Tribal Child Development



Stimulation, contact and play; all things essential to ordinary child development. Or are they?

 In western culture it has gradually become imprinted on us that children need constant love and care in order to develop. This was origionally sparked off by the developments of Harlow and Bowlby, who found that deprivation of these key factors could lead to detrimental and permanent effects on children. Their works have been further developed, by many a parenting programme and pop psychology book, to tell us exactly what children are programmed to recquire. Up until now I had always assumed that, because they seem so logical, these needs would be universal. However, after reading a psychology article in Psychology Review (a magazine recommended on my course) this view has been challenged.

Kagan and Klein (1973) studied children from the island of San Marcos in Guatemala. Here children in their first year of life were often kept in small dark huts, rarely being taken outside as it was thought to be far to dangerous. Even whilst in the hut the mothers were recorded as rarely playing, or talking to their children. The toddlers were found to display similar behaviour to that found in institutionalised children in the West. Dramatically though, by the time they were aged 5-12 years there was no reported lasting mental damage; the children were able to perform at the same level as ordinary children in the West. Remarkably they were also found to be happy, bright children!

Schieffelin and Ochs (1983) challenged the common thought that children need to be “bathed in language” in order to learn to speak. They observed The Kaluli of Papua New Guinea where mothers were recorded as rarely talking to their babies; out of the belief that they could not understand what was being said. If Western ideas are to be believed the children should have developed at a much later rate, or even become linguistically retarded. However, the children were found to be completely fluent in their native language well within the normal range expected.

These studies don’t suggest all babies should be kept in dark huts, under total silence; just that perhaps our ideas of what babies need is not as universal as it may seem. Perhaps they even provide an argument for nurture over nature?