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Parenting across cultures

While parents' desire to take care of / protect their children is universal, how they do this in various parts of the world vary. As we embark in this challenge, it might be worth thinking of what is universal and what is cultural in terms of parenting so that when we come to ideation we think of solutions that serve universal needs but can be enacted differently depending of the cultural context.

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Here is a summary of an article by 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. Both are studying cross-cultural variations in parenting, raising very interesting points regarding universal vs. cultural aspects of parenting. [ In italics, excerpts of the text, in bold my comments]

"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.

They then contrast this example with European practices, showing how even those varied. They contrast Dutch parents who usually put their babies to bed early because the need a lot of sleep while Spanish parents will usually keep babies and toddlers late as they thought being with their parents as long as possible was emotionally important. It reminded me of a point made by a British woman who was living in Singapore and explaining us how originally she had thought that her kids had to sleep in their beds, in their rooms but living in Asia, she realized that for many Asian parents, babies sleeping in their parents bed was custom. Several Indian and Chinese women present during that conversation agreed. 

"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. 

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 [...]

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. 


Keeping in mind these 3 sub-systems as we interpret the observations and interviews we post or read is important.


"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."

I think it is important for us to be aware / sensitive to these differences and I'm looking forward to learn about some of them during the research phase of this challenge.

Here are a few questions developed by the Harkness and Super that might be useful:

"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?"

For more information:

What can we learn from this research for this challenge?
  • The distinction between universal needs (all parents love their kids and want to help them grow) and cultural practices.
  • The existence of 3 major sub-systems around children: physical and social settings; customs and practices of care; psychology of the caretakers
  • How to design solutions that support universal needs while allowing for different cultural enactments?

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Photo of Tamar Lasky

This is very helpful, and important to realize that tools, interventions, technology and innovation will need to be adapted to cultural settings.