Here is the transcript and summary of Tom Weisner’s talk titled “What Is The Most Important Influence On Child Development” @ TEDxUCLA conference.
Listen to the audio version here:
Tom Weisner – Author
What is the most important thing in child development? This is something we should really care about because we all want to improve the well-being and the lives of kids.
So what are the most important things in child development? I’d like you to help me to get started.
So think of a child. Really do it. Like bring up a child in your mind’s eye, close your eyes, think of that child. You got it? Now, if you could do something, the most important thing, the influence, the life of that child, what would you do?
When I’ve asked this question to Western audiences, there’s a whole litany of important things. Provide attachment security, good nutrition, provide it with good playmates, stimulation, lots of stimulation, perhaps a religious or spiritual pathway, which will be important to the child. Provide a trust fund so that the child will have resources as it grows older.
Some of the parents in the audience mentioned other things like, it’s the toilet training, just get me through the toilet training, or get my kid to sleep, or they bring the homework sheets home and then they get lost. So there are a lot of things that we think of as important things in child development. And although all those things are important, and of course there’s no one thing that would be the only important thing, none of these, in my view, are the most important thing.
The most important thing you could do would be to decide or think about where in the world is that child growing up? All the things that we think of about the child depend on the context in which the child and its family are living. What family, what neighborhood, what community, what nation state will that child’s life pathways be determined in?
Most of the things we think of, nutrition, having a trust fund, that religious pathway, is there one religious pathway, are there many? What does that religious pathway entail? All of these things depend on the child in some particular context.
Most of us, when we do this, and many of you probably brought up in your mind a child sort of floating in space. Now for analytic or research reasons, it might be useful to think of a child as an autonomous person, but that child does not exist. The only children that exist are children in the world who really live there.
And the importance of keeping the context in mind needs to be brought out more strongly in how we think about kids and how we try to improve their well-being. I first saw this when, as a young anthropologist, I went to Kenya. I was studying the effects of urban migration on children there. I’ve subsequently done many research projects to try to improve the lives of kids or at least understand that in different places around the world and in the U.S.
And when you go to other parts of the world or you know people from there, you see the power of contextual and cultural differences on children’s lives. By learning about the rest of the world, we’ll understand better how to take care of kids here and everywhere.
The way, when we think about kids as autonomous individuals, it’s a way of thinking that we’ve learned, and it’s no accident that we’ve learned that. For one thing, we live in a WEIRD society. WEIRD is an ironic but useful acronym for Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic Societies. Now, about 12 percent of the world live in such a society, and most of the research that we hear about and the experts that we hear about and the context we’re in come from other WEIRD societies.
So we have learned to bracket the context out and just think about the child as an individual in a WEIRD society. Research is in the same way, mostly from WEIRD societies. In psychology, for example, over 90 percent of the research studies are done in WEIRD societies with samples from those parts of the world.
If you’re an undergraduate in a college or university in the West, like some of you here, you are 4,000 times more likely to be in a research study than a randomly selected person from the rest of the world. What if we take account of the other 88 percent? Because by doing that, we’ll see the importance of context much more clearly.
Fortunately, there’s a wonderful scientific research literature to help us do that. There are also increasingly people that we know who have grown up and lived in those societies, and we can go and visit them to see the importance of this. Now, even WEIRD societies are diverse in context and the rest of the world way more so.
And so you can’t possibly see or understand all of the differences. But I’m going to mention a few that I have seen myself and that offer an important and useful contrast to WEIRD societies. One is the importance of social responsibility and collaborative learning and social intelligence that you see in so many cultures and so many children around the world.
Unfortunately, the parent of one of the children you see in that slide from a rural school in Kenya has died. And after lunch, all of the children are going to take those sticks of wood, which each of them has brought a few to school that morning. They’re going to put the wood on their heads. They’re going to walk to the child’s home, pay their condolences, and bring the wood, which is needed to prepare for the funeral that’s coming in the next few days.
It’s phenomenal, the amount of apprenticeship, adult-child contextual learning that you see around the world. Another is multiple caretaking of children. Kids are raised by a lot of different people. Care is socially distributed. Children are very securely attached, but they’re attached to a social setting, a family, and other members that help take care of them. They’re likely to be part of a community of care.