first months of family life

Humanity’s Happy Scientists: On Independent thought and Counterfactual thinking of Babies

“Successful creative adults seem to combine the wide-ranging exploration and openness we see in children with the focus and discipline we see in adults.”

–Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik, is a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. As an international pioneer in the study of child development and learning, she was the first to posit the theory that children’s minds could teach adult minds a thing or two. Her “theory of mind” focuses on how children understand the minds of others and is based on the premise that children learn in much the same way as scientists do, through a process of active experimentation.

Her 1999 book , “The Scientist in the Crib” (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) received rave reviews by several prestigious magazines, including the New Yorker, and has been translated into 20 languages. She has also written over 100 articles for various publications, including New Scientist, Slate, and The Times Literary Supplement. Her 2009 book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life” offers some provocative theories about the first months of family life.

According to Gopnik, in modern times, the first months of family life have become far too socially isolated. Ideally, the first months of family life, rather than often being in the care of a single adult or couple, children should have the opportunity to observe and interact with a wide range of people with varying degrees of commitment to their well-being.

She attributes the development of life-long familial attachments that begin from the first months of family life, which doesn’t exist for other primates, to the relatively prolonged helplessness of the human infant. In a sense, it is that helplessness which created selfless love. That selfless love is essential in the first months of family life and to children reaching adulthood.

Childhood learning is one of Gopnik’s specialties, and she believes that adults can learn a lot from children as well. She posits that because adults, in order to earn a living, must perform so many repetitive actions, their minds can lose its natural curiosity and excitement for learning. This can make the first months of family life more difficult. She compares babies’ minds to scientific research and development departments. Babies approach life like travelers in a world in which everything is new.

Like scientists, babies draw conclusions from physical data, and even statistical analyses, such as when they experiment with what will prompt a smile or positive response from their caretakers. She also believes they are capable of what is termed “counterfactual thinking”, which is defined as the ability to imagine different past or future outcomes from those that have actually occurred.

According to a review in Scientific American, she was influenced by the work of psychologist John Hagen of the University of Michigan. His work includes developing alternative learning environments. For example, in one of his labs, the room has no front or rear, the chairs are on wheels and cameras are utilized for a variety of purposes. One of his research studies found that young children were better than older children at remembering playing cards that they had been instructed to forget, a fact which points to the capacity of babies for independent thought.

In addition to working as an educator, she is also a political activist for positive educational change for children. In her capacity as educational activist, she has given several keynote speeches to organizations such as the World Economic Forum as well as organizations that advocate specifically for children, such as Parents as Teachers. She has also lectured for science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as appearing on television shows such as Nova and NPR radio programs.

In a video interview, she advocates for experiential education, in which children are guided in developing skills by doing and receiving feedback on their performance. She recommends apprenticeships in which young people can observe and experience the activities of those who are already working in professions that they themselves hope to work in one day. This approach would also help them learn whether they are emotionally or psychologically well suited for the job, or what characteristics they would need to develop further to be successful at it.

She also revealed in the interview that none of her psychological training or professional expertise helped during her first months of family life or in parenting her own three children. Theories are just that, and real life has a way of being much more unpredictable, especially when human emotions are involved.

According to Gopnik, there are some things adults can do to reclaim their own natural curiosity and excitement about learning. She recommends travel, meditation, and spending time with and learning from children, as well as teaching them.

One of her personal and professional goals has been to cultivate more respect for children and their innate brilliance, rather than devaluing them and continuing to relegate them to social isolation with one another. She seems to be succeeding admirably.

first months of family life
Giant Baby Head in fiberglass, by Freezelight, Flickr CC2.0

April 25,2016  |

anthropology of family life

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

“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),

April 18,2016  |