TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.

What is the most important influence on child development?


About Tom

Tom Weisner is an emeritus professor of anthropology and psychiatry at UCLA. He studies and teaches about culture and human development; families and children at risk; and evidence-informed policies to improve the lives of children and families. He has served on the Board of the NGO ChildFund International. He went to Reed College (BA) and Harvard (PhD).


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 to 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 their 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 while 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 a 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 I 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 anachronism… 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 in 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 have 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, the 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 are 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. Unfortunately, large numbers of children in the world live in very harsh environments with oppression and uncertainty and deep poverty and inequality and toxic environments and chaotic family situations that often result.

Girls’ lives are likely to diverge from boys’ as boys and girls get older, say, after early childhood. So the way girls’ lives play out vary in the way boys’ lives vary, but they’re likely to be more divergent and differentiated than we find it here.

The institutions that children are living in and will grow into our different. Marriage may be collectively or group arranged. Inheritance may only go to boys or may go to older children, or that trust fund may not be available if you are a younger-born child compared to an older. Children are more likely to grow up in large extended families or in single-mother households that are very isolated, and where there’s a very harsh environment facing many children.

So bring up the child again. Let’s do it again. Think of the child again. Where is the child living? What is the world in which the child is living in? And perhaps the most important thing: what kind of child or person is desirable and considered morally important in that community? That is one of the most important things about child development.

Well-being is the ability of a child to actively participate in the activities that that society thinks is important and desirable. So they help children around the world, when we think about this topic, bring up in your mind the context, the whole world around the child, and we’ll do much better at improving the lives of children everywhere.

Thanks very much.