Response to Presidential Address: Learning about Children by Listening to Others and Thinking about Ourselves

Picture of a mother and a baby


This paper by Suzanne Gaskins and Heidi Keller has been written in response to the Presidential Address by Kai von Klitzing (WAIMH President) published in the previous issue of Perspectives: WAIMH’s infants’ rights statement—a culturally monocentric claim? Perspectives in Infant Mental Health 27 (1).

Suzanne Gaskins is Professor Emerita, Department of Psychology, Northeastern Illinois University (USA). Heidi Keller is Professor Emeritus at Osnabrück University, Germany, and a Director of Nevet Greenhouse of Context-Informed Research and Training for Children in Need in the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

This response paper by Gaskins and Keller, contributes to an ongoing conversation concerning WAIMH’s position paper on the rights of infants, and a recently published edited book by Heidi Keller and Kim Bard (Eds.) (2017). The Cultural Nature of Attachment: Contextualizing Relationships and Development. This book has been published by Strüngmann Forum, Cambridge: the MIT Press and presents “multidisciplinary perspectives on the cultural and evolutionary foundations of children’s attachment relationships and on the consequences for education, counseling, and policy” (

Maree Foley, Editor

Learning about Children by Listening to Others and Thinking about Ourselves

Recently, von Klitzing (2019) reflected on a chapter written by Gaskins and a group of colleagues in a book on the cultural nature of attachment edited by Keller and Bard (2017). The chapter, exploring the implications the book might have for policy and practice, argues that no policy or intervention should be developed, or is likely to be successful, without being informed by the cultural meanings that guide people’s behavior. We thank Dr. von Klitzing for his interest in our work and for inviting us to respond to his address.

It is heartening to hear him argue that it is important to pay attention to parents’ reasons, attitudes, and practices around the globe. “Cultural sensitivity should lead us to ask the parents or other responsible adults about the reasons for their practices, and to treat them with understanding.” “It is not at all justified to counter…parental attitudes with arrogance and moral condemnation.” “Cultural sensitivity means that we listen carefully and try to understand the attitudes of parents from different cultural backgrounds….” Further, he recognizes that the context of a particular action, like separating a child from a parent, influences whether it should be viewed as supporting the child’s well being or working against it.

But international organizations often come to their work with commitments that are different from local parental understandings. The difficult question that sits between our chapter and this presidential address is, “Who should decide what is best for children growing up in a culturally specific context when these two sets of commitments conflict?”

On the one hand, one might presume that parents (or other caregivers) should decide. They love their children, know them best, and are most committed to their well-being across their entire lives. They also know the advantages and challenges of the contexts where the children live their everyday lives. And they come to the job of raising their children with a wealth of wisdom provided by a set of integrated beliefs and practices about child development, the nature and content of children’s learning, and how their children can become competent, successful adults.

On the other hand, organizations like the WAIMH exist because they want to help children lead healthy and fulfilling lives. They use two standards to guide them in this work. The first is the accepted knowledge produced by researchers who study child development, health, and education. This research serves as a roadmap for agencies and governments deciding on policy and applications. The second, perhaps less conscious, standard is the set of cultural commitments the members of the institution share among themselves about how what makes families strong and healthy, how caregivers should treat their children, and what experiences children should or should not have. These cultural commitments are further legitimized when they are mirrored in the research.

As two cultural developmental psychologists with extensive experiences in other cultures, we give a lot of credence to the wisdom of families and caregivers (not only parents, but other adults and children in the young child’s world) and their groundedness in their communities. We have seen first hand how their normative interactions create everyday environments where children thrive and develop into competent adults. And we do not think that the moral commitments from our own culture are inherently more valid than those that exist in other cultures. (NB: Within every healthy cultural system some individuals are dysfunctional in ways that are detrimental to children’s well-being, but those people’s actions are judged by others as wrong, and consequences may be imposed by the group for their harmful behavior.)

We read with great skepticism research findings of “universal” pathways for healthy development when the research has been conducted in only a single culture, using theories and measures that mesh with that culture’s assumptions or has been conducted in other cultures using those same theories and measures. From our own work and what we read about many other cultures, we believe the field of child development has reached conclusions about development and children’s worlds based on seriously inadequate data (see Sperry, Sperry, and Miller, 2018 and Sperry, Miller, and Sperry, 2019 for issues related to the 30 Million Word Gap claim). There are over-generalizations, narrow perspectives, and outright errors in the literature. In addition, little is known about culturally organized child development, including our own blindness that middle-class Western parenting also entails a commitment to a distinct set of cultural practices and values.

Given our confidence in how competently parents and other caregivers, imbedded in their cultural understandings, organize children’s lives, and our lack of confidence in what researchers claim to know, we cannot agree that Western values and “best practices” are automatically the most valid way to protect children. To clarify our position, we will briefly discuss the three topics introduced by von Klitzing in his address.

Responsive care from continuous caregivers

We fully agree that infants need reliable and emotionally responsive care from continuous caregivers. Our concern is that often a culturally specific model of who is the best caregiver and what is “sensitive care” is used to judge caregiver practices in other cultures. For instance, who counts as a “continuous caregiver” depends on the cultural model of social relations in a family. Often care is distributed across a large number of family members. In such situations, when parents leave children in care of other family members so that they can work outside their community, it may not be experienced as a break in sensitive caregiving, as it might be in a family where the mother has been the sole caregiver. In families facing serious financial hardship, a mother seeking work away may be crucial for insuring children’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Similarly, families facing an immanent danger in their community from disease, exposure to toxins, or warfare may need to send their children away (e.g., Jewish families during the Nazi regime in Germany).

Families may also distribute the responsibility for raising a child across adults and older children because they do not define the parent-child dyad as a privileged social unit. Existing studies show young children profit from attachments to multiple caregivers, but the full range of benefits need to be explored (Gaskins, et al., 2017).

Likewise, judgments about “reliable and emotionally responsive care” are often based on cultural habits of what is normal. For instance, failing to keep infants in constant body contact or having them sleep alone in a separate room are seen as cruel and irresponsible behaviors in many cultures. Judging from the outside what is reliable and responsive care can be hazardous.

Education using corporal punishment

With the goal of understanding others, we think it is unhelpful to call education using corporal punishment “harm of violent care.” In every culture, there is a distinction made between physical abuse and appropriate methods of punishment used to teach children and to discourage them from harmful or socially inappropriate behavior. How abuse vs. punishment is defined, however, is quite culturally variable. How punishment is received and understood by children also varies significantly by context. For example, Baumrind’s (1971) model of parenting styles was investigated in China by Chao (1994). Based on clusters of behaviors produced in a factor analysis from her United States data, Baumrind developed a model of three types of parenting styles: “authoritative,” “authoritarian,” and “permissive.” In China, Chao found that control and strictness (authoritarian behaviors) co-occurred with parental warmth and closeness (authoritative behaviors). Such paired behavior was culturally valued and understood as “training.” Unlike children of authoritarian US parents, Chinese children receiving this kind of “training” felt that their parents cared for them well, and they were highly successful in school. This classic work demonstrates how the categories derived from “scientific” research done in one culture may be seriously misleading in other cultural contexts.

Work looking specifically at corporal punishment in cultural context has found that such punishment is used intentionally to teach the children important lessons for being competent cultural participants as adults. For instance, El Ouardani (2018) argues that physical punishment in a Moroccan community is associated with instilling respect and moral behavior and with fulfilling a parent’s responsibility to maintain order and to provide care and protection to children. Fear of a parent or teacher is seen as way of insuring children’s awareness to facilitate their learning. At the same time, physical punishment is also often integrated into more playful and affectionate forms of interaction. Punishment delivered outside of a caring relationship is seen as illegitimate. In contrast, Westerners often connect corporal punishment to violence, pain, and unhealthy relationships. People in this Moroccan community see the 2000 national ban on corporal punishment as being driven by the transnational human rights discourse. They experience it as a hindrance to the children’s education and a limitation on fulfilling parental duties, and so they frequently ignore it.

Rather than physical punishment, middle-class Western parents often use psychological measures such as isolation, shame/guilt, or loss of privileges. Such punishment may cause ambivalent reactions similar to those El Ouardani describes for the corporal punishment rural Moroccan children receive. We do not have a clear research understanding of whether psychological punishment is more or less effective in changing behavior than corporal punishment or whether it produces more or fewer negative effects in children. It is also possible that there is a cultural specificity to such effects.

Gender rights

Gender role differences exist in all parts of the world. We think that it is unproductive to evaluate one cultural gender role praxis based on the worldview of another culture. Until recently, Western cultures were committed to strong gender role differences and expectations. Education, for example, was not as valued for girls as it was for boys. Girls were expected to grow up and bear and raise children, while boys were expected to grow up and provide for their families, which education could promote. Understanding education to be a practical resource for getting a better job, rather than a road to personal fulfillment and growth, is a perspective that is still common in many sub-groups in Western cultures. These same beliefs are found in many other cultures.

Also, where children’s contributions are valuable to family work, conflicts of interest arise between what children should do to support their family in the present and what they should do to provide themselves resources for the future. Where girls’ labor is more useful than boys (e.g., as caregivers of younger children), there would be more pressure for them to leave school at a younger age.

The role of education in promoting exposure to social threats is also important. In many communities, those with education must leave the community to get jobs that use their education; leaving is often not considered an option for unmarried women, so education is less useful for them. Exposure is also a concern if teenage girls must be educated together with teenage boys. It is not uncommon to see pregnancies and elopements soar when secondary and high schools come into a community. In such cases, parents may hesitate to send their daughters to school.

When the rights of women and girls are considered only from the Western cultural perspective, credit is not given to how differently women from other cultures feel and think. Kapadia (2017), a feminist psychologist from India, argues that the Indian and Western middle class women’s understandings of feminism are very different. When a conflict arises, such as whom a young woman should marry, Indian middle class women want to balance their perspective with that of their family to avoid open conflict because of their conception that significant others are part of their personal identity.


We need to proceed with caution when considering telling other people how to live their lives and how to raise their children. Three lessons can be learned from these examples. First, the motivations for specific behaviors may be far more complex than outsiders can easily understand, and trying to change one aspect of behavior may have unintended and undesirable consequences. Second, all people attach positive moral value to their own practices. Thus, international agencies may think their practices are better than local ones, and local communities may reject projects based on Western practices. And third, we need to be more skeptical about scientific evidence of what is “true” and using it to determine what is inherently “good” and “bad” for children.

No matter how good intentions are, there is a grave moral danger in judging people using theories and measures that are culturally provincial and in assuming that differences are due to deficits in the other group (Rogoff et al., 2017). If we listen more openly to others, our respect for their childrearing may increase, but we may also gain important insights about our own childrearing, leading us in turn to evaluate existing research more critically to determine which “truths” are culturally specific and which are generalizable across contexts.

Listening thoughtfully and thinking critically is just as important for organizations working with migrants and minorities in Western cultures as it is for those focused on countries in the global south. The increasing numbers of migrants arriving in European and Northern American countries makes it even more pressing that we approach helping families by first listening and learning.

We believe that any group trying to help children should be committed to the principle of “First, do no harm.” To this end, there is an urgent need to include anthropologists, sociologists, and cultural psychologists of childhood when formulating policies and interventions, to insure that whole cultural systems that shape children’s lives are considered, not just isolated behaviors taken out of context.


Baumrind, D. (1971). Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology Monographs 35, (1-part 2).

Chao, R.K. (1994). Beyond parental control and authoritarian parenting style: Understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural notion of training. Child Development 65, 1111-1119.

El Ouardani, C. N. (2018). Care or neglect? Corporal discipline reform in a rural Moroccan classroom. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 49 (2), 129-145.

Gaskins, S., Beeghly, M. Bard, K.A., Gernhardt, A., Liu, C.H., Teti, D.M., Thompson, R.A., Weisner, T.S., and Yovsi, R.D. (2017). Meaning and methods in the study and assessment of attachment. In H. Keller and K.A. Bard (Eds.), The Cultural Nature of Attachment: Contextualizing Relationships and Development [A Strügmann Forum Report”] (pp. 195-230). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kapadia, S. (2017). Adolescence in Urban India. New Delhi, India: Springer.

Keller, H. and Bard, K.A. (Eds.). (2017). The Cultural Nature of Attachment: Contextualizing Relationships and Development [A Strügmann Forum Report”] Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

von Klitzing, K. (2019). Presidential Address: WAIMH’s infants’ rights statement—a culturally monocentric claim? Perspectives in Infant Mental Health 27 (1).

Rogoff, B., Coppens, A., Alcalá, L., Aceves-Azuara, I., Ruvalcaba, O., López, A., & Dayton, A., (2017). Noticing learners’ strengths through cultural research. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(5), 876–888.

Sperry, D.E., Miller, P.J., and Sperry, L.L. (2019). Hazardous intersections: Crossing disciplinary lines in developmental psychology. European Journal of Social Theory,

Sperry D.E., Sperry L.L. and Miller P. J. (2018). Re-examining the verbal environments of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Child Development,


Suzanne Gaskins, Northeastern Illinois University
Heidi Keller, Osnabrück University