Polish babies are comfortable expressing negative moods while American babies are particularly active and social, and scientists believe that’s because the values and norms of a person’s culture shape them from the very beginning of life.
From early on, the values and of norms of your culture shape the person you’ll become. The earliest ― and likely the most lasting ― of these cultural influences comes from, you guessed it, your parents.
During the five years she spent studying babies around the world, Washington State University psychologist Dr. Maria Gartstein made some striking observations of how parents’ different cultural values influenced the temperaments and behavior of their babies. These temperamental patterns could set the stage for mental health or illness down the road.
Gartstein and her colleagues conducted a cross-cultural examination of the behavior of Chilean, Polish, South Korean and American babies, the results of which were recently published in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology. The mothers of 125 to 420 babies in each country were asked to fill out observations of more than 200 behaviors and temperamental qualities in their infants at six months and one year old, including activity level, shyness, sadness, cuddliness and attention focusing.
The results showed significant parenting differences across these four cultures. American babies, for instance, were more social and impulsive than babies from the other countries, and they were also the most likely to enjoy highly stimulating activities.
“[American babies] have some unique opportunities and challenges, compared to infants growing up in other regions of the world,” Gartstein said. “I really appreciate their readiness to engage and share enjoyment ― the baby version of extraversion, if you will.”
American mothers also reported that their babies were less likely to display negative emotions, and are easy to soothe when upset. This behavior may result from parents discouraging their children from expressing negative emotions.
The other babies, however, acted very differently. In fact, Garstein says that she was taken aback by the extent of the behavioral differences seen across cultures.
“One of my more profound moments occurred when I realized that parent-infant interaction dynamics varied dramatically, even in cultures we think of as being similar,” Gartstein told The Huffington Post.
Here are some of the most striking differences:
South Korean babies had the longest attention spans.
Chilean babies scored the highest in negative mood and emotions.
Polish babies were the most likely to show sadness, and also the most difficult to soothe when upset.
Chilean babies were the most active and most likely to struggle to concentrate on one task at a time.
South Korean babies liked to cuddle the most, but were the least active.
The researchers largely chalk these differences up to variations in parents’ cultural values. In South American cultures, for instance, parents are typically very animated with their children, which may contribute to babies being more active and having more trouble focusing. In Poland, on the other hand, the common cultural value of being open about emotions may lead infants to feel comfortable showing sadness. In South Korea, an emphasis on behavioral and attentional control likely causes babies there to reflect these traits.
Parenting plays a huge role in the development of these behaviors, and not just what we typically think of as parenting, like playing and feeding, according to Gartstein.
“We have to think broader … [to include] things like daily routine, what parents view as important for their kids to develop to be happy and healthy adults, what they think is essential with respect to parental responsibilities,” she explained. “There are surprisingly considerable cross-cultural differences in these areas.”
The researchers hope that better understanding the influence of cultural values can help psychologists devise new strategies for preventing behavioral issues in babies and toddlers, and potentially predicting mental illnesses like ADHD.
“If we are aiming to prevent behavioral problems which are a known precursor for more serious psychological problems,” Gartstein said in a press release, “we need to know more about the values and expectations parents bring to the child-rearing table.”