Early Childhood Education

Whiting, Beatrice (1914-2004)

 

Beatrice Blyth Whiting influenced the social scientific study of culture, child development, and the socialization process. Through her lifelong commitment to comparative studies of children, families, and communities throughout the world, she taught and influenced several generations of anthropologists, child development researchers, and educators. She pioneered the use of comparative ethnographic and quantitative methods that integrated the anthropologist’s knowledge of local communities and families with the psychologist’s systematic assessments of child behavior and development (Weisner and Edwards, 2002). Her research projects modeled the strength of interdisciplinary, international teams and led to a deeper infusion of cultural understanding into contemporary studies of child development and education.

Whiting graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1935 and was one of the first women to study anthropology at Yale University, where she received her PhD in 1943. She joined Harvard University as a research associate in 1952, and in 1970 became one of the first women to receive tenure there. With her husband, John W. M. Whiting, she directed three major international comparative studies of human development: The Six Culture Study of the Socialization of the Child (Whiting, 1963; Whiting and Whiting, 1975); the Child Development Research Project at the University of Nairobi (Whiting and Edwards, 1988; Edwards and Whiting, 2004); and the Harvard Comparative Adolescence Project (Whiting and Whiting, 1991).

Whiting’s work helped establish the use of intensive, observational studies to investigate the dimensions of children’s cultural learning environments. Whiting concluded that the drama of child development necessarily takes place on a stage surrounded by a theater, the cultural community, with characteristic geography, settlement pattern, household living arrangements, and age and gender division of labor and economic routines. The drama on the stage (shaped by those outside forces) involves scenes and characters provided by the child’s typical caregivers and social companions, family work responsibilities, and access to the wider community. Together, all these cultural dimensions comprise the cultural learning environment and predict age and gender variations in child social behavior and interaction as the drama unfolds. For example, children who contribute more actively to family subsistence and survival (through child care, food preparation, gardening, and herding) demonstrate significantly more nurturant and prosocial behavior and less dependency. Children in school (and preschool) have more frequent opportunity to interact with large groups of same-age, same-sex peers, where they are relatively competitive, egoistically dominant, and rough- and-tumble (or sociably aggressive) in their play, suggesting that the introduction of age-graded schools (and preschools) historically leads to far-reaching changes in children’s normative social behavior (Whiting and Edwards, 1988).

Whiting, a pioneering woman herself, was as concerned with the role of women and families in the transformation of culture as with the socialization of children. Her final publication on the Kenyan village of Ngecha, during the years 1968 to 1973, documented how rural women coped and adapted, while taking into account the needs of their husbands, numerous children, aging parents, and others for whom they were responsible (Edwards and Whiting, 2004). To prepare their children for wage-earning jobs requiring schooling, the mothers modified their parenting goals and behavior and took upon themselves increased workloads and reduced kin support. The children, in turn, experienced evolving educational practices and individualistic achievement expectations that challenged traditional family-based morals and obligations. Whiting’s work has made major contributions to the field of early childhood education by illustrating the variety of ways in which child development can be supported in diverse cultural and ecological contexts.

Further Readings: Edwards, C. P., and B. B. Whiting, eds. (2004). Ngecha: A Kenyan village in a time of rapid social change. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; Weisner, T. S., and C. P. Edwards (2002). Introduction to the theme issue honoring the contributions of Beatrice B. Whiting. Ethos: Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology 29(3), 239-246; Whiting, B. B., ed. (1963). Six cultures: Studies of child rearing. New York: John Wiley; Whiting, B. B., and C. P. Edwards (1988). Children of different worlds: The formation of social behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Whiting, B. B., and J. W. M. Whiting (1975). Children of six cultures: A psycho-cultural analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Whiting, B. B., and J. W. M. Whiting (1991). Adolescence in the preindustrial world. In R. M. Lerner, A. C. Peterson, and J. Brooks-Gunn, eds., The encyclopedia of adolescence. New York: Garland Press, pp. 814-829.

Carolyn Pope Edwards