InCult or Culture, Features/Collaborations, Meditations, Motherhood

Paper on Patterns of Culturally Meaningful Activity: Sarah Konowitz

In the summer of 2015,  I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sarah Konowitz. My son’s former Montessori Pre-K2 teacher.  She wasn’t the quintessential American college student. Far more humble and oblivious to her own allure.

Sarah is a current graduate student at  Bank Street College of Education where she is earning her Masters of Science in Museum Education and General Childhood Certification (K-6).

She had a paper to write for her Child Development class, and she chose me as her subject. I imagined reading about myself would be awkward. It’s a revelation about myself via the eyes of someone who does not know me personally. Yet for her own reasons, she chose me as her topic. When I read it, I found her words to be authentic and personal, and as a result, comforting.

Below I share with you her work and our intimate interview, which left me reflecting even more on the type of Mother I want to be.

 

Sarah Konowitz/Photo credit: Haley Shaw

Patterns of Culturally Meaningful Activity

Sarah Konowitz EDUC 500-01: Child Development September 29, 2016

ABSTRACT

Using a maternal interview as an illustrative case study, this paper addresses how coexisting cultural value systems, which interact in complex ways, influence parental decision-making. Specifically, the paper looks at a mother’s decision to practice cosleeping and how that may stem from a valuing of interdependence and the socio-emotional well-being of the child. The introduction provides an overview of relevant child development concepts; the presentation and analysis of the maternal interview data allows for a microcosmic view of these issues; and the final reflections and implications resituate the issues within a more macrocosmic and practical, pedagogical perspective.

INTRODUCTION TO THE ISSUES & LITERATURE REVIEW

The development of a child, particularly in the child’s early years, depends on myriad factors that are both internal (natural) and external (nurtured) to the child. As in Sameroff’s (2010) unified theory of development, understanding child development requires a holistic approach that incorporates multiple networks, adapts over time, and considers more than mere biology (p. 12). In other words, a both-and integrated approach is appreciated here, eschewing the either-or idea that every developmental effect has a singular or polarizing cause. This paper, nevertheless, will address child development within the specific lens of a coherent socio-cultural context, looking at the transmission of cultural values and how those values shape human behavior and its interpretation. Using a maternal interview as a case study, the paper will unpack and make sense of the cultural values surrounding the mother’s decision-making process when determining her infant’s sleeping arrangements, feeding, and bedtime routine. More specifically, the data examined suggests a mother-child relationship that has been influenced by both domestic (United States) and non-domestic (Dominican Republic and India) cultures.

Every culture inherits and perpetuates a distinct value system that guides the behaviors of those who subscribe to that particular cultural community. As Raeff (2010) explains, supposed opposing value systems from differing cultures do not have to be perceived as dichotomous (individualistic vs. PATTERNS OF CULTURALLY MEANINGFUL ACTIVITY 2 collectivistic; independence vs. interdependence); rather, each culture expresses its multifaceted value systems through varied means (pp. 31-35). On its façade, the case study explored here establishes a cultural system that values the interdependence between parent and child, the emotional health of a developing child, and the parent’s irrevocable responsibility to protect an infant from any physical or psychological trauma. The data does not point to the transmission of values from a culture that champions a child’s independence or self-reliance. This raises a significant question: if a child is raised with the minority parenting strategies (e.g. cosleeping and attachment parenting) of a culture, does his development still reflect the majority culture in which he exists, or rather does it reflect a past or implicit culture of the parent? In other words, how does a parent’s cross-cultural identity (American and Dominican in this case) influence the cultural values that are expressed as imperative to a child’s positive and healthy development? Studies from Raeff (2010), Morelli et al. (1992), and Tamis-LeMonda et al. (2008) that highlight trends in parenting values of domestic and non-domestic cultures will inform the examination of these questions (Raeff, 2010; Morelli, Rogoff, Oppenheim, and Goldsmith, 1992; TamisLeMonda, Way, Hughes, Yoshikawa, Kalman, and Niwa, 2008). Shapiro and Nager’s (2000) discussion of the developmental-interaction approach will also provide a theoretical framework through which to interpret the findings presented (Shapiro and Nager, 2000).

This case ultimately underscores how exposure to diverse, dissimilar cultures can produce a complex approach to parenting. Furthermore, the analysis of these findings show that although cultural value systems can provide trends with which to understand child development, it is essential to base parenting and teaching approaches on a fundamental appreciation for each child’s individual and idiosyncratic cultural experience.

METHOD

Participant

The data and analysis presented here result from a single case study, an interview with a mother who gave birth to her son two-and-a-half years ago. The mother is a 35-year-old cis-gendered woman PATTERNS OF CULTURALLY MEANINGFUL ACTIVITY 3 who was born in the Dominican Republic. At the age of 5, she moved to the United States, living in Miami until she was 28. Because of her family’s low income, she had to start working at the age of 16, and she got a retail job at Sears. She “did not feel financially comfortable growing up.” She attended Miami-Dade College briefly before securing a scholarship at the University of Miami. She then transferred to Florida International University with the intention of finishing her Bachelor’s Degree in English literature. She did not end up graduating, as her mother kicked her out of the house, creating an unstable living and working situation. The mother considers herself an “Americanized Latina,” as she identifies with her Hispanic heritage but “holds a lot of American values.” She was raised speaking Spanish and English. Her husband, a 36-year-old cis-gendered man who is a portfolio manager at a financial hedge fund, was born and raised in India. He was raised speaking Bengali and English. The parents speak only English to their son. Currently, the mother is a full-time mother and part-time writer for a motherhood blog she co-founded.

Interviewer-Interviewee Relationship

The interviewer met the mother in the interviewer’s capacity as part-time Assistant Teacher at a Montessori-based preschool in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The child attended classes at the preschool for a year before their family moved out of the neighborhood. The interviewer was one of the child’s teachers.

Procedure

The participant was interviewed for one-and-a-half hours in her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on September 19, 2016. The oral interview was not audio or video recorded, and data was collected through detailed written notes. The interview was held exclusively between the interviewer and the participant. Although the mother’s child and housekeeper were present in the apartment, they neither interrupted the interview nor participated in any way. Questions were asked based on the interview template adapted from Dr. Patricia Greenfield, Distinguished Professor of Psychology with a concentration in Developmental Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. The participant PATTERNS OF CULTURALLY MEANINGFUL ACTIVITY 4 also provided additional clarification on her statements in a brief text message conversation on September 27, 2016.

FINDINGS

The results are divided into two categories that are each based on a guiding question and adapted from Losmeiya Huang’s interview coding template (Huang). The first category, shown in the white rows, addresses what the interviewee values in her parental approach to infant caretaking practices (see Table 1). This category will be referred to as Values. The second category, shown in the shaded gray rows, addresses which sources the interviewee used in her parental decision-making. This category will be referred to as Sources.

As demonstrated in Values, the interviewee expresses five core values that guided her decisionmaking when considering the sleeping arrangements, feeding, and bedtime routines of her infant: Emotional Health (E), Protection (P), Physical Health (H), Judgment (J), and Interdependence (ID). Of these five core values, the interviewee’s statements most frequently and explicitly point to two essential values: Interdependence (18 in frequency) and Emotional Health (11 in frequency). She repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the parent-child dyadic bond, noting, for example, that her son never wanted or needed a security object for sleeping, because he instead formed an attachment to the mother. This articulation of interdependence relates to and is informed by the significant value she places on cultivating her child’s emotional health. In discussing her decision to practice co-sleeping with her child at 7-8 months, she argues that this arrangement fosters in her child “security, warmth, and confidence.” The three other expressed values, Protection, Physical Health, and Judgment, are all in the same small range of frequency (5-9).

As displayed in Sources, the interviewee cites four main sources that inform this decisionmaking: Self-Help (SH), Family (F), Intuition (I), and Observation and Adaptation (OA). All of these sources are in the same small range of frequency (2-5). However, Intuition occurs the most frequently (5), as the mother most frequently makes statements to indicate that her decision-making stems from her PATTERNS OF CULTURALLY MEANINGFUL ACTIVITY 5 instincts and gut intuition. She also points to her familial background, both recalling incidents from her own childhood and seeing family members as role models (e.g. her mother-in-law). The frequency of these statements equals the frequency of the statements that express a reliance on Observation and Adaptation (e.g. “My decisions are adaptive based on how [the child] reacts”). Although the least frequently cited resource, the mother still mentions multiple Self-Help sources (e.g. Ferber method; Erik Erikson) that demonstrate her proactive research.

ANALYSIS, REFLECTION, & IMPLICATIONS

Analysis

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the United States, the mother primarily defines her cultural identity as “Americanized Latina,” an amalgamation of two distinct cultures and, therefore, two distinct value systems. As Shapiro and Nager (2000) discuss, every culture operates according to an “indigenous psychology” that governs both individual goals and collective social policy (p. 28). Within the highly industrialized and monetized society of the United States, the dominant culture emphasizes the importance of developing in children autonomy, self-sufficiency, and individuality (Raeff, 2010, p. 31). The dominant cultures of non-Westernized societies, including those in many Latin American nations, tend to place more value on social cohesion, interdependence, and collectivism (Raeff, 2010, p. 31). In her earliest years, the mother was exposed to the culture of the Dominican Republic, but she spent the majority of her life in the United States, so it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how each culture particularly factors into her personal value system. The mere fact that she has been exposed to multiple cultures in her personal history demonstrates how a diverse set of experiences can form a mother’s approaches toward parenting.

In this light, Tamis-LeMonda et al. (2008) describe how immigrant parents may feel conflicted when attempting to reconcile their two culture value systems: “Immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic…often expressed concerns that the individualistic orientation of the USA would result in high success for their children, but would also lead to increased selfishness…The goals of autonomy would PATTERNS OF CULTURALLY MEANINGFUL ACTIVITY 6 create barriers to relatedness” (p. 190). These kinds of conflicted internal parenting concerns also surface in the maternal interview data, as the mother stresses her desire to create an environment that encourages her son’s “security, warmth, and confidence.” One could argue that “security” implies an emphasis on interdependence (relying on the mother), while “confidence” implies an emphasis on independence (relying on self). However, when speaking on the common American practice of enforcing separate sleeping in infancy, the mother expresses criticism of forced independence in early childhood: “What is this pressure that nuclear families put on a child’s independence?” It is interesting to notice that although the mother spent more of her childhood in the United States, her parenting strategies more closely mirror those commonly practiced in cultures that highlight interdependence, like the Dominican Republic. Assumptive thinking could color this analysis, but perhaps the exposure to cultural values and practices within a child’s earliest years hold the most weight. In other words, the mother’s own first five years as a child in the Dominican Republic may overshadow her experiences and exposure to cultural value systems later in life in the United States. More likely, these two cultural frameworks function in tandem, each informing the mother’s parental decision-making to a certain immeasurable degree.

Reflection

Throughout the data-collection and analytical processes for this case study, I found myself relying on assumptions from my own childhood and personal value system. These assumptions, also understood as culturally formed biases, disallow an entirely objective interpretation of the maternal interview data. My mother, a board-certified neonatologist, did not practice cosleeping with my sister or me. As a result of my upbringing, and of course my lack of experience with being a mother, I had previously associated cosleeping with scare-tactic articles on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). However, after speaking with the mother extensively about her decision to practice cosleeping, my opinion has become much more nuanced, especially having witnessed the strong loving bond between the mother and child. That being said, since the mother has created an elaborate bedtime routine that depends wholly on her presence, I am concerned that the child may at some point be vulnerable to undue separation anxiety. If for some reason PATTERNS OF CULTURALLY MEANINGFUL ACTIVITY 7 the mother herself is unable to provide care for her child or sleep next to him, will his entire world shatter? Or, rather, will he adapt to the altered circumstances without considerable developmental setbacks? Of course, my concerns stem from an internalized value system shaped by a culture (United States) that pointedly advocates for individualism, self-sufficiency, and independence from our earliest years onward. If had been raised in a different culture—say that of the Dominican Republic or India—I may not express the same biases and concerns that surface here.

Implications

Because children come from an interrelated set of explicit and implicit socio-cultural contexts, it is essential that educators acknowledge and work through their own deep-seated cultural biases that may favor a certain child-rearing philosophies and strategies. The developmental-interaction approach to education promotes inclusion and equity, especially when confronting how classroom environments privilege “some kinds of knowledge, assuming that there are preferred ways of acting” (Shapiro and Nager, 2000, p. 32). A child who, for example, comes from a home that primarily values interdependence and socio-emotional health may respond differently to classroom expectations, particularly those that might favor independent (“alone”) work over collaborative work. In an effort to create a educational environment that makes learning accessible to every student, educators must consider these multifaceted socio-cultural contexts as neither irrelevant nor entirely conclusive. Educators’ awareness of potential or active socio-cultural assumptions and biases will allow for more balanced understandings of child development and, therefore, of how to most effectively cultivate every students’ capacity to learn.

 Table 1: Maternal Interview Data

 

Maternal Interview Data

 REFERENCES

Huang, L., document prepared for EDUC 500, Bank Street College of Education.

Morelli, G.A., Rogoff, B., Oppenheim, D., & Goldsmith, D. (1992). Cultural variation in infants’ sleeping arrangements and questions of independence. Developmental Psychology, 28, 604-613.

Raeff, C. (2010). Independence and interdependence in children’s developmental experiences. Child Development Perspectives, 4, 31-36.

Shapiro, E.K. & Nager, N. (2000). The developmental-interaction approach: Retrospect and prospect. In N. Nager & E.K. Shapiro (Eds.), Revisiting a progressive pedagogy: The developmentalinteraction approach (pp. 11-46). Albany: SUNY Press.

Sameroff, A. (2010). A unified theory of development: A dialectic integration of nature and nurture. Child Development, 81, 6-22.

Tamis-LeMonda, C.S., Way, N., Hughes, D., Yoshikawa, H., Kalman, R.K., & Niwa, N.Y. (2008). Parents’ goals for children: The dynamic coexistence of individualism and collectivism in cultures and individuals. Social Development, 17, 183-209.

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