Parenting Across Cultures

By Sara Harkness and Charles M. Super
photo Namibia  [Frans Lemmens/Getty Images]

"Maternal instinct"--what could seem more natural, or more universal in the human species? The compelling urge to protect and nurture one's children is indeed a basic characteristic of mothers (and fathers) in societies around the world. But when it comes to the question of how to take care of one's children, "instinct" doesn't provide a great deal of guidance for us human beings.

Our research on parents and children has identified various ways that parents think about children's development and their own role as parents, their customs or practices of care, and how they organize their children's environments of daily life.

Take the basic question of putting the baby to bed. The development of regular sleeping habits is something that many parents are anxious to help their babies achieve. How parents handle this varies considerably across cultures. Putting the baby to bed, as such, is a relatively modern phenomenon--for babies in many traditional societies, sleep is something that just occurs wherever the baby happens to be. In a rural Kipsigis community of Kenya that we studied in the 1970s, for example, mothers made no effort to schedule their babies' sleep. Babies were carried around for much of the day, awake or asleep, in carrying cloths on the back of the mother or an older sister. At night, they slept in skin-to-skin contact with their mothers in a small hut where the other younger children also slept.

A far different situation is found in modern societies where babies often have their own bed or their own room, but there is still a great deal of variability in how parents help their babies get to sleep. For more than a decade, we have studied parenting in cultural context with an international team of colleagues (see The Dutch parents in our research generally emphasized the importance of getting plenty of sleep, and they tucked their babies into bed relatively early. In contrast, parents in Spain usually kept their babies and toddlers up later, and they often stayed with them until they fell asleep. We remember showing a video of a Dutch father putting his six-month-old baby to bed at 6:30 p.m. to our colleague Jesús Palacios and his group at the University of Seville, Spain. "Won't the baby even see anyone until the next morning?" they asked. What seemed to be a health-promoting practice to the Dutch parents was seen as too emotionally and physically distant to their Spanish peers.

As these examples illustrate, even basic functions such as sleep are culturally structured, providing different developmental experiences for children across cultures. The "developmental niche" is a theoretical framework that offers a way to think systematically about these differences in children's environments.

Although each child inhabits his or her own niche, this framework is equally useful for describing patterns characteristic of particular cultural communities. Surrounding the child are three major subsystems:

Physical and social settings - The physical and social settings in which the child lives provide a scaffold upon which daily life is constructed, including where, with whom, and in what activities the child is engaged. If we could drop in on a three-year-old boy in the community of Kokwet, Kenya, at 9 a.m., for example, we might find him driving an errant calf away from maize kernels temptingly spread out to dry on a cowhide on the ground. In contrast, a three-year-old boy in the community of Bloemenheim, the Netherlands, might be found sitting at a child-sized table in the family room, cutting and pasting pieces of colored paper with his older sister. Neither of these children will ever be found in the type of setting in which we observed the other; and each is learning distinctively different skills that are important for becoming competent members of their communities.

Customs and practices of care - Embedded in the settings of the child's daily life are culturally regulated customs and practices of child care. Many of these are so commonly used by members of the community and so thoroughly integrated into the larger culture that they seem like obvious and natural solutions to everyday problems, developmental requirements or social needs: their cultural nature becomes evident only when viewed from an outsider's perspective. For example, Asian immigrant parents in the U.S. studied by Parminder Parmar in 2008 spent more time doing academically related activities with their preschool-aged children than did their Euro-American counterparts; interestingly, both groups of parents spent about the same amount of time playing with their children. These are expressions of how parents think about their children and about their role as parents.

Psychology of the caretakers - The psychology of the caretakers, including parents' cultural belief systems or ethnotheories, constitutes the third part of the developmental niche. Understanding parents' ideas is essential for interpreting the ways that they behave with their children, but this is not always easy because many such beliefs, like their related customs of care, are taken-for-granted ideas about what is "normal" or desirable for children of any particular age. For example, middle-class U.S. mothers expressed concern about maximizing their child's cognitive development through providing various kinds of "stimulation." In contrast, when Italian mothers studied by Ughetta Moscardino talked about "stimulation," they were referring primarily to social rather than cognitive stimulation, an important aspect of emotional closeness in the family.

photo California, USA  [Rich Reed/Getty Images]

Parental ethnotheories relate to children of all ages, not just babies. A striking example comes from Cigdem Kagitcibasi, a Turkish cross-cultural psychologist. As she recounts in her 2007 book, Family, Self, and Human Development across Cultures, an American colleague responded to her inquiry about his son, aged 21, by explaining that "their son was now staying with them in their home, but they were not charging him rent." She comments, "I couldn't believe what I heard and wondered if he was joking; he was not." The implicit cultural belief framing her American colleague's statement was that grown children should be "independent" from their families, including living separately--but this principle could also be upheld by having a resident grown child pay rent to his parents. From Kagitcibasi's perspective, however, the idea of charging rent to one's own child conflicted with her own Turkish cultural model of the family, in which children are expected to remain closely interdependent with their parents even while making autonomous life choices.

Children's developmental niches are created not only by their parents, of course, but also by aspects of the wider culture such as an urban or rural environment or, unfortunately, by major social dislocations including war. Research on children's culturally structured development niches in widely differing parts of the world confirms the observation that there are many successful strategies for promoting children's development. As citizens of a multicultural world, we have something of value to learn from each one.

For a Thumbnail Sketch of a Child's Developmental Niche--Five Questions to a Parent*

Physical and social settings of daily life

1. Where, doing what, and with whom does the child spend the day, from when he or she gets up in the morning until bedtime (and through the night)?

Customs and practices of care

2. What is the significance of particular activities in the child's day (e.g., family meals, taking care of a younger sibling)?

Psychology of the caretakers; parental ethnotheories

3. How would you describe this child to a person who doesn't know him or her very well? (What kinds of qualities do you focus on?)

4. What is most important for the child's development right now?

Putting it all together

5. What are the ways that you as a parent can help your child's positive development right now?

* If you are a parent, you can try out these questions on yourself. Then compare your answers with those of a friend from a different cultural background.


Sara Harkness is Professor of Human Development, Pediatrics, and Public Health, and Charles M. Super is Professor of Human Development and Pediatrics, both at the University of Connecticut, where they are also Codirectors of the Center for the Study of Culture, Health, and Human Development (CHHD). They coedited Parents' Cultural Belief Systems: Their Origins, Expressions, and Consequences (1996). Visit