Home Sociology Infant Observation: Creating Transformative Relationships
The boy made to grab the toy cars and as he did so the mother took another car. She asked him, "What colour is the car?” and he looked at her and mumbled something rather hard to distinguish. She then moved in close to him and said that they should play a certain game.
From looking pleased and interested he suddenly looked rather compliant.
The mother then went to get the toy people and began to play with them in the toy house more or less by herself. He joined in, on her suggestion, and she told him where to put the people, and was directing him, and asking him things like where does the baby sleep, and in reply saying things like, "Yes that's right.” He lost interest and for a few minutes she was playing on her own. Eventually she realised what had happened and tried to encourage him to play with her again. When his response was rather half-hearted she picked up a book and began to read to him, and asked him various questions, such as what a particular letter was, and what the name of the animals were.
As the task was for the mother to play with her child in whatever way they wanted, she had in effect not done anything that needed to be judged as in any way inappropriate. Watching the film, though, was something of an affront to my own values, as I longed for her to be empathic to him, and let him lead the play a bit. Maybe not surprisingly, this mother was given a very low score on the mind-mindedness scale. Yet in the group I facilitated an interesting discussion ensued as we realised that this mother was acting exactly as would have been expected in her own culture. Apart from the over-valuation of educational tasks, and the likely possibility that she felt that she would be judged by Western professionals in terms of how well she was "teaching” her son, this mother was acting in a way that is very common in more socio-centric cultures.
The anthropological literature provides a fascinating account of how children play differently in different societies. In most pre-industrial societies children spend much of their lives in cross-age groups, learning from the older ones, and play is not something that is often done between parent and child in the way we expect in the West. In a study of a poor rural Turkish community, where children had to contribute to the workforce at an early age, play was less highly valued, and adults did not join in, but rather left children to get on with it (Goncu & Gaskins, 2007). The same is true of many other cultures, such as Yucatan Maya children, where play is actively curtailed to encourage more "productive” activity and many cultures do not highly value symbolic play.
The rationale behind symbolic play differs across cultures. Japanese infants are likely to be encouraged in play which has a socio-centric emphasis, with more "other directed” attention, such as "feed the dolly", whereas US mothers might be more likely to stress play that promotes individual autonomy or assertiveness ("Yes, you can do that if you try”). In Taiwanese middle- class families influenced by Confucian values, the roles children were expected to take in play involved "proper conduct" and addressing elders appropriately (Goncu & Gaskins, 2007). In many societies, one sees less fantasy play and more exploration of real life roles and scripts. Western societies encourage learning in which ideas are thought about more abstractly, in a de-contextualised way, so allowing more "playing around" with realities (Harris, 2007).
Indeed, differences in how language is used and valued are an important aspect of the socio-centric—egocentric distinction. I have often found members of infant observation groups expressing surprise, or even disapproval, that a mother does not talk aloud more to her baby. Yet in many cultures the kind of dyadic, "motherese" (Bateson, 1971) we often value so much in mothers and babies is simply not culturally appropriate. For example, the Gusii of Kenya believe that if you talk too much to your children then they end up self-centred (LeVine, 1994). Gusii children are immersed in adult conversation but are not talked to or taught to talk. The Western middle-class ideal of lots of dyadic mother-infant communication again does not pertain. Similarly the Kaluli, a tribe in New Guinea, have no lilting "motherese" (Fernald, 1985) with its soft, high-pitched tones, and infants and children are not even addressed directly. Rather they are taught to speak clearly through adults modelling correct speech. Mothers might turn a baby towards someone and speak for the baby, demonstrating correct language. Linguistic skills are important to the Kaluli, but infants learn by observing adults or older children speak to each other, neither through motherese, nor the dyadic interactions we in the West might assume to be "natural". The Kaluli expect children to fit into adult speech patterns and barely attempt to understand what a child might be thinking, believing that one can never know what is in another's mind.
Such considerations have a bearing on how we can think about and understand the families we observe, and in particular how we teach infant observation of, and within, cultures other than our own. This exercise I mentioned earlier, of watching the African mother play with her children, and then realising the cultural bias in the methodology used to measure her "mind- mindedness", was in fact a profoundly shocking one for us all in the group. I had up until that moment not suspected the extent to which the concept of mind-mindedness contained cultural norms against which members of other cultures might be judged. In the next section I take up further some of the other normative assumptions that can creep into related areas of attachment theory, particularly in relation to the socio-centric—egocentric distinction.
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