Unprecedented in history is the development of the adolescent—a period of life in which one is isolated from childhood and maturity. Child-rearing practices vary from culture to culture, and many Americans are shocked to discover that the most turbulent period of their lives was a cultural phenomenon. The confusion, rebellion, and search for identity that we assume to be natural in American teenagers is in truth a product of culture.

Several years ago, in a comparative culture tutorial I taught, Maggie Burnham, a street-smart, young woman from Somerville, Mass., conjectured that, on the whole, we are blind to the causes of the bad things that befall us.

At the time, we were reading Americans and Chinese: Two Ways of Life, a book by Francis Hsu, an anthropologist who specialized in understanding how culture shapes personality. He immigrated to the United States from China in 1944. That Hsu wrote about American life in the early 1950s was of no concern to the Comparative Cultures Tutorial, for we used his discussion of pre-Maoist China to illuminate contemporary America by way of contrast.

In traditional China, children learned at home to respect their parents and tradition.[1] School impressed the same values on students through the reading of Confucian classics. In the Confucian ideal of education, the individual should first learn his or her place in the scheme of human relations: emperor-subject, father-son, husband-wife, sibling-sibling, and neighbor-neighbor. Schooling and child rearing aimed to teach, strengthen, and deepen the five human relations of Chinese life that formed a societal-wide series of mutual dependencies. As children developed emotionally and socially, their trust in others grew, and they learned to take pleasure in depending upon others, instead of self-reliance, as in America.

To instruct his six- or seven-year-old son, a Chinese father in business would take him to an executives’ conference. The son witnessed and later participated in adult negotiations. In general, parents were proud of a child who acted older than his or her age, for that indicated the child was entering smoothly into society.

At twelve or thirteen, most children were already full-fledged members of society and had known the joys and disappointments of living with other people; they had unobtrusively entered into the world of the adults. Secure in their place in society and comforted by knowing they could depend upon others emotionally and financially, high-school students had no great desire to form cliques.

In traditional China, children presented fewer problems as they became older, unlike in America where adolescents are usually terrors. Before extensive contact with the West, the Chinese did not recognize adolescence as a period of human development and had no word for it. Unlike puberty, which is biological and thus universal, adolescence is a cultural phenomenon of the modern West.

The students in the Comparative Cultures Tutorial were shocked to discover that the most turbulent period of their lives was a cultural phenomenon, not the direct result of the hormonal changes of puberty.

The contrast of America with traditional China convinced the members of the Comparative Cultures Tutorial that an infant in this country is born into a nuclear family composed of father, mother, and unmarried children with shallow connections to a larger community. In America, children have “wedding and funeral” relatives who see them only on such occasions. Unlike in China where grandparents, uncles, and aunts are often more instrumental in the upbringing of a child than the parents, in America, parents have the sole responsibility for and control over their children. Even when American grandparents take over during a medical emergency or the birth of a child, the older people are expected to administer the household according to the rules laid down by the younger couple, and more likely by the younger woman. The usual response by a grandparent to a request from a grandchild is, “What would your mother say?” In China, the authority over children is shared by all adult members of the family: “The liberty taken by most Chinese aunts, uncles, and in-laws might break up most American families.”[2] The Chinese child learns through daily living the importance of getting along with a wide circle of relatives.

In traditional China, because the parent and child are emotionally remote, Chinese parents, though respected, revered, or even feared by their children, frequently did not shape the character of their progeny, contrary to popular belief.

In the ups and downs of life, Chinese parents made little effort to hide their problems and real selves from their children. In triumph, the children celebrated with the adults; in disaster, the youngsters suffered with them.

The general sentiment in America is that to burden children with adult problems will make them maladjusted, possibly ruining their lives. If parents suffer a financial disaster, the children are usually kept in the dark. Ideally, a child should be isolated from the adult world as much as possible, for childhood should be carefree, the happiest time of a person’s life. Several students in the Comparative Cultures Tutorial suggested that adults intensely dislike their world, since they must do work they would never freely choose on their own. Such parents want to keep their children sheltered as long as possible from what awaits them.

Children aided by their parents develop a world of their own. Unprecedented in history, children in America own a staggering amount of materials goods—clothes, toys, cameras, computers, televisions, smartphones, PlayStations, and iPads—all purchased by parents or grandparents. One young woman in the tutorial from an affluent Connecticut home sheepishly confessed that as a pre-teen she had two hundred and forty-eight dolls, including a hundred and sixty-five Beanie Babies; her room was a private sanctuary, strewn with clothes and toys, with no path to her bed. Cultural critic Elizabeth Kolbert claims that not even “the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France” were as indulged as contemporary American children.[3]

In the mid-twentieth century with the baby boom after World War II, Corporate America discovered that a great deal of money could be made off children. Today, most current movies, popular music, and video games are directed at adolescents and young adults. The TV commercials for cereals and toys that surround the cartoons on television are aimed at very young children.

Maggie Burnham, my street-smart student from Somerville, concluded that her conjecture was correct; most of us stagger through life experiencing emotional highs and lows without a clue why. Then, out of the blue, she said, “As good as our discussion has been, I sense that something important is missing. Could I work on this over the weekend, and give a class presentation on Monday?”

I, of course, said yes and directed her to the source material in the Comparative Cultural Handbook.

Maggie walked into class Monday morning with a big, confident smile on her face. Here I will only summarize her presentation, adding insights from her fellow students and one or two from me.

Maggie pointed out that what we missed were how child-rearing practices vary from culture to culture. To give her central insight authority, she read a long quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “Go back; look at the baby in his mother’s arms; see how the outside world is first reflected in the still hazy mirror of his mind; consider the first examples that strike his attention; listen to the first words which awaken his dormant powers of thought; and finally take notice of the first struggles he has to endure. Only then will you understand the origin of the prejudices, habits, and passions which are to dominate his life. The whole man is there, if one may put it so, in the cradle.”[4]

Discipline of the Child

Maggie laid out the case that how a child is disciplined is the origin of many of the adult’s “prejudices, habits, and passions.”

In most premodern cultures, very young children are seen as incapable of receiving verbal instruction. Psychologist Mariella Doumanis writes in her study of rural Greek mothers, “Up to about the age of four, a child was considered to be a creature who could not reason and therefore could not benefit from training and punishment. The notion of spoiling a baby, especially during the first two years of life, appeared to be inconceivable to the rural mothers I met. Their attitude was that the best thing they could do for their child’s future development was to meet his every need as well as their means allowed.”[5]

In India, the mother also indulges the infant’s wishes and demands. “An Indian emerges from infancy into childhood believing that the world is benign and that others can be counted on to act in his behalf,” observes psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. “Many character traits ascribed to Indians are a part of the legacy of this particular pattern of infancy: Trusting friendliness with a quick readiness to form attachments, and intense, if short-lived, disappointment if friendly overtures are not reciprocated; willingness to reveal the most intimate confidences about one’s life at the slightest acquaintance and the expectation of a reciprocal familiarity in others.”[6]

Anthropologist Patricia Draper documented how child-rearing practices diminish the anger component in a culture’s emotional profile. Amongst the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, “adults are completely tolerant of a child’s temper tantrums and of aggression directed by the child at an adult. I have seen a seven-year-old crying and furious, hurling sticks, nut shells, and eventually burning embers at her mother. The mother sat at her fire talking with the child’s grandmother and her own sister-in-law. Bau (the mother) put up her arm occasionally to ward off the thrown objects but carried on her conversation nonchalantly. The other women remained unperturbed despite the hail of missiles. The daughter raged ten feet away, but Bau did not turn a hair. When the rocks and nut shells came close Bau remarked, ‘That child has no brains.’”[7]

The reason Draper gives for why an adult !Kung experiences little anger is that as a child her angry outbursts were ignored by the adults and soon learned that a display of anger does not get an adult’s attention or sympathy. The child can rage until she is tired, but the tirade will not change an adult’s treatment of the child. With no reward for her anger and no model for aggression, the child has fewer and fewer temper tantrums and eventually grows into a peaceful, non-combative !Kung.

The net result of child rearing that does not employ coercion, direct reprimand, corporal punishment, or deprivation is that the child grows up experiencing his parents as a source of only good things—food, protection, comfort, emotional security, and love. In this way, a child learns to trust human relationships.

In American culture, there are two methods of child rearing: The traditional method spurns personal indulgence and relies on direct confrontation; the “modern” method, in ascendancy since World War II, relies on personal indulgence and spurns direct confrontation.

In the traditional child-rearing practice, the child is viewed as an individual with a will that must be broken through harsh reprimands, slaps, spankings, or deprivations to coerce the young child’s will. This confrontational approach in the West goes back to at least the eighteenth century as can be seen in an excerpt from a letter to John Wesley from his mother explaining her principles of child rearing: “In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper. To inform the understanding is a work of time, and must with children proceed by slow degrees as they are able to bear it: but subjecting the will is a thing which must be done at once; and the sooner the better.”[8] Listen to the advice of Reverend John Robinson, a leading preacher among the Puritans: “Surely there is in all children . . . a stubbornness and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride which must in the first place be broken and beaten down, that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may in their time be built thereon.”[9] The central duty for parents is to break and beat down the young child’s natural pride.

After 1835 in America, popular child-rearing books appeared addressing the authority within the family, because democratic equality challenges all authority. These books counseled that the parents’ authority must be established early in a child’s life. The infant possesses a “willfulness” that “springs from a depraved nature and is intensely selfish.”[10] Strict training in obedience will suppress the corrupt nature of the child.

One result of this confrontational approach to child rearing is that the child learns at an early age that parents are a source of joy and fear, of comfort and pain. The young child feels, “Sometimes the world is a good place—mother comforts me, and I like it—and other times, it is a bad place—mother wails the living daylights out of me.” Such a child never knows from day to day which way the world is going to be. As a result, he or she learns to believe that no person can be completely trusted. The child will carry over this early pattern of intense love/hate ambivalence to all later human relations and will regard authority with a mixture of fear and distrust.

The “modern” child-rearing method in America that gained ascendency after World War II holds that parents should attempt to avoid direct confrontation with the child and refrain from harsh reprimands, slaps, and spankings. To discipline the child, the parents should give the child “time out,” where the child must sit quietly alone by himself in his room. But how do the sharing, caring, and affirming ideals work out in practice when the young child throws a temper tantrum, as all children do? Generally, what happens is that either the parent first resists the child’s demands but gives in to the child when “this kid is driving me nuts” stage is reached or the parent at some point loses self-control, yells and screams at the child, and may even grab the child by the arm to physically threaten him. In the first case, the child won, because he got angry; in the second, the child lost, because the parent got angrier. Thus, in practice, the “modern” child-rearing method often produces the same results as the traditional one: The child learns that through anger a person gets his own way and that human relations are essentially a contest of wills.

Next to the home, the best place to observe American child-rearing practices is at the supermarket. Last summer while standing in the checkout line at Shaw’s Supermarket, I saw a young mother with two small girls. I would guess the girls were four and two, and they were as cute as buttons. What attracted my attention to them was the screaming of the mother. She was yelling at the older girl. She went on and on, until everyone in the front of the store was looking at her. The four-year-old child looked at her mother with absolute indifference. The child, evidently, had heard her mother scream so often that the child simply tuned the mother out. Suddenly, the mother screamed, “Look after Lisa,” and dashed off to the back of the store, in search of a forgotten item, I assumed. The older girl turned to her sister and began to scream at her. The two-year-old girl began to cry, and when she tried to hide her face with her little hands, the hands were slapped away by the four-year-old.

The older daughter had learned her lessons well from her mother. The mother thought she was teaching the child how to behave in the store; what she actually taught the child was that you get others to conform to your will through anger and violence. Young children are not masters of logic; they draw the most immediate conclusions.

I guessed that if I saw this same mother and daughter ten years later, I would see a mother who knocked herself out to make sure her daughter was pampered and entertained in every possible manner. Once the daughter had reached twelve or so, the mother most likely would accede to the wishes of the daughter and indulge her as if she were an infant. The daughter would be expected to enjoy herself, to do no house-work, and to live in the teenage world of mass media. The daughter would be lazy, ill-mannered, and self-absorbed, in short, a complete brat.

Character Training

The indulgence young children receive in premodern cultures would make them spoiled brats and unbearable adults, if they did not later undergo rigorous character training. Older children are emotionally secure because of the indulgence they received in their early years and are ready to cultivate the demanding skills and good habits of character necessary for a mature, adult life.

Lakota children learn generosity, truthfulness, and bravery by imitating their elders. When mothers give food to the weak and old, they give portions to their children, so they can perform the service of giving with their own hands. A young boy does not listen to long speeches on “how to be like father.” A boy learns to do the things his father does by watching him closely. In this way, he learns to ride a horse, to make a bow and arrows, and to sing songs of praise and joy when he gives to others his most cherished belongings. All the men in the tribe contribute to toughening up the boys. On cold winter mornings before breakfast, the men take the boys for a plunge in a stream. An uncle may send his nephew for a long run without water, so he will learn to do without, as braves and scouts must often do.[11]

In Japan, training in friendliness, sacrifice, self-discipline, and persistence begins as early as pre-school. Children are encouraged to struggle with difficult tasks rather than giving up or looking for an easier way. Childcare specialist Irene Shigaki cites one example: “A group of children was practicing for an athletic event by running across a large college playfield. The youngest at two-and-one-half fell when he was only halfway across the playfield. The caregivers at the finish line yelled encouragingly: ‘ganbare!’ — ‘Don’t give up!’ Though crying, the child picked himself up and finished the course, where he was warmly embraced and praised for his perseverance.”[12]

The child in most cultures is apprenticed in domestic or other work at an early age, learning from parents and older siblings how to behave and function as an adult. For instance, anthropologist Ronald Rohner writes that among the Papago of the Sonoran Desert the children, as adults-in-training, “Receive a great deal of instruction — not in how to do things but in why they should be done. Children are expected to cooperate and to learn work tasks by imitating their elders. In the evening, grandfathers and often fathers include among their stories lectures on the importance of industry, honesty, and peacefulness.”[13] At age eleven, Papago girls assume the full range of household chores, and boys help with herding, farming, and repairs.

The child in a premodern culture is viewed as a miniature adult. Even in colonial America, childhood as we know and understand it today did not exist. Seventeenth-century portraits show children dressed in clothing normal for adults. From the age of six or seven, children were given a regular round of tasks about the house or farm, such as caring for domestic animals, gardening, spinning wool, making candles, and preparing meals. Children attended adult church services and accompanied their parents on visits to relatives and neighbors. In early America, youth was not an awkward age fraught with confusions and vulnerabilities.

Around 1800, distinctive children’s clothing appears; children spend more and more time playing together, not with adults; and, toward mid-century, Sunday schools are instituted. On the farm, a male child still grew up working the land and tending animals, most likely thinking that when an adult he will be a farmer like his father. In farm families, children and adults shared the same friends, entertainments, and expectations. Small-town life was essentially the same as farm life; the son of a carpenter or a shopkeeper grew into his father’s occupation.

The relation between the city-boy and his father was entirely different for two reasons. First, the city-boy usually did not have an economic role within the family, especially after World War II. Second, the father worked in an office or factory, far from home sociologically, if not physically. The boy did not experience his father’s work and had at best a sketchy understanding of what his father actually did in the workplace. The child had no reason to assume that his vocation will bear any resemblance to his father’s. Consequently, the city-boy’s future was uncertain. Confused by the myriad possibilities offered to him by a modern economy, he did not know who he would become and “identity” became an issue.

From his study of family life in America, historian John Demos concludes that by the mid-nineteenth century “circumstances seem to isolate the child in a profound way, and to create a gulf between the generations that had not been there before.”[14] The gap between children and adults increased throughout the nineteenth century. By 1900, the word “adolescence” became commonly used to designate a stage of development between childhood and maturity; the word “teen-ager” first appeared in Popular Science Monthly, in 1941. In non-Western cultures, young persons for thousands of years followed easily in their parents’ footsteps, learning work skills and acquiring virtues by imitating their elders. The confusion, rebellion, and search for identity that we assume to be natural in American teenagers is in truth a product of culture.

We must not forget that no culture is perfect. In early American as well as in premodern cultures, a child grew seamlessly into adult life without the rebellion we associate with coming of age. The negative side of such cultures is that a person’s destiny was in the main laid out by society, and as a result, the vast potential in each person was seldom realized. A Popago girl who takes over the household at eleven may have a great intellect suited for mathematics, but it will never be actualized because her culture has locked her into one way of life.

From the 1800s on, America became more and more a society of opportunity, and despite the loss of direction and the faulty emotional habits acquired from growing up in a democratic society, children of farmers, carpenters, and shopkeepers could become doctors, lawyers, and professors. If my parents had stayed in Romania, I would be a peasant, telling fortunes and stealing an occasional chicken; instead, I am a theoretical physicist with a strong background in the Great Books. I would not trade my emotional highs and lows, my zigzags through life, any day for no opportunity to realize the potential hidden deep within my soul. I sincerely believe that whatever damage is done to one by poor child rearing can be largely undone later in life with insight and determination.

Unlike the youth of premodern cultures, in America today, adolescents—and even preteens!—are viewed as adults with no further need of character training, as individuals with their own legitimate desires that are to be encouraged. They are indulged and entertained in every possible manner. Adolescents are expected to enjoy themselves, to do little or no work around the home, and to create a world of their own, safely insulated from the real world of work and responsibility. With no clear rites of passage to adulthood, adolescence tends to extend indefinitely.

My street-smart student, Ms. Burnham, emphasized in the conclusion of her class presentation that modern child-rearing practices produce young adults with a strong desire for independence and yet without the emotional security “to do their own thing.” The teenager wants to be independent but finds it lonely and frightening to be without guidance and support. To solve this dilemma teenagers typically repudiate the values of their parents and seek emotional comfort by conforming to the exacting standards of a peer group. Her last sentence, delivered after a long sigh: “One surprising outcome of modern child-rearing practices is the conflicting emotions of the young adult; she desires and fears independence; she wants to be unique yet craves group approval.”

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[1] For a discussion of the family in traditional China, see Francis L. K. Hsu, Americans and Chinese (New York: Schuman, 1953), pp. 67-103.

[2] Ibid., p. 78.

[3] Elizabeth Kolbert, “Spoiled Rotten,” The New Yorker (July 2, 2012).

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835, 1840]), p. 31.

[5] Mariella Doumanis, Mothering in Greece: from Collectivism to Individualism (London and New York: Academic Press, 1983), p. 52.

[6] Sudhir Kakar, The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India, rev. ed. (New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 82.

[7] Patricia Draper, “The Learning Environment for Aggression and Anti-Social Behavior among the !Kung,” in Learning Non-Aggression, ed. Ashley Montagu (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 37.

[8] Susanna Wesley, quoted by Arnold Gesell, The Guidance of the Mental Growth in Infant and Child (New York: Macmillan, 1930), p. 32.

[9] John Robinson, quoted by John Demos, “The American Family in Past Time,” American Scholar 43 (Summer 1974): 422.

[10] H. W. Bulkeley, A Word to Parents (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858), p. 12. See John Demos and Virginia Demos, “History of the Family: Adolescence in Historical Perspective,” Journal of Marriage and the Family (Nov. 1969): 633.

[11] See Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1978).

[12] Irene S. Shigaki, “Child Care Practices in Japan and the United States: How Do They Reflect Cultural Values in Young Children?,” Young Children (May 1983): 22.

[13] Ronald P. Rohner, The Love Me, They Love Me Not: A Worldwide Study of the Effects of Parental Acceptance and Rejection (New Haven: HRAF, 1975), p. 132.

[14] Demos, “The American Family in Past Time,” p. 440.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Choctaw Village Near the Chefuncte” (1869) by François Bernard, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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