Thomas Balmès documents the early phases of the lives of four culturally different newborns from birth until infancy in the documentary ‘Babies’. The experiences of Ponijao from Namibia, Bayanchandmachi (Bayar) from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from California, provide insight into the influences culture has on cognitive development in the first years of life. This movie did not include narration nor subtitles which allows the focus to be on the infants and their interaction with their surroundings and allows viewers to interpret and analyze the ways in which cultural customs influence interactions within the different environments and how they contribute to early development.
The documentary begins with Ponijao, a young infant raised in Opuwo, Namibia. Viewers are introduced to a very natural environment with limited resources. The village of the Himba tribe, the community she is raised within and the cultural customs she will become accustomed to, is located in a very rocky and dusty geographical location. Babies are born in their hut in which they live. From the very beginning of the film, the concept of guided participation was demonstrated between two Namibian infants mimicking a traditional cultural activity, as the older peer is seen using a rock to perform a hitting and rubbing action on a larger rock while the younger infant observes and imitates her more skilled peers’ actions. It is then shown the mother, who is also using a rock to break down a red powder carrying out the same motion previously seen by the younger infants. This ‘red ochre’ is culturally used to distinguish between men and women and also used to bathe (Coussement, R., 2015). This demonstrates that at a young age, these babies are able to interact with a tool that will provide cultural knowledge to later assist them in specific cultural activity. Next, we are introduced to Bayar, an infant from Mongolia. Similar to the physical characteristics of Ponijao’s environment that is open and natural, there is lots of barren, hilly land as well as livestock animals such as cows and goats surrounding the yurts where the individuals of this culture live. The audience is then introduced to the next two infants, Mari from Tokyo and Hattie from California, both babies who are raised in large, busy, industrialized cities where the culture is more Western.
One development that was documented throughout the movie is the baby’s’ gross motor skills. These skills develop universally among infants however there seemed to be differences between cultures in the way this physical development occurred. Bayar was brought home tightly swaddled as a newborn and remained swaddled for most of his infancy. Swaddling is a traditional practice in Mongolian culture during the colder seasons where babies are kept tightly wrapped for the first six months after birth (Tsgot et al., 2016). Once mobility is increased after the first three months, the intensity and duration of wrapping are gradually decreased. Consequently, although Bayer developed the skill to walk, compared to the other three babies, Bayer found the development of gross motor skills more challenging and took the most time to develop. Unlike Ponijao, she was never swaddled as a newborn, instead, spending the majority of her first few months in her mother’s arms or lap. Ponijao was given much more freedom to be mobile at a much earlier time than Bayer, crawling around with other infants in their community once she was able to. Ponijao’s ability to learn gross motor skills (sitting up, crawling, walking) was at a faster rate than the other three babies, with much less of a struggle.
Additionally, the cognitive development of each of the four babies varied depending on their interactions with others as well as their environments. Hattie and Mari, both reared in industrialized modern cultures, had access to multiple interactive toys and books that were introduced to them as newborns by their parents and were continuously used throughout their development in collaboration with their caregivers. Both Hattie and Mari were constantly surrounded by their parents, bathing together, sleeping together, and much differently than Ponijao and Bayar, attending playgroups or daycare with their mothers as a means of interaction and socialization with other infants. Hattie was often seen being interactively read to by her mother. Here, guided participation is again illustrated as Hattie’s cognitive abilities began to increase, her mother would continuously ask her questions and direct her attention to the literature. Much differently than Bayar who was left alone for most of infancy with little interaction with his mother during the day. Mari was as well regularly surrounded by her parents and was more often seen interacting with toys that serve as cognitive tools in a Western culture where direction and instructive play is more common. However, the constant presence of parental supervision shows to affect the development of Mari’s problem-solving skills as a result of her dependency on her parents which is seen when Mari is easily frustrated and throws a tantrum after her attempt to fit her toy stick in a ring it is not executed as she wanted or expected. As a result of this dependency, both Hattie and Mari will be less likely to work through problems on their own. Compared to a more independent Ponijao, whose mother rarely intervenes in her play activities, Mari and Hattie will find problem-solving more challenging. It is important to recognize that Ponijao was similarly always in close contact with her mother, however, she was also in constant interaction with other children and mothers from their village. Her days were spent observing and interacting cultural activities of her more skilled peers and mother and imitating their cultural work in her play, reflecting an apprenticeship in thinking as she develops an understanding of her culture in collaboration with the peers in her community in cultural activity. This difference influences the way in which children reared in a more traditional culture, such as Bayar and Ponijao, are more attentive to what adults do rather than children reared in a Western culture where more direct instructing is involved, that are more attentive to what adults say (Lancy, 2015; Morelli et al., 2003).
Balmès captures a distinct array of cultural settings following the progression of these four babies in order to emphasize the importance of sociocultural explanations in regards to cognitive development. The ability to observe infants in both a traditional environment and W.E.I.R.D environment can allow for differences and similarities to be made regarding the development of universal abilities and inferences in how culture plays a role in this development. It is important to recognize the value of taking a sociocultural perspective when studying psychological development.
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This documentary provides evidence that learning has an emphasis on the interactions between not only caregivers but as well as the interaction with culture and how cultural customs influence when and how learning takes place. The development of babies may seem fundamentally the same within the first few years of infancy, however, the development of higher-order skills and personality traits may diversify substantially in later years as a result of cultural influences. Taking a sociocultural approach to understanding development can provide reasoning for why Ponijao in Namibia will be more independent and labor-oriented, yet find challenges with communication whereas Hattie or Mari will have more opportunities to excel cognitively yet more challenges with independence and problem-solving skills. The experiences of culture will ultimately lead to different life experiences as a whole.