Cultural Contexts & Paleo Parenting: How Anthropologists Study Well-Being in Children

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The chapter, ‘Child Well-Being: Anthropological Perspectives’ in the Handbook of Child Well-Being (2014), is co-authored by anthropologists Edward G. J. Stevenson and Carol M. Worthman.  While not explicitly stated, it is highly likely that this collaboration came about due to the author’s shared affiliation at Emory University: Dr. Worthman has been a faculty member at Emory since the 1980s and Dr. Stevenson graduated with his PhD from Emory in 2011.

Dr. Stevenson (Source: UCL faculty page)

Dr. Stevenson is currently a Teaching Fellow at University College London and his research is focused on health and human development in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Worthman (Source: Emory faculty page)

Dr. Worthman is the director for the Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology at Emory University which began in 1987. The lab focuses on differences in human well-being and aims to collaborate with non-laboratory based researchers.  Former members of this lab include several authors that we have read this semester including Dr. Seligman, Dr. DeCaro, and the co-author of our textbook, Dr. Lende.


This chapter focuses on breaking down how anthropologists approach studying well-being in children by distinguishing between different conceptual models and how they are impacted by historical and environmental factors. 

Heuristic Models

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Heuristic models commonly fall into three categories (ecocultural, developmental niche, and cultural mediation) and generally compare how child development and well-being differ in two cultural contexts. These models provide valuable information about a particular culture at a specific point in time.

Ecocultural Model

This model examines how child well-being is influenced by everyday activities and routines. For instance, the authors provide the example of how an ecocultural model can be used to look at how parents of children with disabilities adapt to their child’s needs versus parents of children without developmental disabilities (see Weisner 1997, 2002). The benefit of this type of model is the ability to examine child well-being at smaller levels such as the individual household.

Developmental Niche Model

Super and Harkness (1986) originally developed this model to look at cross-cultural variation in child development. This model focuses on a wide-range of factors that can influence child health and development. This includes looking at  physical and social circumstances, local customs, the beliefs and goals of caretakers, as well as traits the child are born with or epigenetic factors.

Cultural Mediation Model

This model combines insights from evolutionary theory, economic-demographic pressures, and cultural elements to examine how child care is organized within a society. The authors emphasize that each of these factors in isolation cannot provide an explanation for childcare practices.

Predictive Models

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The authors suggest that there are four main categories of predictive models: discordance, developmental ecology, embodied capital, and ecosystem dynamics. These models take more of an evolutionary approach and attempt to  gauge what universal factors might impact childhood well-being.

Discordance Model

This model deals with environmental mismatch between modern and ancestral environments. Given the vast amount of time that humans spent in hunter-gatherer groups, this model predicts that child well-being will be highest in situations that more closely resemble these ancestral roots.

Developmental Ecology Model

Evolution teaches us that there are always trade-offs. This model focuses on how early experiences influence future development in humans in order to employ the most adaptive responses to environmental conditions.  An example of this might be to look at how breastfeeding impacts future immune response or how early life nutritional deprivation may increase fat storage later in life (known as the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis).

Embodied Capital Model

The concept of embodied capital refers to an individual’s ability to survive and reproduce based on the current conditions and capacities of the individual. This model uses this concept to explore how parents invest in children. It is predicted that in situations where resources are scarce, parents may focus on quantity of offspring over quality. On the other hand, when conditions are favorable, it is predicted that parents will invest more in a smaller amount of offspring (i.e., quality over quantity).

Ecosystem Dynamics Model

The final model presented explores how macroecology (e.g., political-economic, demographic,  technological context) and microecology (e.g., immediate surroundings, caretakers,  childcare customs) influence childhood well-being.

Historical Transitions, Policy Implications, & Future Research

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The final sections of the chapter describes how the theoretical models of child well-being described above are impacted by historical changes in five areas: (1) demography, (2) epidemiology and nutrition, (3) education, (4) politics/economics, and (5) ecology.  The authors argue that by considering these factors and models, policymakers and researchers can better understand how to improve child well-being.

My Thoughts

One of the aspects of this article that I liked the best was the use of tables to summarize some of the main areas of research along with some sample citations. I felt that this was an effective way of organizing the wealth of information that was provided without becoming overwhelming. While I generally enjoy brevity in a paper, this might be one of the only times that I would have liked to have seen more examples for each model simply because I found the content so fascinating. However, for someone less interested in these topics, this chapter provides a great overview that is also easily digestible.

Source: Max Pixel

Discussion Questions

  1.  Well-being was also a central focus of the Campbell chapter from last week. How do you feel these two papers compare in their conceptualization of well-being? Did one have a stronger approach?
  2.  What are some ways in which children living in industrialized societies might be worse off than those living in circumstances that more closely reflect our hunter-gatherer ancestors?
  3.  Conversely, what are some ways in which children might be better off in modern environments?
  4.  Did you feel that any of the models were stronger than others?
  5.  Could any of the models presented be applied to your research interests?



12 thoughts on “Cultural Contexts & Paleo Parenting: How Anthropologists Study Well-Being in Children”

  1. To answer some of your questions, I think that children living in industrialized societies are worse off than hunter-gatherers because they don’t have to do much physical labor. Lack of physical exercise contributes to quite a few of the chronic disease that are prevalent in modern societies. I think that children are better off now in terms of infectious diseases. Modern medicine has allowed us to eradicate, or come very close to eradicating, may infectious diseases that were responsible for killing hunter-gatherers. I think that in well off societies, the mismatch hypothesis and chronic diseases are what are impacting us now. In hunter-gatherer societies, I think that infectious diseases, more than chronic diseases, are what caused deaths. In modern societies that are not as well off, I believe that they are plagued with both, the impact of infectious diseases and chronic diseases.

  2. This post does a good job breaking down the different models and I appreciate that. In regards to the developmental ecology model, is the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis entirely accepted in anthropology? The predictive models are especially interesting because cross-cultural explanations for wellbeing in children seem difficult to establish. The ecosystem dynamics model is the one that I personally am more interested in. It breaks down these two worlds that the child is raised in and how they interact to impact that child’s wellbeing. It generally makes a lot of sense to me and I could see how it is applicable cross-culturally.

    1. The discussion today was very interesting. I always enjoy conversations about how parenting differs culturally. Also, I have grown up in Alabama and my entire family is made up of right-leaning Republicans/conservatives as are many of my facebook friends from high school. I asked a lot of them what they thought about the kangaroo shirt and the response was overwhelmingly positive. All left-leaning people I talked to had positive things to say as well. Concerns brought up were the idea that it would be “too much contact” or “helicopter parenting” and that the mother would be sharing an “intimate moment with the public.” As well as it being difficult to use in public such as if you need to take the baby out for a diaper change or if it spits up or a diaper malfunction happens. This logistic base concern came from right and left leaning people.
      However, overall everyone right and left agreed that touch is very important for babies and that the baby should be able to get that skin to skin contact. People generally did not have a problem with the shirt and thought it was a good idea especially for in the home. People were more concerned with the idea of taking the baby out in public than they were with the actual concept of a mother wearing it. This is what I was saying in class that I believed that both right and left leaning people generally would accept this shirt and not think much of it. I am not trying to pass off my simple facebook post as some true study of political leanings and parenting opinions but I do think it demonstrates that the kangaroo shirt is not necessarily just something democrats would support. People from both parties seem generally open to the idea and support the concept.

    2. Whenever I’m presented with several theories as explanations for some phenomenon, I always wonder why no one ever proposes that it is a combination of all of these theories rather than one weighing heavily over the others. I think that all of the theories proposed are valid and have some sort of implication on how children turn out. As far as I know, the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis is very much accepted in anthropology. I wonder why people think that there should only be one model and one model only to explain the way in which things work. Similarly, in cultural anthropology, I think that the theories proposed over time, (ie. historicism, functionalism, postmodernism) are all valid ways in which we can view culture. I think that a better explanation is a combination of all of these rather than just one.

  3. I thought that this article was an interesting read. The study of human development and child well being is incredibly diverse and provides important results. I thought that the predictive models were more interesting than the Heuristic models, however both offer insight into different aspects of human development. I’m looking forward to discussing these further in class.

  4. I agree with you that the breakdown of each model was extremely digestible even for people with very little interest in the topics– I also would have loved more examples because I find this topic extremely interesting as well. I definitely appreciate how you were able to break down those already brief summaries of each model into even more bite-sized pieces. My main question after reading the article is which theories carry the most weight in directing future research? You also ask that question, so it’s good to know I’m not the only one left with that thought. Personally, I think one of the weaker models is the Cultural Mediation Model. I don’t like that it’s broken down into computing terms because I feel that makes it less adaptable, as we can see with several other theories that just went with what was popular in the day. Other than that, I think they all make sense, but it would be interesting to do an analysis and see which have the strongest showing in the literature.

    1. I really enjoyed the discussion and how everyone was able to voice their views! I think it’s great to understand different sides of the argument, especially when it’s as important as early development. I still hold my opinion that computer models are not the way to create complex theories. Although they may seem a little easier to understand, I don’t think they capture a picture of the complexity using a less literal model.

  5. I think the distinction of macroecology and microecology is endlessly fascinating when applied to a sociological perspective. It’s a new facet of the environmental model I honestly haven’t seen touched on previously. As I say frequently, I think environment is critically undervalued as a determining factor. I’m not sure what I think is more important, or if one is over the other. People thrive in near impossible situations due to continued support, but I’m not sure if the opposite is true. Do people thrive in an ideal environment without adequate support? Undoubtably not. I wonder how much of each support system an individual requires to thrive. It must vary individually, but I wonder what causes this distinction.

  6. That Evo-Devo song is still stuck in my head so thank you for that. But I was thinking more about the amount of stress on new parents to provide for their kids on their own and how it’s almost looked down upon to have help. It’s so important to have a large support system when it comes to raising children. I hadn’t thought about it much before this discussion but I’m thinking about it more now. It’s interesting that so many of our ‘traditional’ parenting ideas are so far from how ancient humans raised their children. I think it’ll be interesting to see the efforts to change parenting styles and bring back some of the older “ancient” practices.

  7. I think the discussion of different models of parenting is a very interesting one. As Lakoff posits, political ideological differences are actually seated in sub-cultural differences in views of family, with conservatives having a more “father as moral authority” model and progressives having a more “equal parents” model. I wonder how these ideas might play in to some of the models being presented in this piece, and in development research and political ideologies in general.

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