Caring for Babies in other Cultures


According to evolutionary theories, languages are often ordered to maintain and regulate relationships in larger groups. Language is a social instrument that forms a cultural part of the developmental niche in which children grow up. Mothers and other caregivers all over the world talk to children from birth on and even before. Infants are equipped with language acquisition devices at birth.
These are general abilities at first so that infants are able to perceive segmentation of any language. But with only a few month of exposure to particular language environment this general capability disappears and turns into a specific ability to understand the segmentation of a particular language. So the language is involved as a social necessity.
However language also represents a cultural code that expresses values and beliefs of the respective social environment, especially the content of language and the structure of language. The questions “What” and “How” are saturated with cultural meaning. With this assumption of cultural specificity different contents and structures can be expected in different cultural environments.

In the following presentation the title has changed as you can see, but not the content.
I would like to define cultural environments first; I will then introduce two social cultural orientations that can be assumed to influence cultural activities and cultural meaning systems.
The main part of my presentation will consist of presenting different narrating styles that are informed by these social cultural orientations.
The conventions for children’s development will finally be presented.     
This presentation focuses on the earliest developmental phase during the human life span on infancy.

For a long time it has been discussed very controversial whether the experiences that infants make during the phase this phase has any effect at all on future. Meanwhile there is evidence from different theoretical and empirical perspectives, like evolutionary theory, eco-social theory, cultural psychology, neurophysiological evidence and longitudinal evidence. We focus in our work on cultural psychology. If you talk about culture you don’t mean states or countries but eco-cultural units, these are characterised by shared values, shared meaning systems and sheared activities.

We define prototypical eco-social units or socio-cultural environments.
This picture shows a child from L.A. with its grandmother in such a prototypical environment. We define this “prototype 1” as an urban influent, educated middleclass, large salary, commercial society with complex technologies, industrial or post-industrial societies. The children’s environment in this prototypical cultural environment are characterised by exclusive dyadic relationships with the infant being an equal international partner. As you can see on these two pictures: the upper picture shows a German mother and the lower a mother from L.A.
In these contexts mothers and babies are alone for the most time over the day. The focus in this cultural environment is on face to face exchange as you can see in the lower picture: a German  mother is in active interaction with her child and this gives the condition for the child to experience confidence. The child is smiling and the mother reacts promptly to the smiling of the child. Another important aspect is object play as you can see in the upper picture with a Greek mother holding a hugh teddy bear.
This parenting style has been confirmed empirically as you can see on this picture: face-to-face contact and object stimulation are most frequent as parenting systems. This picture shows results from German and Greek mothers.

Our example for another prototype “prototype 2” are Cameroonian Nso. The Nso are an ethnic group that lives in the northwest province of Cameroon. They live in rural communities and they live of farming. We define the second prototype as a rural, small, subsistence based society with simpler technologies. In this environment babies are part of a larger context and participate in daily routines actively from early on, as you can see in the upper picture: the baby is around. Another important aspect is, that the baby experiences multiple caregivers and dense social network that is illustrated in the lower picture: there is a person carrying a baby on the back. The focus of parenting of this cultural environment is primary care, that means that all activities of a care giver are done to save the survival of the child, of the health and growing, like for instance breast feeding. Other important aspects are body contact and body stimulation.
The empirical validation of this parenting style is demonstrated here, where you can see that body contact and body stimulation are most frequent. 

These differences are not formed by chance but are adjustments to environments. They are part of socialisation. Therefore adaptive cultural models representing different cultural values are involved.

Each model is actualised to different kinds of social interaction. We differentiate two prototypical cultural models: the model of the “independent self” and the model of the “interdependent self”.
In the model of the independent self the socialisation goals are an autonomous individual person with stabile personal characteristics that are independent of the social context. The developmental tasks in this environment are learning to express oneself and to express uniqueness and to express the own goals. The rule of others is just to provide reflection for self-evaluation so that the child can learn how others see the child and so construct the concept of self. Social relationships are build by personal choice, so the child can choose the friends and later on the people can choose their partner and decide whether they want to build a new relationship or the end of a relationship.
In the interdependent model the socialisation goals are learning to be embedded in a network of relationships and responsibilities. The relationships are not chosen freely because the most important relationships are the families and you are born into a specific family and there is a lifelong dependency. The developmental task in the interdependent model is learning to see oneself as connected to the social context as heaving flexible and variable selves, depending on the social context and as occupying specific places in society to find his or her place in the hierarchy.
These socialisation strategies are expressed in nonverbal behaviour – that’s what we have seen by now – and in verbal behaviour – that is what I am going to talk now.
Language is an important cultural tool and it differs in the aspect of content and from style to style across cultures.

First of all we look at the content of the language.
If you ask people, parents of different cultures about their conception of good parenting for babies you get different answers. To summarise what the Nso parents talk about, most of all about primary care, then about body contact, body stimulation. The German or the L.A. parents talk about face-to-face contact, exclusive dyadic attention and object play. You can see the parallels to the parents in behaviours we have seen already.

Now I am going to show a series of examples from our interview studies. There are two types of studies, one is, that we demonstrated video-clips to mothers and showed mother and infant interactions of their own cultural environment and of other environments and then we asked them to comment on the video-clips.

Here we have a comment from an Nso mother to an Nso-clip and an Nso mother to a German clip, both are talking about primary care:
The first one is: A good mother puts the breast into the child’s mouth already as soon as he opens is. And commenting on the Germans video: when the child is crying the Germans try to smooth it in a very funny way without breastfeeding. They can hardly understand that one can try to smooth a child without breastfeeding – and here you can see that this cultural ideas are consistent and that it’s not depending on the stimulus whether they see their own culture or another.
Here is an example from a mother from L.A., from another study: we showed picture cards to the mothers, this picture cards showed different parenting systems: primary care, object stimulation; the mothers should choose the picture that shows the best maternal care and why they had chosen it. This L.A. mother also finds breastfeeding very important but nevertheless because of other aspects. “It reminds me of my son.” He is holding her breast and she is staring into his eyes - it is a great time to be the bounding thing with your child. Also she is talking about breastfeeding she is talking about face to face all the time and not about the primary care aspect.

Body contact plays a different role among cultural communities. Here are examples for body contact:
The Nso find body contact very important – as you can see on the first example. The mother and the child are supposed to feel each other’s skin in order to be happy. The Nso cannot understand the German practice of laying the baby (second example). To demonstrate this laying position there is a video-clip.
The Nso mothers have constantly body contact and are carrying the child on the back even if they do their housework.
A second very important aspect of maternal care is body stimulation for the Nso “Lifting the babies up and down makes them grow well and feel happy”. Again they are missing this body stimulation in the German body clip. Lifting the baby up and down was not done here and can lead to irritation and child motor skills. This Cameroonian woman has interesting conceptions what motor stimulation does to children – to get an impression here is another video-clip. Germans as well talk about body stimulation. “Each cultural group has its does and don’ts,“ the mother says. It looks like as if the mother does things with the baby that it cannot do at this developmental level. The interviewer asked “Is it bad for the baby?” and the mother said, “Yes, I would say yes. What I have heard and read is, that exercises are not good for children of this age, children start doing things on their own”. The German conception is, that it depends on the child and that it is not as much stimulation as an interaction.
Concerning face to face in the interaction that is a theme of the German mothers and very important for them: the mother is completely involved to the baby and so the German mothers are missing eye contact when they see the clips from the Nso. They say: “She plays nicely but doesn’t have eye contact with the baby”.
In the last example you can see how important this eye contact is to German mothers. “I think it is most important to have eye contact so that the baby can see your face and hear your voice.

Another aspect is object play. A Nso mother has chosen the picture of object play as the last one: “I have chosen this one last because the child has grown to certain age then you start making him getting used to toys like this ball, so that he can roll it along as he is creeping, with that he will only be following the ball without picking things to the mouth. When he is playing with the ball like this there should be a child near by to watch whether he is rolling the ball or picking dirt to his mouth”. Again we see that the central theme, the primary care, can be find here: she is talking about the ball, but most of the time she is talking about the health aspect.

Besides references to these parenting systems the mothers of our studies talked about the aspect of separateness or closeness, for the Nso closeness is a deep value. Here an example: Once in a while you are supposed to play with a child, you are not supposed to leave the child just to be alone, you are supposed to show him things and distract him. The second example shows: even if the child is supposed to sleep, the child needs this closeness, you can hold him tight. If you want a child to sleep, you can’t leave him loose. That is a very strange concept to many German mothers.
About separateness there is another aspect: again this health and security aspect. “I am just thinking that the child should not grow up only in a world of itself and its mother. And you need to bring other people in your life, because you cannot just grow up with your child. There are moments, for instance if the mother dies, the child will find it difficult getting closer with another person. Maybe this example sounds strange to European ears, but it is sad reality in Africa with aids and malaria and other illnesses.
The mothers from L.A. values separateness. The mother says in the interview: “Sometimes they do need time away, because they get over stimulated if there are always too many people around, they need just a little quiet time. She explains that the child will develop a sense of independence, that the child is able to make decisions. It is interesting that the mother not only speaks of the need of the child to be alone, but also her own need to be alone an to be separated, that surprising for Cameroonian women.

Now the stylistic differences: we expect here differences between mothers with orientation to independent socialisation goals or interdependent socialisation goals.
The first aspect of style: we look at this agency, that means being an independent centre of action, for instance having choices - it depends on the baby and having preferences – she wants to look around, the baby wants something and the baby is interested, this is a very active description of the baby.
A mother from Berlin talks about breast-feeding, there is this agency aspect as well: the baby actively takes the breast and plays and talks – this are all indicators of agency and an almost equal international partner. Again they express references: that the baby does not want any more and these preferences are respected and so the baby terminates the situation.
The sentence with “thank you” is very interesting, because in many Indian languages there is no word for “thank you”, because to thank someone creates an atmosphere of equality and this is against hierarchy in the Indian family.
The opposite of this is a grandma of the Nso, she expresses the hierarchy in her interview: the mother is giving the breast and not the baby is taking it and it is important that she refers to normative aspects: it is a law, or you should, or you should not. In the last sentence there is a clear relation between cause and consequence, there is an explicit moral responsibility for the well being of the mother and of course everywhere this responsibility is reality but it is characteristic of the Nso that they explicitly express it.

There is again an example where mothers are talking about separateness, she explicitly mentions the point of independence and the second aspect is talking about positive affects that is also an instantiation of independence: A person who has an individual affect and a positive affect.

This table tries to summarise the two types of narrating styles:
The first type is representing the independent socialisation goals and is defined by voluminous and ego centred speech. These persons frequently talk about positive emotions. There is a high frequency in the speech, referring to cognition, preferences, evaluations, personal needs, and personal traits.
Type two is representing the interdependent socialisation goals and again nearly the opposite: the speakers rarely talk about emotions and if they talk about emotions they talk about negative emotions or the prevention of negative emotions. There is a low frequency in talking about cognition, preferences, evaluations, personal needs, personality traits, but they are very often talking about moral standards and social rules and they are very often just describing what is going on.

Now we come to the point of developmental consequences.
These are results from the longitudinal study, where we assessed the parenting styles when the child was three months old and assessed compliance and mirror recognition when the child was 18 months old. Compliance means here that the child is able to do small tasks, like for instance bringing a glass of water from one person to another.
You can see that the Cameroonian children, the pink column, scored highest in internal compliance, that means they did it and didn’t need any remind. The Greek children scored highest in external compliance, which means, they needed a reminder.
Another aspect of compliance was a second task with children: they were asked to wait for a little gift and they had to wait a certain time before they got it. The Cameroonian children had the highest score in internal waiting, and the Greek children had the highest score in external compliance.
The last series of columns concerns self-recognition or mirror recognition; the children were confronted with a mirror and after a certain time there was done a red point in their face. The reaction: whether the children touched their own face that means that they recognised themselves at the mirror and if they touched the mirror, then they did not recognise themselves. The Greek children scored highest in self-recognition and the Cameroonian children lowest, the Costa Ricans are located between these two groups  - a mixed orientation.
These results in a whole:  the children who experiences body contact and body stimulation – the Cameroonian children – develop compliance earlier. Where the Greek children who experience face-to-face exchange and object stimulation as the major parenting style develop self-recognition earlier.

The next milestone in the development of the self is the development of autobiographical memory, when the children are about three years old.
Which just started to assess the autobiographical memory so we can not show our own data – but here are data from USA children and Chinese children, you can see that children’s narrating style when talking about past events, for instance something that happened last week - a trip to the zoo - is similar to maternal narrating style. The Chinese children talk more about social engagement and moral code, the USA children talk about autonomous orientation.


Ø      Cultural identity is adapted to the eco-social environment.
Ø      Cultural identity is acquired during socialisation. Language plays an important role there, as well as non-verbal behaviour in the first month of life.
Ø      Cultural identity becomes an integral part of the self-concept.
Ø      Cultural identity structures development.

There are some implications: cultural identity is an important aspect of interactions between members of different cultures and communities, for instance in situations of multi-cultural societies, in diplomatic relationships, in multi-national business relations and in the understanding of ourselves.
Talking about cultural identity and different concepts of ourselves and different narrating styles can help to understand other people better and to prevent conflicts.

No comments