Culture, Child-Rearing and Child Development

Who gets to decide how to raise children and on what basis?

Written in collaboration with an international group of leading cross-cultural anthropologists and psychologists, these publications critically examine the reliance of psychological research on experimental data from middle-class Western populations, and the application of middle-class Western conceptions of child rearing to communities with diverse values. We call for including indigenous work and perspectives in social debates about parenting and in the development of policies about children’s rights, childcare, and education. We also point out the ethical problems raised by interventions in the caretaking practices of other cultures.

The cultural nature of attachment

Key results of that collaboration have been published in Heidi Keller and Kim A. Bard, eds., The Cultural Nature of AttachmentContextualizing Relationships and Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. 

Winner of the 2018 Ursula Gielen Global Psychology Book Award. This award is given by the American Psychological Association to: “a book that makes the greatest contribution to psychology as an international discipline and profession, or more specifically, the degree to which the book adds to our understanding of global phenomena and problems from a psychological point of view.”

  • “Taking Culture Seriously: A Pluralistic Approach to Attachment.” Gilda A. Morelli, Nandita Chaudhary, Alma Gottlieb, Heidi Keller, Marjorie Murray, Naomi Quinn, Mariano Rosabal-Coto, Gabriel Scheidecker, Akira Takada, and Marga Vicedo. Heidi Keller and Kim A. Bard, eds. 2017. The Cultural Nature of Attachment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 139-170.

This chapter presents an alternative view to classic attachment theory and research. Bowlby and Ainsworth ignored criticisms from psychologists and anthropologists such as Margaret Mead who argued that different cultures raise children in different ways without the disastrous consequences attachment theorists predicted. In many cultures, fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even other community members may play a large role in taking care of infants and in providing the trusted relationships children need to grow up as emotionally healthy individuals. 

  • “Real-World Applications of Attachment Theory.” Mariano Rosabal-Coto, Naomi Quinn, Heidi Keller, Marga Vicedo, Nandita Chaudhary, Alma Gottlieb, Gabriel Scheidecker, Marjorie Murray, Akira Takada, and Gilda A. Morelli. In Heidi Keller and Kim A. Bard, eds. 2017. The Cultural Nature of AttachmentContextualizing Relationships and Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 335-354.

Attachment theory has its roots in an ethnocentric complex of ideas, longstanding in the United States, under the rubric of “intensive mothering.” Among these various approaches and programs, attachment theory has had an inordinate influence on a wide range of professions concerned with children (family therapy, education, the legal system, and public policy, the medical profession, etc.) inside and outside the United States. This chapter describes how attachment theory has been used as the basis for child-rearing manuals and has influenced programs and policies more directly, to form legal decisions that affect families, as well as to develop public policy and programs—all without requisite evidence to support such application and, more importantly, without regard to cultural context. It concludes with a call for researchers to become proactive in rectifying misuses of attachment theory and holds that doing so is a matter of social responsibility.

  • “Ethical Challenges of Parenting Interventions in Low- to Middle-Income Countries.’ Gilda Morelli, Naomi Quinn, Nandita Chaudhary, Marga Vicedo, Mariano Rosabal-Coto, Heidi Keller, Marjorie Murray, Alma Gottlieb, Gabriel Scheidecker, Akira Takada. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 49 (1): 5-24, 2018
  • “The Myth of Universal Sensitive Responsiveness: Comment on Mesman et al. (2017).” Heidi Keller, Kim Bard, Gilda Morelli, Nandita Chaudhary, Marga Vicedo, Mariano Rosabal-Coto, Gabriel Scheidecker, Marjorie Murray, Alma Gottlieb. Child Development 89 (5): 1921-1928, 2018
  • “Bringing the Real World into Developmental Science: A Commentary on Weber, Fernald, & Diop (2017).” Gilda Morelli, Kim Bard, Nandita Chaudhary, Alma Gottlieb, Heidi Keller, Marjorie Murray, Naomi Quinn, Mariano Rosabal-Coto, Gabriel Scheidecker, Akira Takada, and Marga VicedoChild Development. 89 (6): e594-e603, 2018.

This article examines one of the parent intervention program — Reinforcement of Parental Practice — developed and implemented by the Senegal-based non-governmental organization Tostan. It argues that there are scientific and ethical problems with such intervention efforts in applied developmental science. Scientifically, these programs rely on data from a small and narrow sample of the world’s population; assume the existence of fixed developmental pathways; and pit scientific knowledge against indigenous knowledge. For example, this paper questions the critical role of talk as the main vehicle to provide the rich cognitive stimulation important to school success, and the critical role of primary caregivers as teachers of children’s verbal competency. In addition, these programs do not sufficiently explore how an intervention in one aspect of childcare will affect the community’s culturally organized patterns of childcare.