Children are taught the stereotypes that go along with their particular race(s), as well as the races of others, and these stereotypes can have a strong influence on their development.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotypes and racialized expectations often contribute to stereotype threatin which a child experiences anxiety or concern in a situation that has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about his or her social group. For example, if an African-American child is given the message that black people are not as “smart” as white people, she may worry if she is not doing well in school because it will, she fears, confirm the negative stereotype. Importantly, stereotype threat has been shown to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy—not because the negative stereotype is accurate, but because fear of fulfilling that stereotype can lead to additional anxiety, which in turn can reduce performance. For example, stereotype threat can lower the intellectual performance of black students taking the SAT, due to the stereotype that they are less intelligent than other groups, which may cause them to feel additional pressure and anxiety.

Examining Intersectionality

Intersectionality is the study of the intersections, or the relationships, between different forms or systems of discrimination or oppression. This theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, and other areas of identity interact and contribute to various forms of social inequality. Intersectionality holds that different forms of discrimination—such as racism, sexism, biphobia, ableism, transphobia, and classism—do not act independently of one another; instead, they interrelate and create a system based on multiple forms of discrimination.

All of these factors are important to keep in mind when examining the cultural influences of such discrimination on child development. For example, the experience of growing up as an African-American girl in the United States cannot be understood only in terms of being black or of being female; instead, the ways in which these identities interact and frequently reinforce each other must be examined. Race is also closely linked to class, and people of color are still statistically much more likely to lack access to basic resources and experience economic hardship. These resources include everything from proper nutrition and healthcare to good education systems and neighborhood parks. All of these societal factors intersect and interact to influence a child’s development, so much so that a child from a middle-class white family has many more opportunities than a child from a lower-income family of color.