Enculturation is the process by which children are socialized to the standard modes of thinking, feeling, and behaving considered appropriate for an adult in a given society. Because language is the primary means of communication, it is one of most important components of the enculturation process, and because cultural information is encoded in language, children acquire knowledge about their society through verbal interaction with adults. Even before birth, a fetus can differentiate its mother’s voice from other sounds. Though an infant is born with the ability to produce any sound and learn any language, they are shown to prefer their mother’s native tongue, which they hear prenatally. Later on in their development, an infant begins to discriminate between sounds, producing those that are heard most often. In addition, they learn speech patterns and syntax as adults use intonation and rhythmic sounds. Once toddlers have the ability to communicate ideas and a cognitive aware-ness of their surroundings, adults begin to define their world and its important aspects. For example, children in Western societies learn the many dangers of modern conveniences, including light sockets, hot irons and stoves, and traffic.
Furthermore, children begin to learn the social rules of behavior as they interact with other members of their society. American children learn the value of directness and independence, while Japanese children learn that indirectness and circumscribed behavior are more appropriate. Children also learn about the concepts of status and roles with which they must be familiar. For example, in patrilineal societies, the father is the main source of discipline and authority, while in matrilineal societies, this role falls to the mother’s brother, and the child responds to each accordingly. Children also learn gender roles, including the expectations of each sex as they mature. In Australia, fathers give boys tasks that bring them outside, while mothers solidify the concept of the women’s domain in the home. Other aspects taught are the attitudes, feelings, and emotions of the culture. Displays of affection are regarded differently depending on social background. In Ecuador, men and boys hug and kiss as a sign of friendship and goodwill. However, in other parts of the world, this behavior would make men the objects of ridicule.
Anthropologists began studying this phenomenon in the late 1800s. Unlike psychologists, they did not automatically assume that the enculturation process was identical cross-culturally. Influenced by Freud, the early work focused on set stages encountered in the first 3 years. Freud believed that each individual experience in early childhood formed adult personality and any deviation from a set pattern produced psychosis. However, in Margaret Mead’s classic study, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), child-rearing studies showed that Freud’s stages were not universal; even the concept of adolescent angst was foreign to the Samoan teenagers. Mead argued that no stage was common to all cultures nor inevitably faced by a growing child. Children growing up in Samoa developed different personality traits because their characters were formed by different enculturation processes.
- Bailey, G., & Peoples, J. (2002). Essentials of cultural anthropology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.
- Lenkeit, R. E. (2004). Introducing cultural anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Rosman, A., & Rubel, P. G. (2004). The tapestry of culture: An introduction to cultural anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.