rebelling against low expectations

What If Kids Are Far More Capable Than We Thought?


(Huffington Post) — In the U.S., we tend to think of babies and young children as immature, incompetent beings. This is because of a long history of research in developmental psychology — especially the work of Jean Piaget — that viewed infants’ and children’s thinking as deficient compared to adults’.

By studying his own two children, Piaget concluded that children learn through exploring the world on their own like “little scientists.”

But Piaget assumed that young children didn’t have much capacity for logical thought. He showed this through his famous experiments where he asked preschool children to respond to demonstrations of various physical properties.

Videos of these experiments are often used in developmental psychology courses to show the cute, often amusingly incorrect responses of these “immature” children.

Newer research by developmental psychologists such as Alison Gopnik has started to seriously question the assumption that children are immature thinkers.

Gopnik has shown us that babies and young children develop cognitive capacities early on — in fact, they are innately wired for learning from the moment they are born.

Annie Murphy Paul pushes this understanding one step further by showing us the many important things fetuses learn about the world while they are still in the womb.

Fetuses learn things like what foods are enjoyed by the mother’s culture, whether to anticipate a world full of stress and deprivation or a world full of abundance and security. At birth, we already have a sophisticated sense of what to expect from our environment.

However, the babies and children that this research is about are almost always living in the U.S., Canada, or other Western societies. What can we learn when we adopt a broader cultural perspective?

Anthropologists who study human development are concerned with understanding how culture influences how we raise our children, what we think they are capable of at different ages, and what we think the outcome of their development should be.

In the U.S., popular thinking assumes that children should enjoy an extended childhood where they have the time to play and explore, that they should develop academic skills at a relatively early age (but not too early), and that they shouldn’t have to do the kinds of work that adults do.

How we raise our children — and the types of cognitive skills we value and encourage — grows out of these cultural values.

However, the values that we take for granted are not shared across cultures.

Cultural psychologist Barbara Rogoff has shown us that cultures vary widely in when they think children are mature enough for certain adult-like tasks.

For example, in Efe culture, it’s common for an 11-month-old to use a machete without adult supervision. In many non-Western cultures, children (mostly girls) are responsible for adult-like work, such as taking care of infants, by the age of 3.

These childrearing practices may sound shocking to us in the U.S. because we assume that children aren’t ready for these kinds of tasks.

But these practices make logical sense when understood through the lens of culture.

Not everyone shares the Western assumption that children should have an extended, protected childhood. The circumstances of life in different parts of the world create different assumptions about what childhood should look like.

Children Play in Streets of Village in Tanzania

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About the author

Marguerite Wilson

wrote this article for the Huffington Post and is not affiliated with The Rebelution. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development at Binghamton University (State University of New York) where she teaches courses on gender, education, and child development.


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  • That’s really neat. Question: I understand that this article is supposed to point out how expectations influence results, but do you think that an “extended childhood” is better or letting a child handle the responsibility of watching out for a sibling is more beneficial? What do you think the pros and cons of each situation is and, ultimately, which is better?

  • Thanks Brett! You always explain things and express yourself so well. That’s interesting what you said with your analogy. Either way could be harmful; it all depends on the person. Which is just another reason why a personal relationship and walk with Jesus Christ is so important.

  • Just guessing here, but I think you meant that an 11-year-old was allowed to use a machete, not an 11-month-old. An 11-month-old *might* be walking, but I think machete usage is a little too much to expect.
    I like the point of the article though.

    • Hey Nylad, perhaps a bit of cultural expectations are influencing how you read the article!

      I agree, from a Western viewpoint it couldn’t possibly mean “11-month-old” — but it actually does. I’ve heard the same thing from other sources and I doubt that mistake could have made it through the editors at the Huffington Post. As hard as it is to believe, 3-year-olds take complete care of babies and 11-month-olds wield machetes in other parts of the world.

  • I thought this was an excellent article… that being said, does anyone have any ideas for balancing these two thought processes as we begin leading the next as parents, teachers, etc? For example, this article stated that in one area children as young as three are taking care of their younger siblings. In another article on Huffington Post, a story was told of a tragedy where a baby died because an older sibling (I believe the age was 3) snuck in and tried to change the diaper suffocating the baby by accident. If we want the next generation to /Do Hard Things/ and make a difference in a society that does not brand them as weird for doing such, and if we want to raise them up in a way that blends today with certain principles from other cultures that could benefit, how should we go about trying to make that change? What are your thoughts on this issue?

    • Hey Rose, good questions. I’ve only read one article about the infant who died, but from what I could gather authorities don’t actually know why the baby died and it’s very possible it had nothing to do with the 3-year-old trying to change his diaper.

      On the other hand, the fact that a 3-year-old American kid couldn’t change a diaper doesn’t really discount that fact that 3-year-olds in other parts of the world take care of their siblings very competently. Many American teenagers couldn’t change a diaper either. That’s just because we’re not expected to and/or haven’t learned how.

      As far as how we go about raising expectations for young people, the most simple and basic way is to raise our expectations of ourselves and exceed the expectations of our culture. Then, when we become parents/teachers/authorities we maintain our high expectations of young people and give them opportunities to step outside their comfort zones and prove their abilities.

      These changes take time, but one generation (or one dedicated minority of a generation) with high expectations for young people could enact sweeping changes once they get in positions of authority.

      The good news is that young people who do hard things and rebel against low expectations are far more likely to be in positions of authority later in life than young people who buy into our culture’s stereotypes — which further pushes the odds in our favor as time goes by. =)

      Does that help?

  • I love this article my little sisters friend constantly says “I’m just a kid” and says that kids make more mistakes than anyone else but really that’s just an excuse to say that she’s not old enough to understand certain concepts she’s 11 and it really annoys me when kids say I’m just a kid.

By Marguerite Wilson
rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →