How Culture Shapes Childhood

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A multi-ethnic group of school children in a classroom. (Photo: FatCamera / Getty Images)
A multi-ethnic group of school children in a classroom. (Photo: FatCamera / Getty Images)

Culture shapes childhood by how it develops an understanding of what it means to be a child, and how it interprets that child’s standing in a community.

In America, a child doesn’t reach adulthood until 18 years of age, even though many families recognize maturing milestones, such as “Sweet 16.” Over this last generation, Americans have continued to celebrate milestones but have also shaped their relationship with their children to be more aware and inclusive of a child’s developmental needs. 

The last 20 years saw an increase in new programs and teachings oriented toward even the youngest of children, including a growing understanding of a child’s neurological and emotional development, and how to encourage children to have a stronger sense of self as they cross the threshold into maturity.

Programs that start at infancy, like Gymboree for example, involve both parent and child from an early age — encouraging a child to experience the world, but also teaching parents how to help guide their children in play and exploration.

This pattern of engagement and mindfulness about the encompassing needs of a child move with a family as that child emerges into an adult. In fact, most middle-class American children are involved in at least one extra-curricular hobby or a summer camp or two. Most families enjoy hosting sleep overs, partaking in holidays together and other activities that nurture a child’s ability to build a bond with his or her environment. 

However, not all cultures raise their children with the mindset that prioritizes the child equally with other needs of the family. This is typically the case in economically disadvantaged areas as well as in war-torn environments that lack stability. It’s also the case for first- (and sometimes second-) generation immigrant families. 

While these are families have crossed the threshold into a new world, often their old world is still very much in tact and can be evidenced through how they organize and structure their family.

In part due to survival needs of building a new life and establishing normality, day-to-day needs are sometimes the only priority. There is little time or room for any other consideration, either financially or emotionally. 

For example, many first-generation families from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Asia will view the needs of elders within a family with a higher priority than the needs of the children. The needs of the family as a unit in these immigrant families will also often outweigh the needs and wants of a given individual adult member of the family. Children are at the bottom of this totem pole.

Meanwhile the normative behavior for many middle-class Americans is to celebrate their children as equals with the family structure.  This means that for many immigrant families, their normative pattern of parenting resemble the standards of another world versus the standard of their children’s American peers.

For many children of immigrant parents, the sharp contrast in how they are parented (versus their American peers) can trigger both resentment and alienation (especially due to their lack of freedom).

Children in disadvantaged environments are ripe to suffer from co-dependency and alienation, which makes them vulnerable. These are youth who have already been “pushed” away from feelings of inclusivity within their peer groups (they’re different in either appearance and/or behavior).

When those feelings are paired a sense of self that hasn’t been encouraged to thrive (so that the child develops a strong identity and command of their thoughts and emotions) — especially as they enter puberty and are soon expected to independently navigate the world — it is very easy for that child to be “pulled” into radicalization.

Children from cultures that silence a child’s voice can easily grow into young adults who rely heavily (emotionally and psychologically) on an outside source, whether that source is an ideology or a manipulative figure who has identified a vulnerability that can be exploited. 

The first line of defense for these children is building a community of professionals who understand the cultures and lives of these children and can help them navigate challenging terrain.

Educators, who spend many hours a day with a child,  are often the first adults outside of a child’s immediate community who have access to him or her. If they’re able to understand the culture and family dynamics a child is coming from, they’re in a better position to be a positive and encouraging influence .

School psychologists who understand these sensitive issues are also better equipped when when speaking with family members a child himself. 

Professionals and local law enforcement should also be aware of the type of programs in place within the United States so that they can encourage the building of similar local models or further support existing ones.

Hello Neighbor is a relatively new refugee assistance program out of Pittsburgh that matches newly-settled refugee families with neighbors to guide and support them in their new lives.

In Kansas, Global FC is a soccer program exclusively for refugee and underprivileged youth, which has built additional support programming to create a deeper sense of community and service for at-risk youth. 



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Shireen Qudosi

Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.

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