6. Culture Matters

In blogs 1 to 5, I wrote about how ideas from Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) can be applied to parenting.  You can read more about CAT here (ACAT website), but I have been thinking about how the culture our children grow up in has an effect on the relationship roles they develop.  Living in a culture where you are part of a minority group that is rejected or excluded is likely to push your child down to the bottom of the diagram learning the roles of “Rejecting to Rejected”.

Pblogimage5.001I will write more about that next time, but I am also interested in whether a whole culture can pressure parents into relating to their child in a way that exaggerates certain roles.  A colleague suggested that I read Raising Children by David F. Lancy (Link to book on amazon), a book by an anthropologist which describes the many different ways of rearing children around the world.  Much of the published research on parenting, and most of the books published, are based on findings from WEIRD countries.  That stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic, and the findings from other, less WEIRD, cultures throw up some very surprising challenges to our way of thinking about parenting in the UK (cultural psychology link).  In many traditional village cultures, the children are rarely looked after by their own mothers, who are too busy collecting food and doing chores.  Fathers also have little input with young children, the main carers are often grandparents or older siblings.  Children are often left to watch the adults around them and learn how to fit in by imitating them, rather than the kind of close parent, child relationships that I imagined were needed for children to thrive.  Children are expected to become independent early on and to develop resilience against hurt or upset.  They play together in groups of mixed ages, and have to sort out the rules of whatever game they have invented by themselves.  This is just the sort of practicing of relationship roles you need to develop the middle ground.  If you want to play with the group then you have to learn to negotiate and compromise, as there is no other group to play with and no expensive gadgets to entertain you on your own.  At the end of the day, you have to fit in or you will be left out.  Lancy suggests that in our WEIRD culture, where games are often organised by grown ups, and the rules enforced by a teacher or referee, these skills take longer to learn as they are not so vital.  Children can continue to be unreasonable or demanding towards the adults making the rules, as they do not sometimes have to play the role of the one who is enforcing the rules.

Are We Spoiling Our Children?

The author suggests that in WEIRD cultures we have become too child focused and too anxious about our children’s needs, trying to keep them happy at all times.  Hovering over them like the typical “helicopter” parent.  This reminds me of the current practice of making sure that every layer of wrapping paper in the party game “Pass the Parcel” has a treat in it, rather than just the final, middle layer, which is what happened when I was a child.  Also, giving every child a “Party Bag” to take home with them, rather than just the birthday girl or boy getting the presents.  Thinking about it through a CAT lens, he is perhaps suggesting that we have all moved too far up to the top of the CAT diagram as a whole culture, all trying to be perfect parents and keep our children happy all the time.  In the process, our children may be growing up less resilient, less independent and less able to cope with stress or disappointment.  The author links this way of parenting children with the observed rise in mental health problems in our children and young people.  These are challenging ideas and it reminds me that the middle ground does not just involve limits because we cannot sustain the level of perfect care our child wants, but because too much care and attention might actually be bad for them.  Setting up expectations of the world that are too high and so they are permanently disappointed.  While children raised in a village, with a healthy dose of neglect, have a much more realistic view of life.

Letting Children Learn for Themselves

In the book, Lancy also describes how in less WEIRD cultures, children are rarely taught anything directly.  The assumption is that children are keen to learn and they will do so if left alone.  I remember being critical of my nephew a few weeks ago, because he was ignoring his toddler son at a family party.  My great nephew who has just learnt to walk, was in the children’s corner and was trying to climb the wrong way up one of those small, plastic slides.  Thinking that I could spot an accident waiting to happen, I rushed over and helped him to use the slide “properly” by picking him up and putting him at the top of the slide and holding him as he slid down.  He found this great fun, but I am now thinking that perhaps my nephew was right and I was being too quick to interfere.  It turns out that children who are left to work out on their own how to use a toy or piece of equipment, use it in much more creative ways than when an adult supervises them and shows them the “correct’ way to use it (Research on learning).  They seem to be learning a lot more than just the one way to do something.  If my great nephew had fallen over and bumped his head, maybe that would have been a really valuable lesson which might stop him doing something even more risky in the future?

Going Against the Grain

As a parent, it certainly feels very difficult to do something different to this cultural expectation.  If everyone else is up at the top of the CAT diagram, hovering over their child, cooking them exactly what they want to eat and buying them expensive toys, you can feel like a really bad parent if you try to stay in the middle ground.  I have a rather WEIRD example of this in that my husband hates computer games (though he loves computers), so my children never had a play station or an X-box like most of their friends.  I often felt a bit embarrassed when children came round to play and it took them a while to find something to do.  I was worried that my son’s friends in particular would not want to come round to a house where you might end up making up some kind of imaginary game or playing cards.  Though now it is quite nice to come home to a group of teenage boys playing poker!  I have just asked my son whether he thought it was a problem, not having what everyone else had.  He says not, but that we maybe only got away with it because our house is so near to the school so it was the easiest place for everyone to hang out.

What do you think about these ideas?  Is the CAT model of parenting still relevant in other cultures?  If this has set you thinking and you would like to do a guest blog, particularly if you come from a less WEIRD culture than I do, then please get in touch.

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