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Dr. Spock: Cultural Differences in Parenting

Dr. Benjamin Spock has been giving parents advice about raising their children for decades. In this excerpt from his landmark work, Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, he shares one of the 19 points he believes are most important for parents to keep in mind about their role in their child's life.

Other times and other countries

Parents' aspirations for their children have always been influenced by the culture and times in which they live. In the past it was almost universally assumed that humanity's main function in the world -- aside from survival -- was to serve God by carrying out His purposes, as revealed by religion. Much the same was true in America during the Colonial period. Parents back then did not have the relatively modern notion that a goal of life might be fulfillment or happiness, and children were constantly exhorted to overcome their base natures in order to grow up to be pleasing in God's eyes.

In certain countries, such as China and Israel, it has been believed that serving the country is most important. With this idea in mind, parents, religious leaders, and teachers in those countries usually agree about what virtues are to be encouraged in children: lawfulness, cooperativeness, studiousness, dedication to the specific principles of the nation. In other parts of the world, it has been assumed that children are born and raised to serve the aims of the extended family or clan, and should prepare themselves for jobs important to the family. Children must revere and defer to their elders. They may even be forced to marry a stranger chosen by their parents for the purpose of advancing the family's welfare. In a way, this simplifies child rearing for the parents because they all agree with what child rearing means. This is in contrast to America where each family has to decide for itself what its aims are, whether they are primarily materialistic or spiritual, whether religion is to play an important role or whether a certain psychological theory is the determinant.

When parents have a kind of moral certainty about the goals of raising children, they usually don't have to keep wondering and worrying about whether they are doing the right thing. It all follows from the expectations of the culture. Everybody agrees with those expectations and adheres to the same child-rearing practices. It's all crystal clear. Young parents learn about the aims and methods for rearing their children from ancient traditions and from having the extended family nearby to advise and help.

But this security is often lacking in the present day. In the United States, for example, very few children are raised to believe that their principal destiny is to serve their family, their country, or their God. Generally children are given the feeling that they can set their own aims and occupations in life, according to their inclinations. We are raising them to be rugged individualists, with success often measured in material terms. An English anthropologist said that whereas in most countries children are taught to look up to their parents as rather distinguished superior people, in the United States parents will say to their child, "If you don't do better than I've done, you're a failure."

The support from a close extended family is likewise often absent. Our ancestors left their homelands because they were impatient with old ways and had the courage to face the unknown. Ever since, their descendants have been restlessly moving from place to place in search of opportunity, often raising their children hundreds or thousands of miles away from any relatives.

For this reason, many parents have turned to professional advisers, books like this one, and psychological theories to get the help they need. The problem is that psychological concepts and advice about child rearing don't help much unless they are backed up by a sense of what's right and proper -- in other words by a firm foundation of core values.

Excerpted with permission from Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, Revised Seventh Edition, Pocket Books, 1998.

Copyright 1945, 1946, © 1957, 1968, 1976, 1985, 1992 by Benjamin Spock, MD. Copyright renewed © 1973, 1974, 1985, 1996 by Benjamin Spock, MD. Revised and updated material copyright © by The Benjamin Spock Trust

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