Cultures, Social Behavior

The Anthropology of Family Life: The Value of Questioning Our Cultural Norms

anthropology of family life

“My goal is to offer a correction to the ethnocentric lens that sees children only as precious, innocent and preternaturally cute cherubs. I hope to uncover something close to the norm for children’s lives and those of their caretakers.”

The Anthropology of Family Life and Questioning Cultural Norms

David F. Lancy’s book,”The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings, now in its 2nd edition, has been described as

“the only baby book you’ll ever need”.

A review of the book points out the extent to which humans remain largely unaware of the huge influence of their cultures on their parenting practices. This collection of observations based on his study of the anthropology of family life around the world succeeds in raising that awareness. Through learning about common parenting practices of other cultures, parents are able to question whether conforming to their own cultural norms is always in the best interests of their children.

Lancy is a pioneer in the relatively new field of the anthropology of family life. As a professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Utah State University, this is his seventh book. His research includes having done extensive fieldwork in Liberia, Sweden, Trinidad and Papau New Guinea. The anthropology of family life provides parents with the cultural context in which parenting practices are developed. It also offers a broad view of cultural alternatives which contributes to parents’ ability to make conscious informed parenting choices, rather than unconsciously conforming to cultural norms.

The Anthropology of Family Life and Other Cultural Norms

Lancy divides cultural child-rearing practices into two types, which he calls “pick when ripe” and “pick when green”. “Pick when ripe” cultures are defined as those in which adults don’t pay much attention to babies and toddlers. This is partly the result of higher infant mortality rates. Children are not considered to have individual identities and may not even be given a name until they are old enough to be weaned. Their individual identities are developed through a process of actions that constitute increasing levels of contributions to their communities according to their abilities. For example, they may be expected to run errands or perform portions of adult tasks to develop their skills.

In “pick when green” cultures, babies are recognized as individuals from the moment they are born and begin to be verbally instructed at a very young age. In an article in Slate magazine, Lancy pointed to the phenomenon of parents verbally instructing their children to share, rather than modeling sharing behavior over time as an example of the “pick when green” cultural mentality and parenting style.

In many cultures, children are expected to begin making contributions to the family and wider community at a very early age in comparison to Western cultures. Rather than formal schooling, in most parts of the world, knowledge is gained through imitation and play. Older children also play a much larger role in the caretaking of their younger siblings. Fathers play a much smaller role in the lives of their children as well.

The Role of Adult-Child Play in the Anthropology of Family Life

According to an article in the Boston Globe, Lancy is concerned that many professionals in the field of child development are promoting a parenting style that involves adult-child play to low-income parents too aggressively. He questions the validity of the premise that parenting styles that differ from the model in which children learn through verbal interaction and instruction from their parents are inherently inferior. He believes that the potential positive outcomes of programs based on the belief that adult-child play is crucial for child development could be reduced by suspicions of “racism or cultural imperialism”.

He points to decades of studies of the anthropology of family life that demonstrate that globally and historically, the practice of adult-child play is actually relatively rare. However, developmental psychologies Alison Gopnik disagrees with his assertion, and believes that the definition of parent-child play should be expanded to include not just verbal interaction, but physical touch and cuddling, which also provides mental and emotional stimulation.

There are similarities between an African child learning a physical skill from an older sibling and an American child learning a new vocabulary word from a nanny in that both demonstrate a degree of playfulness . She does agree with his assertion that American culture has taken structured “play” with the goal of increasing future academic achievement too far.

One of the most important tasks of parenting all over the world is that of transmitting cultural norms to the extent that the child gains the skills that will enable it to survive, and even thrive within that culture.

One of the most valuable contributions of the anthropology of family life is the information it gives parents to enable them compare their own cultural norms with those of others. Information is power, which includes the power to choose to transmit those norms that prove beneficial, and eliminate those that don’t.

anthropology of family life
Bedouin Mother and Child NGM-v31-p552 by Garrigues. – 300 ppi scan of the National Geographic Magazine, Volume 31 (1917),
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