Insight into how children learn cultural values

Note: This article was originally posted on November 14, 2006

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i-ba0ea2e1f738fe88c5cf9c08d1c92ea6-cole1.jpgIf a Brahman child from Nepal is asked what she would do if another child spilled a drink on her homework, her response is different from that of a Tamang child from the same country. The Brahman would become angry, but, unlike a child from the U.S., would not tell her friend that she was angry. Tamang children, rather than being angry, would feel ashamed for having placed the homework where it could be damaged -- but like Brahmans, they would not share this emotion with their friends. So how do children who might grow up just a few miles from each other develop such different attitudes?

Nepal offers an excellent opportunity to learn about how different cultural values are passed from generation to generation, because some of its villages are so isolated that members of one community rarely interact with others. A team led by Pamela Cole studied four such villages: two Tamang, and two Brahman, which were otherwise similar (in terms of education, wealth, and family structure). Amazingly, 91 of the 92 households in these villages agreed to participate in the study, allowing a Nepalese observer to come into their homes and observe the interactions between caregivers and 3- to 5-year-old children.

The Tamang children, even at 3 to 5 years of age, expressed anger significantly less often than Brahman children, while Brahman children were significantly less likely to express shame:

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The chart shows the proportion of total expressions of each emotion, as rated by judges who had no knowledge of the cultural orientation of the child. But this doesn't mean that 63 percent of Tamang expressed shame: shame was observed a total of 62 times, 39 among Tamang kids and 23 among Brahman. But just 13 percent of Tamang and 8 percent of Brahman kids were actually seen expressing shame -- still a significant difference.

The observers also recorded caregivers' reactions to the children's emotional expressions. Take a look at this chart showing how elders responded to children's expressions of anger:

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While for the most part reactions were similar in Tamang and Brahman households, Brahman families were significantly more likely to respond to anger with teaching behavior, while Tamang caregivers were more likely to tease an angry child. When children were ashamed, just three reactions were observed:

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Brahman caregivers were by far most likely to ignore the shame emotion, but Tamang were equally likely to respond to shame with ignoring, teaching, or nurturing. Clearly caregivers in the Tamang culture respond more positively to shame than in the Brahman culture.

This study in isolation does not show that caregivers in the two different communities cause their children to express emotion in the desired way: as a correlative study, it can only demonstrate that caregiver behavior is associated with the child's behavior. Nonetheless, the study does offer some fascinating insight into how shared values may be transmitted across the generations.

The differences people see when visiting Tamang and Brahman villages in Nepal are dramatic: observers uniformly agree that the Tamang are almost always cheerful, with a wonderful sense of humor, while Brahmans are more hierarchical and reserved. And it appears that these differences are inculcated in the society's children from nearly the earliest ages.

Cole, P.M., Tamang, B.L., & Shrestha, S. (2006). Cultural variations in the socialization of young children's anger and shame. Child Development, 77(5), 1237-1251.

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Perhaps the most striking aspect of the study is that they almost all agreed to participate, demonstrating goodwill, a sense of charity and generosity.
The study set out to investigate cultural differences, but found a striking universal.

By reading the charts, there seems to be a correlation between the emotion the children express the most (anger by the Brahman, shame by the Tamang) and the ones that are ignored by their caretakers instead of causing any reaction. Is it possible the children are conditioning the expression of their emotions as a way to gather attention from their caretakers?

I haven't read the study, so I don't know if the investigators noticed this too.

This is a fascinating study. I'd be interested to know if they noted any gender differences (both from the children and the parents). I'd like to read the journal article. Thanks for posting this.

By Ctpearson (not verified) on 03 Sep 2007 #permalink

CK, i think you got it mixed up: Brahman express more anger, and Tamang express more shame (as you noted), but Brahman caretakers ignore shame, and Tamang caretakers tease anger. meaning the children express less the emotion their caretakers ignore or react to in a negative way.

(as noted in the post - this is only a correlation. no one is claiming a causal relation between caretakers behavior and children's expression of emotions)