The research on comparative cultural parenting is fascinating – and humbling, once you realize just how deeply your assumptions about the world can color what you see of it.
Let me quote at some length (bobbing in and out of paragraphs) from a great blot post in Slate about the work of researcher Sara Harkness:
If you look just at the words parents use to describe their children, you can almost always predict where you are in the world. In other words, your most personal observations of your child are actually cultural constructions. In a study conducted by Harkness and her international colleagues, American parents talked about their children as intelligent and even as “cognitively advanced.” (Also: rebellious.) Italian parents, though, very rarely praised their children for being intelligent. Instead, they were even-tempered and “simpatico.” So although both the Americans and the Italians noted that their children asked lots of questions, they meant very different things by it: For the Americans, it was a sign of intelligence; for the Italians, it was a sign of socio-emotional competence. The observation was the same; the interpretation was radically different.
The Dutch liked to talk about long attention spans and “regularity,” or routine and rest. (In the Dutch mind, asking lots of questions is a negative attribute: It means the child is too dependent.) The Spanish talked about character and sociality, the Swedes about security and happiness. And the Americans talked a lot about intelligence. Intelligence is Americans’ answer. In various studies, American parents are always seen trying to make the most of every moment—to give their children a developmental boost. From deep inside the belly of American parenthood, this is so obvious it isn’t even an observation. It is only by looking at other societies that you can see just how anomalous such a focus is.
All this worries Harkness. “We’re on the verge of trying to export very ethnocentric ideas about what competencies children need to develop at a very early age, which is really unfortunate,” she says. “The U.S.’s almost obsession with cognitive development in the early years overlooks so much else.”
In essence, we’ve created a whole lot of noise around a concept – cognitive advancement of children – for which there’s very little signal. We’ve manufactured evidence, more or less whole cloth, about nothing, because we’re socially conditioned to believe it’s there.
Harkness is absolutely right that this is a terrifying problem taken on the level of child-raising alone. What about Simpatico? What about regularity? What about character and security and happiness? How much of our children’s lives are we missing by focusing on cognitive ability when there’s little “there” there?
But it gets really interesting when you think about it in the larger context: in what other areas might we be producing more scientific evidence than can be backed up by reality? In how many other fields of research are we seeing what we’ve been trained, without even knowing it, to see?
Once you get over denying it happens, the problem of spotting it becomes very interesting indeed.