The cultural structuring of universal developmental tasks

Date of Completion

January 2000


Psychology, Developmental|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies|Health Sciences, Human Development




This study explores middle class Anglo and Puerto Rican mothers' beliefs and practices related to infant feeding, sleeping, and toilet training. Knowledge of particular ways of encouraging the emergence of developmental milestones has important implications for medical practitioners such as pediatricians who dispense caregiving advice to parents. Theoretically, knowledge of the diversity of caregiving patterns that exist among middle class populations challenges the notion that there is one optimal parenting style or set of behaviors associated with “normative” development. Moreover, the acknowledgement of cultural diversity in parenting practices and beliefs forces us to redefine what we mean by the term “normative” with regard to human development. ^ The study is part of a larger longitudinal study of culture and mother infant interactions (Robin Harwood, Principal Investigator). Sixty (60) middle class mothers participated in the study: 28 Puerto Rican mothers from San Juan, Puerto Rico and 32 Anglo mothers from Hartford, Connecticut. The mothers were asked to provide information about their childrearing practices and beliefs with regard to encouraging sleeping through the night, infant self-feeding, and toilet training. The mothers were also asked to describe the strategies they used to encourage these goals and to provide explanations for these practices. ^ The results indicate that the Anglo mothers had earlier age expectations with regard to feeding related milestones than did the Puerto Rican mothers. In general the Anglo mothers were more likely to use the strategy of providing opportunities for learning. The Anglo mothers were also more likely to refer to emotional components of the learning process, such as pride or self esteem. The Puerto Rican mothers, by contrast, were more likely to use parental control or guidance in encouraging the developmental milestones. One unexpected and particularly intriguing finding was the emphasis that Puerto Rican mothers placed on encouraging independence, or the ability to perform tasks without help. The results are discussed in terms of their importance for the refinement of existing developmental theory and our current thinking regarding conceptual dimensions of cultural difference. ^