To celebrate the end of our first academic year as graduate students in Developmental Psychology, one of my two office mates suggested that we go to the new documentary called Babies. The documentary follows four babies from the moment they are born, until they take their first steps and say their first words. Ponijao from Namibia, Mari from Japan, Bayar from Mongolia, and Hattie from California. If you haven’t heard of it, I strongly recommend the trailer.
While there is no narration in the movie, except for short conversations here and there that revolve around the babies’ daily lives (of which I only understood the English conversations), the babies keep you occupied. Not only was the movie hilariously entertaining, as one might tell from watching the trailer, but it was also quite shocking to see the similarity of developmental trajectories of children raised in such distinct circumstances. And by distinct, I mean distinct. While Hattie’s parents read books on how to “become the parent they want,” and Mari spends a lot of time with her mother at play groups, Ponijao experiments on eating small rocks and sand, and Bayar plays half naked on a rusty barrel in the midst of a meadow full of cows. These are only examples of a larger difference in parental attitudes, which are not meant to be signs of love and affection. All four babies are loved dearly by their parents – except that fathers are only involved in Hattie and Mari’s case. Still, all four babies utter their first words at approximately the same time, their first words are more or less the same (as far as I understood), and they take their first steps at similar times. The way they abuse the animals around them (unintentionally of course!) is the same, and even the way the animals respond (or patiently, don’t respond) is the same.
These differences and the similar outcomes they seem to yield makes me think of a question I seem to think of a lot lately. What should the role that cultural differences plays be in our scientific studies of human growth and development? To what extent, and with what purpose exactly, do we need to consider cultural differences when looking at cognitive and social development in human beings? How different are people, and how similar are they, across distinct cultures? Why, how different or similar are they in the same culture? For Hattie’s parents seemed like Hippies to me (yes, I’m stereotyping here), and that might not necessarily be the so-called White-American way of bringing up children (for cultural scientists in our field, love to name cultures as broadly as “White-American”).
It’s not that I have answers. Just some questions to think about. It really is a fun movie to watch on a rainy Friday night.
*kundak: the Turkish word for a bundle that babies are tied in in some cultures. In the movie, Bayar’s kundak was exceptional.