Parents' Cultural Belief Systems

Their Origins, Expressions, and Consequences

Edited by Sara Harkness and Charles M. Super

November 24, 1995
ISBN 9781572300316
Price: $90.00
558 Pages
Size: 6⅛" x 9¼"

In recent years, psychological interest in the cultural dimensions of parents' beliefs has been stimulated by studies of ethnic differences in developmental expectations and the identification of cultural themes in childrearing. This volume offers a multifaceted view of parents' cultural belief systems, their origins in culturally constructed parental experience, their expressions in parental practices, and their consequences for children's well-being and growth. Discussing issues with implications beyond the study of parenthood, the book shows how the analysis of child outcomes related to parents' cultural belief systems (or parental ethnotheories) can provide valuable insights into the nature and meaning of family and self in society and, in some cases, a basis for culturally sensitive therapeutic interventions.

“I recommend this book highly for those therapists and theoreticians interested in careful research on cross-cultural differences and developmental thinking that is ethnocentric.”

AFTA Newsletter

“This book is an invaluable resource for anyone thinking about or teaching about the role of culture in human development. By considering intracultural as well as intercultural variability, Harkness and Super have assembled a volume that gives serious consideration to shared group cultures, while respecting individual differences within a culture, thus avoiding the dangerous ground of stereotypes. “Cultural meanings are critical for understanding cultural differences; consequently, parents' cultural belief systems are critical to understanding cultural differences in child development. Harkness and Super's book is the first to devote an entire volume to this important topic. “Because, as Harkness and Super point out, cultural models of development are implicit rather than explicit, the scientist's own cultural model can be mistaken for a universal theory of development. By sampling parents' beliefs about the nature and goals of development across most regions of the world—North America, Western Europe, Far East and Pacific, Africa, and Latin America—this book lays the groundwork for the first theory of human development to have universality without ethnocentrism.”

—Patricia M. Greenfield, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, UCLA

“This volume is the most extensive and compelling effort to date to examine the nature and ramifications of parents' belief systems. It encompasses dozens of cultures and diverse domains of child development, ranging from sleep and temperament to school learning, work, and relationships. In no other source are cultural variations so effectively used to illuminate principles that link culture and family processes. It is `must' reading for developmental scholars, regardless of discipline.”

—W. Andrew Collins, Ph.D., Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota

“Harkness and Super's concept of the `developmental niche' is currently the most influential theory in the study of cross-cultural human development. This volume provides empirical flesh around the core component of the `developmental niche': parental ethnotherapies or cultural belief systems. The collection of chapters presents a wide coverage, to include theory and methods as well as research results, in a variety of settings; while most first authors are based in the U.S., the studies are often carried out with colleagues indigenous to the societies being studied, and there is in particular a good sample of studies from Europe and Japan. “The volume is extremely well balanced in representing both cultural and cross-cultural psychology, qualitative as well as quantitative methodologies, and intra-cultural variation as well as cross-cultural comparisons. Because of its multi-disciplinary approach, this volume will appeal to researchers in a variety of fields such as anthropology, developmental psychology and sociology and to practitioners in pediatrics and education, and generally speaking to those concerned with providing optimal conditions for child development. “All in all, a most welcome and timely addition to the field.”

—Pierre R. Dasen, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and Education, University of Geneva, Switzerland

“In the study of parent-child relationships, parenting beliefs—that is, parents' understandings, ideas, and attitudes about parenting and children and child development—may occupy a unique position. Further, in the study of culture, a central expectation is that parents will possess a system of such beliefs and that parents will behave in childbearing in ways that accord with those beliefs. Parental belief systems doubtlessly serve many functions: They motivate parenting behaviors or determine how effective those behaviors are; they help to order parenting; and they affect parents' sense of self, satisfaction, and competence. In a larger sense, they may contribute to the `continuity of culture' by mediating the transmission of culture across generations. This timely volume crystallizes the new domain of `parental ethnotheories' and addresses key topics and approaches, including associations between parenting beliefs and parenting behaviors as well as parenting beliefs and child development.”

—Marc H. Bornstein, Ph.D., National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

“The distinguishing merits of this new text include the authors; linking of research to theory development, understanding the dynamic origins of parents' cultural belief systems and within-culture variance, and insight into everyday expression of culture specific practices. The authors of the book do an outstanding job of orienting scientists to variables of practical interest and the theoretical foundations from which they emanate. Many of the targeted outcomes discussed in the chapters ...are issues that routinely engage clinicians.”

—Bette Keltner, University of Alabama at Birmingham, American Journal on Mental Retardation

“ The major strengths of the book are its inter-disciplinary nature, its consideration of both theoretical and methodological issues, and its attention to cross-cultural variations, ...could serve as a supplementary text in a graduate course.”

—Ralph LaRossa, Georgia State University, Journal of Marriage and the Family

Table of Contents

1. Introduction, Harkness and Super

I. Theoretical Perspectives

2. Parents' Free Descriptions of Child Characteristics: A Cross-Cultural Search for the Developmental Antecendents of the Big Five, Kohnstamm, Halverson, Havill, and Mervielde

3. Processes of Generalization in Parental Reasoning, Valsiner and Litvinovic

4. The Answer Depends on the Question: A Conceptual and Methodological Analysis of a Parent Belief-Behavior Interview Regarding Children's Learning, Sigel and Kim

II. The Nature and Origins of Parents' Cultural Belief Systems

5. Essential Contrasts: Differences in Parental Ideas About Learners and Teaching in Tahiti and Nepal, Levy

6. How do Children Develop Knowledge?: Beliefs of Tansanian and American Mothers, McGillicuddy-De Lisi and Subramanian

7. Japanese Mothers' Ideas about Infants and Temperament, Shwalb, Shwalb, and Shoji

8. Scenes from a Marriage: Equality Ideology in Swedish Family Policy, Maternal Ethnotheories, and Practice, Welles-Nystrom

III. Intracultural Variation: The Role of Education and "Experts"

9. Parents' and Adolescents' Ideas on Children: Origins and Transmission of Intracultural Diversity, Palacios and Moreno

10. Education and Mother-Infant Interaction: A Mexican Case Study, LeVine, Miller, Richman, and LeVine

11. The Contrasting Developmental Timetables of Parents and Preschool Teachers in Two Cultural Communities, Edwards, Gandini, and Giovaninni 12. Ask the Doctor: The Negotiation of Cultural Models in American Parent-Pediatrician Discourse, Harkness, Super, Keefer, Raghavan, and Kipp

IV. The Instantiation of Parents' Cultural Belief Systems in Practices

13. From Household Practices to Parents' Ideas About Work and Interpersonal Relationships, Goodnow

14. How Mayan Parental Theories Come Into Play, Gaskins

15. Parental Theories in the Management of Young Children's Sleep in Japan, Italy, and the United States, Wolf, Lozoff, Latz, and Pauladetto

16. Maternal Beliefs and Infant-Care Practices in Italy and the United States, New and Richman V. The Consequences of Parents' Cultural Belief Systems for Children's Health and Development

17. My Child is My Crown: Yoruba Parental Theories and Practices in Early Childhood, Zeitlin

18. Growth Consequences of Low-Income Nicaraguan Mothers' Theories About Feeding 1-Year-Olds, Engle, Zeitlin, and Medrano

19. The "Three R's" of Dutch Childrearing and the Socialization of Infant Arousal, Super, Harkness, van Tijen, van der Flugt, Fintelman, and Dijkstra

20. Imagining and Engaging One's Children: Lessons From Poor, Rural New England Mothers, Bond, Belenky, Weinstock, and Cook

21. American Cultural Models of Early Influence and Parent Recognition of Developmental Delays: Is Earlier Always Better Than Later?, Weisner, Matheson, and Bernheimer

About the Editors

Sara Harkness and Charles M. Super, co-editors of Guilford's Culture and Human Development Series, have worked together on research with children and families in Africa, the United States, and Europe.

Sara Harkness, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Social Anthropology from Harvard University, where she was also a National Institute of Mental Health Postdoctoral Research Fellow, earned a Master of Public Health degree, and taught at the School of Public Health.

Charles M. Super, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Harvard University. In addition to his research and clinical work, he has consulted internationally for the United Nations and USAID.


Readers in developmental and cross-cultural psychology, psychological anthropology, and the behavioral sciences.

Serves as a primary text for courses in cognitive anthropology and cultural psychology, and as a supplementary text in culturally oriented courses in life-span development, education, health, and human services.

Course Use

Serves as a primary text for courses in cognitive anthropology and cultural psychology, and as a supplementary text in culturally oriented courses in life-span development, education, health, and human services.