Biocultural Perspectives on Childhood

Dr. Crystal Patil McMillan 131

Meetings: TT 1 – 2:30, Lopata House 16 Email: Office hours: TT 2:30 – 4:30, or by appointment Phone: 5 – 8066

Description: Childhood is both a biological phenomenon and a cultural construct. This course examines childhood across cultures and from biological and social perspectives. Lectures and readings will use case materials from around the globe. We will start by examining basic Darwinian and evolutionary theory concepts; followed by national and international assessments of well being, and last, explore aspects of childhood in a variety of settings. The course will be broken down into these four major areas of interest: human evolution, global and international perspectives, biocultural anthropology, and human development. The goal is to form a biosocial and cross-cultural understanding of children and how parents deal with children. We will place strong emphasis on how childhood, a uniquely human life stage, varies from culture to culture, and on issues relating to physical and social development of children. Examples will come from both the north and the south and are comparative with other non-human primate species. This course emphasizes ethnoparenting and ethnopediatric issues in caretaking and child development. In the end, it is my hope that you better understand diversity of parent-child relationships and can apply this knowledge from evolutionary and social justice perspectives.

Required Readings: 1994 Our Babies: Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent by Meredith Small. NY: Anchor Books (ISBN: 0385483627). OB on reading outline. 1994 Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa by Katherine Dettwyler. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press (ISBN: 0-88133-748-X). DS on reading outline. Additional Readings on ERES (pw = kids)

Grading: Course Requirements:

Assignment Points Due Date
Attendance 2 daily
Participation 2 daily
HHSC education module quiz results 2 email before 1/25 9:00am hard copy 1/25 in class
4 hour observation 3 complete before 3/17
Observation essay 3 3/17
Critical Summary Essay 10 3/24
Reading/Discussion Journal 5 4/19
Research Project 10
Topic selection 3 2/22
Annotated Bibliography 5 3/22
1st Draft of Paper 10 4/26
Paper to peers 5/3 by 6pm
Final Paper 35 5/6 by 2:30pm
Presentation 10 TBA
Peer Paper Evaluations 10 5/4 by 6pm
  1. ATTENDANCE – Taken daily

    1. PARTICIPATION – Participation does not mean that you talk A LOT, it is the quality of your remarks/ideas rather than quantity. If you are uncomfortable talking in class, then email or write down your questions, ideas and remarks and I will present them in class.

    2. A. Note: Anecdotal accounts are interesting but should be kept to a minimum.

    2. A. Complete the Hilltop Human Subjects Committee’s (HHSC) Education Module on conducting human research.
    3. B. At the end you will have the option of emailing your quiz results. Please email your quiz results to me and yourself. Print a copy of your results and bring to class as well.
    4. 1. Due 1/25

    2. A. A total of four hours of observation at the WU Nursery School. There will be a sign-in, sign-out folder there which will be collected weekly.
    3. 1. Complete before 3/17
    4. B. You may focus on one or two children in one age group or you may split your time and observe in each of the three age groups.
    5. C. Please take comprehensive notes about activities, interactions, emotions, and power relations.

    2. A. Please write a 2 page summary essay about observations you made while observing the children in this educational setting. Can you reflect on how parenting and education may be complement one another or are the goals in conflict? Please attach copies of your observation notes at the end of the essay.
    3. 1. Due 3/17
    1. CRITICAL SUMMARY ESSAY of Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa 1

    2. A. Students are asked to read this ethnography and write a substantive, critical 5-page review of the book. The medical ethnography should be discussed with regard to its contribution to understanding medical systems, culture, and the experience of health versus illness, as well as how it may contribute to a more informed understanding of health care delivery systems.
    3. 1. Due 3/24

A. All students will keep a written journal for the course. If you truly engage with course readings and assignments, they will almost inevitably bring up a variety of feelings and personal concerns, as well as ideas and intellectual insights. The objective and subjective reactions can provide valuable insights if they are acknowledged and processed. A journal is an excellent place to record and work through feelings, collect relevant newspaper and journal articles, make notes on relevant conversations, engage in dialogue with the course readings and keep research notes. You need to make entries every other week (at least 6 entries are expected), but entries should demonstrate serous grappling with the material. Journals will be collected at the end of the semester. For each article read in class, please note its usefulness to you. Would you recommend using it again? Why or why not? “I didn’t like it” or “it is good” are not acceptable responses; offer insightful critiques – good and/or bad for every article.

1. Due 4/19

1 There are other ethnographies which are appropriate for this assignment, please check with me if you have additional ideas.

8. RESEARCH PROJECT - The paper should not exceed 10 pages (1 inch margins, 10 point font minimum, no extra spacing for titles or sections).

A. Comparative Parenting Report - Read one ethnographic or anthropological book on child rearing, parenting, or growing up and compare this to your own research. You will conduct 10 in-depth interviews with parents (5 mothers/5 fathers) on specific topics of your choice that can be compared to your choice of book and class readings (one hour of interviewing, transcripts of interviews must be attached to report). See last page for list of potential ethnographies. Survey questionnaire must be designed and approved by Dr. Patil (no exceptions).


B. Parenting Advice - Read “How-to-parent” books from two very different time periods (e.g., 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 2000s) in the US and compare and contrast the ideas presented in each time period; discuss how in each book parenting approaches may reflect the political and economic situations of their respective time periods.


C. Global State of World’s Children Health Report --The focus of this paper will be from issues identified in this course. The objective is to imagine you are writing one of the sections/chapters in a report to be presented and read by the world’s leaders. Ideally, you will choose a specific aspect of childhood; you will provide a brief section of the epidemiological data (prevalence, incidence, areas of greatest burden, and theories as to why, etc.; such details should be in tabular form with a brief reference in the text (e.g., table 1, figure 1, picture 1). The paper should emphasize biocultural influences that shape children’s health. The bulk of the report should set the stage for discussions of the salient biological, cultural, biomedical, and/or political economic reasons for the health pattern seen among the world’s children. You should conclude with a summary and discussion of recommendations for these leaders (be creative and innovative) given the other readings in this course. The most difficult aspect of this assignment is conveying a considerable amount of material in a clear and concise manner. You may suggest your own idea for a research topic; but this MUST be approved by Dr. Patil by February 10th and prior to starting the project (no exceptions).

  1. Topic due 2/22

  2. Bibliography due 3/22

  3. 1st draft due 4/26

  4. Final paper due 5/10


A. Each student will present their research to the class (PowerPoint presentations are expected). You will be graded on both the quality of the material as well as the style of the presentation. It should be 15 minutes long, no more than 20 minutes.

1. Date: ________________________ (TBA)

10. PEER EVALUATIONS of Research Paper

A. You will read and write a review of a colleague’s paper. You should provide constructive critiques of the writing. Reviews should be thoughtful and constructive. You should point out areas where either logic or presentation is weak, and suggest ways in which they could improve the paper. A good review is critical, fair and constructive; you will be graded on the quality of your review.

  1. Your Paper due to peer evaluator on May 3

  2. Your evaluation of peer’s paper due to peer on May 4

  3. Your evaluation of peer gets turned in with your paper Dr. Patil on 5/3

11. FINAL – in class essay exam; no make-ups will be given, do not miss this exam.

1. Given on 4/14

All readings listed for each day are to be completed before coming to class

Week Date Topic Book & Chapter Eres Article; website
1 1/18 Syllabus, Introduction, Project Design
1/20 Why study childhood? Hardman
2 1/25 State of the world’s children Bane, Burr, Convention
1/27 Physiology of growth and development
3 2/1 Physiology cont’d & Why evolutionary theory? OB intro
2/3 Why evolutionary theory? OB 1
4 2/8 What is childhood from evolutionary perspective? Bogin, Bock
2/10 The anthropology of parenting OB 2&3 Strazdins
5 2/15 Modeling child well-being Harkness, Millard
2/17 Sleeping OB 4
6 2/22 Why cry? & Attachment theory OB 5
2/24 Breast is best & Political-economy of breast feeding OB 6 Baumslag
7 3/1 Breast feeding cont’d & Caretaking OB 7
3/3 Babies Case Studies Gottlieb, Reese
8 3/8 Spring Break – No class
3/10 Spring Break – No class
9 3/15 Parenting Case Studies LeVine
3/17 Biological anthropology and child survival DS (all)
10 3/22 Nutrition Dettwyler, Lerer
3/24 Growth Scheper-Hughes
11 3/29 Disease
3/31 Violence Asling-Monemi, Korbin
12 4/5 MTCT of HIV Video: Orphaned by AIDS Newell 2004 HIV Stats, HIV Kids
4/7 Child to Adult; Video: Fire Eyes or Warrior Marks Greer, Toubia*
13 4/12 Gender bias Das Gupta, Sargent
4/14 In-class Final Exam
14 4/19 4 Student Presentations
4/21 4 Student Presentations
15 4/26 4 Student Presentations
4/28 4 Student Presentations
16 5/3 4 Student Presentations
5/5 4 Student Presentations
5/10 4 Student Presentations

* indicates available online through Becker Medical School Library (not avail as a PDF).

A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions

- Oliver Wendell Holmes (U.S. author and Physician)


Reading References:
Hardman, C. 1973. Can there be an anthropology of childhood? Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford IV (2): 85-99.
Bane, M.J. and D.T. Ellwood. 1989. One fifth of the nations’ children: Why are they poor? Science 245(4922); 1047-53.

Burr, R. 2002. Global and local approaches to children’s rights in Vietnam. Childhood 9(1): 46-61.
Bogin, B. 1998. Evolutionary and biological aspects of childhood in Biosocial Perspectives on Children edited by Catherine
Panter-Brick. New York: Cambridge University Press (ch. 2: pgs. 10-44.

Bock, J. and D. Sellen. 2002. Childhood and the evolution of the human life course: An introduction. Human Nature

13(2): 153-9.
Strazdins, L. et al. 2004. Around-the-clock: parent work schedules and children’s wellbeing in a 24-h economy. Social
Science & Medicine 59: 1517-27.

Harkness, S. and Super, C.M. 1994. The developmental niche: A theoretical framework for analyzing the household production of health. Social Science & Medicine 38(2): 217-26.

Millard, A. 1994. A causal model of high rates of child mortality. Social Science and Medicine 38(2): 353-68.
Baumslag, N. et al. 1995. The global search for formula sales in Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of
Breastfeeding. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.

Gottleib, A. 2004. Hungry Beng babies: breast water, ordinary water, sacred water in The Afterlife is where we come from: The

culture of infancy in West Africa by A. Gottlieb. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (ch. 8: pgs. 185-219).
Reese, D. 2000. A parenting manual, with words of advice for Puritan mothers in A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare
Guides for Seven Societies edited by DeLoache, J.S. and A. Gottlieb. NY: Cambridge University Press (ch. 2: pgs. 29 – 54).

LeVine, R.A. et al. 1994. Child Care and Culture: Lessons from Africa. NY: Cambridge University Press ( chs. 9 & 10: p.

Dettwyler, K.A. 1989. Styles of infant feeding: Parental/Caretaker control of food consumption in young children.
American Anthropologist 91(3): 696-703.

Lerer, L. 1998. Who is in the Rogue? Hunger, Death, and Circumstance in John Mampe Square in Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Carolyn Sargent. Berkeley and LA: University of California Press (p. 228-50).

Scheper-Hughes, N. 1985. Culture, scarcity, and maternal thinking: Maternal detachment and infant survival in a

Braziliam Shantytown. Ethos 13(4): 291-317.
Asling-Monemi, K. et al. 2003. Violence against women increases risk of infant and child mortality: a case-referent study
in Nicaragua. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 81(1): 10-19.

Korbin, J. 1998. “Good mothers,” “Babykillers,” and Fatal Child Maltreatment in Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Carolyn Sargent. Berkeley and LA: University of California Press (p. 253-76).

Newell, N. et al. 2004. Mortality of infected and uninfected infants born to HIV-infected mothers in Africa: A pooled
analysis. Lancet 364: 1236-43.
Greer, G. 1999. Mutilation in The Whole Woman. NY: Alfred A. Knopf (p. 101-13).

Tobia, N. 1994. Female circumcision as a public health issue. New England Journal of Medicine 331(11): 712-16.
Das Gupta, M. 1987. Selective discrimination against female children in rural Punjab, India. Population and
Development Review 13(1):77-107.

Sargent, C. and M. Harris. Bad boys and good girls: Implications of gender ideology for child health in Jamaica in Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Carolyn Sargent. Berkeley and LA: University of California Press (p. 202-27).

Website References:

Abbreviated Title Web Address
HIV Stats
HIV Kids

List of Ethnographies:

  1. Aman: The Story of a Somali Girl (Barnes and Boddy, 1995)

  2. Birth on the Threshold (Van Hollen, 2003)

  3. Death without Weeping (Scheper-Hughes, 1993)

  4. The Afterlife is Where We Come From (Gottlieb, 2004)

  5. Child Care and Culture: Lessons from Africa (Levine et al. 1994)

  6. An Ecology of High-Altitude Infancy: A Biocultural Perspective (Wiley, 2204)

  7. Parental Behavior in Diverse Societies (Richman, 1988)

  8. Parenting Across the Lifespan: Biosocial Dimensions (1987)

  9. Father-Child Relations: Cultural and Biosocial Contexts (1992)

  10. The Tibetan Art of Parenting: From Before Conception Through Early Childhood (Maiden and Fairwell, 1997).

  11. Street Children in Kenya: Voices of Child in Search of a Childhood (Kilbride et al. 2000)

  12. The Children of Deh Koh: Young Life in an Iranian Village (Friedel, 1997)

  13. A World of Babies (DLoache and Gottlieb, 2000)

  14. Feeding China’s Little Emperors: Food, Children, and Social Change (Jing, 2000)

  15. Becoming Tongon: An Ethnography of Childhood (Morton, 1996)

  16. Infancy in Uganda (Ainsworth, 1967)

  17. War, Violence, and Children in Uganda (Dodge and Raudalen, 1987)

  18. Parents’ Cultural Belief Systems: Their Origins, Expressions, and Consequences (Harkness and Super, 1996).

  19. Intimate Fathers: the Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care (Hewlett)

Other interesting readings:
Hong, Y. (2003). An ethnographic study of Korean kindergartners´ reasoning during group moral discussions. Early
Childhood Education Journal, 30(3), 151-156

Other interesting websites:
Zambia and impact of HIV on children:

HIV and infant feeding: