There is a lot of skepticism about whether parents truly affect their children. Much of those doubts are exaggerated. That is particularly true about societal differences in parenting. These are adaptively matched to adult life in ways that psychologists ignore at their own peril.
Independence Versus Reliance on Others
One of the most remarkable differences in child rearing around the world involves the physical distance between parents and children. In many societies studied by anthropologists, an infant is within arm’s reach of the mother at all times of the day (1).
Some mothers carry the child close to the skin during the day and sleep with the infant at night.
Such practices are very different from how infants are raised in developed countries such as the US where there is a lot more physical distance between parents and children.
The most obvious example of this is the fact that young children (and even infants) customarily sleep in a different room from the mother causing sleep difficulties and crying at night.
Infants who spend more time close to the mother are generally a lot calmer. They are also more compliant which is reflected in fewer tantrums and less opposition by children to parents.
So why do parents in developed countries set themselves up for so many behavioral issues in young children by maintaining large interpersonal distances?
No doubt this is a complex issue and women in full time employment cannot drag their infants around with them all day. Yet, the most obvious functional explanation is that children are being socialized for independence. If a one-year-old masters the job of sleeping alone in a darkened room, perhaps they can succeed in an adult world where everyone looks out for themselves.
The Self Versus Others
Children in some societies are raised to be far more helpful than others (2). Beatrice and John Whiting observed altruistic behaviors in children aged three to ten years in six societies — Kenya, Mexico, Philippines, Japan, India, and the U.S. Children in non industrialized societies (Kenya, Mexico, Philippines) were very much more altruistic than children in industrialized ones (Japan, India, the U.S.). They found that 100% of Kenyan children scored high on altruistic behavior compared to only 8% of American children, for example.
In less developed countries, like Kenya, people often live in large extended family groups. Children are economically valued because they help with subsistence activities and child care. The Whitings deduced that being given responsibilities from an early age, such as farm work, or caring for brothers and sisters, encouraged a more altruistic orientation early in life.
Even in America, children’s altruism is influenced by how much is expected of them in terms of helping out at home. Boys who do housework along with their fathers are more popular with peers and are good at making friends (3). They make less trouble for teachers and start fewer fights. Children who help with housework are thus more altruistic in their interactions outside the home.
Physical separation may promote independence but the implied deprivation of close physical contact also increases aggression. Conversely, physical closeness goes along with emotional trust.
Students who were emotionally close to their parents had a close physical relationship involving frequent bodily contact, such as hugging (1) and also had better relationships with other family members and with peers.
People in different societies use space differently. Friends in Sweden keep each other at longer distances than friends in Italy, for example. Likewise, French teenagers maintain closer interpersonal distances than their American counterparts as illustrated by an amusing comparison between diners at McDonalds restaurants in the two countries (1).
French adolescents spent a lot of their time (43%) expressing affection for peers through the medium of touch (leaning against them, stroking, kissing, and hugging). American adolescents were less demonstrative spending only 11% of their time engaged in affectionate contact with friends sitting next to them in the fast food restaurant. American adolescents spent more time touching themselves, preening their hair, and clasping their hands. Americans were more aggressive in their conversation and gestures, prompting lead researcher Tiffany field Field to speculate that the greater degree of violence in the U.S. compared to France might reflect deprivation of touch going back to early childhood. She invoked Harlow’s work on touch-deprived monkeys that grew up to be more hostile towards peers.
Among their other neurochemical abnormalities, touch deprived (i. e., mother deprived) monkeys have depleted serotonin (and norepinephrine) levels in their brains which means that they have trouble controlling hostile impulses. Aggressive humans have a similar neurochemical profile that could result from early deprivation of close social contact (4). Similar arguments can be made about control of sexual impulses.
If we can draw a line between parental practices and aggressive impulses, there is also a great deal of variation in ambition that is tied to local opportunities and associated variation in parental practices.
Children are taught to strive in societies where it is possible to rise in social status (5), Otherwise, self-improvement is not pushed. In agricultural societies, for example, children are kept away from school because their labor on farms is more valuable than anything they might learn in in school. This changes in developing societies where literacy is essential for holding down a job. Parents also affect ambition in more indirect ways, as James Flynn explained in his analysis of higher occupational success of Asian Americans compared to other immigrants. Exceptionally close relationships with mothers are implicated.
Having a lot of emotional support from parents affects occupational striving. Emotionally secure children are more intellectually curious, have less fear of failure, and work harder at school, and ultimately, at careers (6).
Although there is a current fad claiming that what parents do is unimportant to their children’s outcomes, anyone who looks at the grand scheme of societal, and economic, differences will find compelling evidence that parents shape their offspring to succeed in varied social niches around the globe. Parental practices are adaptive, and effective.
1 Field, T. (2001). Touch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
2 Whiting, B. B., and Whiting J. W. M. (1975). Children of six cultures. Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press.
3 Coltrane, S., and Adams, M. (2005). Boys and men in families. In R. W. Connell, J. Hearn, and M. Kimmel, (Eds.), The handbook of studies on men and masculinities (p. 230). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
4 Barber, N. (2004b). Kindness in a cruel world: The evolution of altruism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
5 Low, B. (1989). Cross-cultural patterns in the training of children. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 103, 311-319.
6 Barber, N. (2000a). Why parents matter: Parental investment and child outcomes. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.