Rethinking childhood

Pick up any parenting magazine today and you'll find pages filled with stories about early childhood development. The psycho-social development of children has become a global issue that has captured the attention of parents, governments and NGOs worldwide.

But how do you define "childhood," is there more than one definition and what constitutes a "good" childhood? These are questions that University of Lethbridge anthropologist Dr. Jan Newberry is seeking to answer as she investigates the global politics of childhood.

"There has been a resurgence of interest in development," says Newberry. "The recent global attention to early childhood education, care and development is a re-thinking of the category of childhood and how we can intervene appropriately."

Newberry's work takes her to Java, a small island in Indonesia, where recent democratization and natural disasters have put early childhood education high on the national agenda.

In Indonesia, she explains, programs are promoted by a global movement for the healthy psycho-social development of young children and use Western standards of development. Local patterns of child rearing, however, emphasize strikingly different markers of development. For example, does the child eat spices with rice? Can he/she correctly use the different levels of Javanese language? Is he/she properly polite and deferential?

"The question then becomes what is the match between local markers of childhood and those generated by governmental and nongovernmental agencies," Newberry says. "We need to acknowledge the universals while understanding the cultural specifics."

Although Newberry's research takes place in Southeast Asia, the answers she finds can be applied locally.

"It's worthwhile for us to look at other ways to manage families and communities because it can help us better manage our own," she says.

Newberry's fieldwork also enables her to bring the world into the classroom and provides important lessons in tolerance.

"When I go to Indonesia, I bring back stories about other people's ways of life to first of all enable my students to better understand Indonesia, and secondly, to turn the mirror around and help them understand that there are infinite ways of doing things," says Newberry.

"Anthropology teaches us that understanding another culture means more than enjoying their food; it means understanding a whole way of life. By learning about another culture, we learn about possibilities."