The Bio-Social, Cultural Context of Family and Community

The Bio-Social, Cultural Context of Family and Community

baby and parents

Bio-Social, Cultural Context of Family
Even before a child is born, the bio-social, cultural context of family and community has influence on the child’s development. Cultural beliefs and practices related to family relationships, pregnancy, pre-natal care, birth and delivery influence an expectant family’s anticipation and experience of the coming child as well as the developing infant.

When a child is born into his or her family, that child enters the world of his or her earliest and closest relationships. Within the context of his or her family, the child’s care is influenced by his or her parents’ cultural belief systems, which are translated into parenting practices and guidance for child development (Harkness & Super, 1992; Hepburn, 2004). In addition, the family culture provides the child with a sense of identity and a framework for interpreting the world (Regional Educational Laboratory Network, 2000). Families, including both immigrant and native-born, with varying cultural and linguistic backgrounds, bring their unique experience, values, and beliefs to being a family. Perceptions and expectations about infants’, toddlers’ and preschoolers’ growth and development, child rearing, definitions of family and the role of family members, are all rooted in culture. Culture also includes different notions about health and wellness, illness, and disability; and most aspects of family life, including those that extend into the context of a child and family’s community in which they live.

The developmental niche, created by Harkness and Super (1992), provides a framework for thinking about the ways in which culture influences a child’s day-to-day environment, experience, and development. In what is more currently referred to as the central role of caregiving relationships and early learning experiences in development, the niche is comprised of three elements, including the:

  • Physical and social settings of everyday life,
  • Routine customs of care, and
  • Parental and caregiver ethnotheories or cultural belief systems including language, ways of interacting, parenting as well as advice or help seeking behaviors.

Different cultures have distinctive understandings about infant, toddler, and preschooler social and emotional development, emotional and behavioral health, and well-being. The following examples illustrate some of these differences:

  • Some families feel that picking a baby or toddler up whenever it cries, or addressing the needs of a preschooler promptly “spoils” the child.
  • Other cultural groups may think that children, especially the very young are too little to be affected by or respond to environmental and familial stressors.
  • For others, the thought of early childhood mental health is linked to the stigma associated with mental illness, which could result in the choice not to access needed services and supports such as mental health consultation.

According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2008), “culturally influenced differences are widespread across a variety of domains that affect approaches to the sensitive issues of emotional well-being and mental health in the early childhood years. These include how children are taught to interpret and express their experiences of fear, anger, and shame; parents’ attitudes toward discipline; the relative reinforcement given to individual achievement versus interdependent behavior; attitudes about mental health and mental illness; and acceptance of therapeutic intervention for very young children by non-family members, including mental health consultation” (p.9).

Cultural Context of Community
Families are also embedded in a community and a socio-cultural context – physical, material, social and political – that may have a significant impact on parenting and socialization (Huang & Isaacs, 2007). Every community has its own culture, including those where immigrant populations may have recreated their home culture. Broadening the role of family, to kin networks and the community’s economic and social resources, such as early care and education and other community services, adds additional cultural influences on the family’s world view and the child’s developmental experience (Garcia-Coll et al, 1996).

For young children who enter early care and education (ECE) settings, their family is their first “developmental niche” and learning environment and the second is their experience in the close relationships with ECE providers. When children receive care outside of the home, the family’s cultural beliefs and practices may be challenged or changed over time (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008; Arroyo, 1998). Culturally responsive child care settings offer developmentally and culturally appropriate strategies to ensure that learning experiences are meaningful, relevant, and respectful of children and their families and whenever possible, adapt practices and routines to assure continuity of care and culture between home and the early care setting (Chang & Pulido, 1994; Early Head Start National Resource Center @ ZERO TO THREE, 2010; NAEYC, 2009).

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This product was developed [in part] under grant number 1H79SM082070-01 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The views, policies and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of SAMHSA or HHS.