Cultural Differences in Child Development Expectations
A small research has been carried in order to find out how different
cultural backgrounds can influence a child’s developmental
expectations in adults and the consequences of these expectations.
The design of the method was a replication of Hess et al., 1980,
study, applied into two mothers with early age daughters, coming from
two different cultural backgrounds
, English and Spanish. They answered
at what age they thought different statements about child development
would be reached by their children and being these statements about
grouped into 6 main developmental areas the averages were calculated
The results showed an earlier expectation of achievement in all areas
of development, except for independence, in the English participant
and a complete opposite position of the Spanish participant expecting
a late development of the child in general.
This might be due to the demand, in the first, of a highly advance
society, and the influence in the second of religious and moral
Relationships between culture and knowledge development have a
peculiar character. Societies provide to their members with different
types of experience that affects and conditionate their knowledge. At
the present time many developmental psychologists analyse the
cognitive development in relation with the cultural context (Hichman,
1987). For this researchers the main question consist in weather to
accept or not the existence of “cognitive universals” which the
cultural context will condition and modernise (Laboratory of
Comparative Human Cognition, 1983) in other words, if there are
“equally valid patterns of life that mankind has created for
himself”.(Das Gupta 1994).
But in which ways these universal patterns are affected by historical
and cultural context? What do different people expect from children
and their development?
Social influences have made many theories about child development
arise and many other researches have been carried about this matter.
During this study some of these theories will be applied , like
Skiner’s theory in behaviorism which says that development is the
result of learning based on the principles of conditioning and
modelling imitation”(Das Gupta, 1994); Piaget and Constructivism, a
theory that developed different stages in the child development who
constructs actively his knowledge of the world, and it will also be
mentioned Vygotski and the social-constructivist theory which claims
that the formation of intelligence and the development of higher
psychological processes can not be understood kept out of social
Since what it is to be explored in this study is the development
in children from two individuals of different cultures
the method applied was a replication of Hess et al.(1989), who carried
out a “cross-cultural study into the expectations of American and
Japanese mothers about their child’s development”(Hess et al., 1980).
Other researches like Goodnow et al (1984),with Australian and
Lebanese-born mothers ,and the study carried by Whiting and Whiting
(1975) about children in different cultures were taken into
This study leans into the observation of different expectations and
techniques in education by an English and a Spanish mother, to find
out in which ways they are affected by their cultures, which areas of
development were found important for the child and how they encourage
their development. The results were compared to the previous
researches mentioned before, however these are just individual studies
and not samples of population for which any patterns were just
The design of this study was a replication of the procedure used by
Hess et al. For his research with American and Japanese mothers,
carried in this case in two individuals from different cultural
Participant A was a mother of 23 years old born in England. She was a
mother to a 14 months old female child and she had always lived in
Participant B was a married mother to a two year old female child, she
had grown and born in Spain but lived in England for the past five
years. She was married to an English man.
Both hold a medium class social status.
The resources used were:
A/ a set of cards containing each one of them an statement about a
goal that a child achieve at some point in his/her development + one
B/a sorting sheet to place cards with three divisions : “younger than
four years”, “4 or 5 years”, and “6 years or older”
C/a summary data sheet containing all the statements in the cards
grouped into 6 main developmental areas.
D/a data profile sheet where able to compare averages in a graphic.
The study was carried at the place of work of the two participants in
a separate and empty room with a table. They were told that a set of
cards were going to be given to them each one containing a statement
about something that children learn at some point when they grow up.
At this point they were shown the example card “can brush teeth
without supervision” , and asked weather they thought if this goal
would be reached by their child before her fourth birthday, when she
is 4 or 5 or after she is 6, and then asked to place the example card
in one of the three boxes provided for each band of age in the sorting
sheet. After taking a sort break they were asked some questions about
their views of the task and about their thoughts in child development.
The study was carried under the ethics, contemplated within the BPS
ethical code and principles of confidentiality, impartiality and
sensitivity to others people’s feelings, and previous contact with
them was made to obtain consent.
The procedures were previously piloted by the researcher being the
data contained in the summary data sheet and the data profile sheet.
During the interview both participants thought that their views were
typical inside their own cultures. The first participant said that
what most influenced her expectations was her own family background
and social context and her own education. The second participant said
to be influenced by her own instincts and values inculcated by a
religious education in Spain.
Score responses for each statement were as follows:
Before four years old ____ score 3
Four or five years old ____ score 2
Six years or older _______ score 1
And averages were calculated for each of the six areas (refer to the
summary data sheet).These are the results compared to the American and
Japanese mothers from Hess et al. study and the UK mothers from the
Table A :
The developmental goals of four samples of adults.
Japanese US OU UK Participant
mothers* mothers* mothers* A
Compliance 2.24 2.04
2.18 2.75 1.70
Independence 2.13 1.92 1.73
Social skills 1.87
2.18 2.08 2.83
Note: Averages range between 1 and 3, with a higher score indicating a
younger age at which
children are expected to reach the various developmental goals.
*The averages in these columns have been taken from Table 1 from Hess
et al., 1980,
and Table 2, the OU UK data.
As it can be seen from table A, the scores from participant A are
higher than any of the other samples, except for the area or
independence which goes down dramatically compared to the rest of the
areas the participant scored; finding a even bigger bridge from the
averages from participant B. These seem particularly low but more
adjusted to each other ( refer to the data profile sheet ).
It should be noticed that highest scores for Japanese mothers
(emotional maturity and politeness) are also the highest evaluated by
the English participant, and the social skills also have a high score.
The English participant’s expectations averages expose a very early
achievement of most developmental areas. It is easy to recognize
politeness as a very extended and reinforced value in the English
culture “ in the for appropriate social behaviour “ ( Whiting, B. and
Edwards, C.P. 1992 ), and also is shown as an earlier achievement
expectation by the mothers tested by the OU students for the UK sample
( 1995 ).
In Hess’s study, the most considered areas for American mothers were
social skills and politeness while for the Japanese mothers, emotional
maturity and politeness were the highest scores. Hess explains these
differences as a result of a “ difference in the value accorded to
children’s relationships to the world of adults compared to
relationships with their peers “ ( Hess et al. ,1980 ).
For this participant it seems that all these areas evaluated for both
samples of adults ( social skills, politeness and emotional maturity )
take all together a primary role in her expectations. For this reason
Hess’s argument cannot be applied into this case.
The participant expects almost the same earlier achievement in both
what Hess called “ relationships with the world of adults and
relationships with their own peer group.
However it is interesting to question if this mother adopts these high
expectations by having observed big innate capacities in the baby or
by stimulating the child with a well directed education. She thought
that both aspects were decisive and influenced her expectations and
also the interaction of the baby with other members of family and
friends ( socialization of the child ).
This infant is going through the sensori-motor period described by
Piaget in which she “ explores and recognizes objects with the senses
“ ( Piaget’s theory of intellectual development by Prajna Das Gupta,
1994 ) and constructs a reality from the relations between actions and
objects. He is interacting with the outside world.
Piaget ( 1972 ) also argued that cultural and sub-cultural environment
affect the speed with which babies develop through the stages and for
this mother with such high expectations an advanced culture of
technology like the one in England plus adequate family environment
stimulates certain aspects of her child’s development and this turns
into Vygotki’s theory of social constructivism stressing the influence
of the cultural context on development. This influence can be noticed
in the only late expectation of achievement existing in this
participant; “ independence “. It is possible that this over
protective attitude is formed by the influence of an advanced but
consequently dangerous society where delinquency and drug addiction
are major problems for the government.
The Spanish participant adopts a position of late expectations in
every area of development when she is affirming that her expectations
were low and that her only worries were for the child “ to be happy
and a good person as she promotes the non-violence “, it is important
to observe the religious and moral values still present in Spanish
Her answers are comparable to the Lebanon mothers in the Goodnow et
As she argues “ the earlier equals better may itself be an expression
of particular cultural values; which it is true in the long run, but
the answers from the Spanish participant makes to consider whether
Spanish culture is not as demanding and more based still in catholic
values which would make a child reach maturity into the real world at
a later point and realize that children might not be “ taken as
seriously “ in Spain as they are in England. This participant revealed
to be highly influenced by her own Spanish education and to constantly
“ give example “ to the child. This follows the principle of modelling
/ imitation by B.F. Skinner in the theory inside behaviourism, which
stresses the role on environment in development.
While this participant gives more relevance in development to external
( behaviourism ) the English participant shows an importance of her
baby’s own innate capacities interacting with the social world (
social constructivism ).
As Whiting and Whiting claimed “ in every culture there are customary
ideas and expectations about the nature, capacities and proper
behaviour of children
( Whiting and Whiting, 1975 ) and this is shown in the example of
these two individuals’ expectations from different cultural
However the difficulty of this study sets in the problem that being
just individual people and not samples of them, it is hard to relate
the differences to just culture since they are also influenced by
different personalities, personal situations, own experiences, ages
and family backgrounds which affect at the time to explain behaviour
For further investigation it would be interesting to observe the
expectations of a Spanish individual coming from a non-religious
The influence of an English cultural context shows a concern for early
achievement of developmental goals due to a competitive and
technologically demanding society while the Spanish culture influence
expects a late achievement of development influenced by its priorities
of catholic religious beliefs.
This might develop into an earlier reach of maturity for English
children into the adult world.
DAS GUPTA, P.(1994) “Images of childhood and theories of development”,
in Oates, J.(ed.) The foundations of Development, Oxford,
Blackwell/The Open University
GOODNOW, CASHMORE, COTTON and KNIGHT (1984)
HESS, KASHIWAGIE, AZMA, PRICE and DICKSON (1980)
HICHMANN (1987). Social and functional Approaches to language and
thought. Orlando: Academic press.
LABORATORY OF COMPARATIVE HUMAN COGNITION (1983). Culture and
cognitive development at P. H. Mussen (ed.) Handbook of child
psychology, vol. 1, W. Kessen (ED) History, Theory and Methods. New
PIAGET (1972) , Intellectual evolution from adolescence to adulthood.
THE OPEN UNIVERSITY (1995) .Data collected by the OU from ED209
students for the “ developmental expectations procedure” .
WHITING , B. B. and WHITING, J. W. M. (1975) Children of six cultures:
a psycho-cultural analysis, Cambridge (Mass.) , Harvard University