Category Archives: Cultures

What’s in a Village?

Lots of children.

So says Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and the author of an article in Psychology Today entitled “The Culture of Childhood: We’ve Almost Destroyed It.”

“Children learn the most valuable lessons from other children, away from adults,” Gray says.

In fact, he turns the much-used African proverb around to suggest that the village raises the child because of the presence of many children within its boundaries. He quotes J.R. Harris (1998):

The reason it takes a village is not because it requires a quorum of adults to nudge erring youngsters back onto the paths of righteousness. It takes a village because in a village there are always enough kids to form a play group.

Gray says that children are biologically designed to pay attention to the other children in their lives, to try to fit in with them, to be able to do what they to, to know what they know.

Throughout most of human history, that’s how children become educated and that’s still largely how children become educated today, despite our misguided attempts to stop it and turn the educating job over to adults.

There are many lessons, he says, that children learn or can learn from other children that they cannot or are not likely to learn from adults.

  1. Authentic communication

For example:  an adult points to a red ball and asks “What color is that?” Gray argues that this is not an honest question, since the adult knows the answer. It is not really a question at all; it is a test.  A child would never ask such a question, nor would a child give false praise to another child, the way that adults praise a child’s artwork, for example.

2. Independence and courage

According to Gray, the ultimate goal of childhood is to move away from dependence on parents and establish oneself as one’s own person. Part of gaining independence is gaining courage to face the challenges and deal with the emergencies that are part of every day life. Children must learn to manage fear.

3. Creating and understanding the purpose and modifiability of rules.

Adults follow the rules when they play a game. Children make up their own. When playing with other children, they feel free to challenge ideas about the rules. They learn to negotiate. They learn that rules are not ‘fixed in heaven’, but made by humans to make the game more fair.

This is an important lesson, Gray says. It is a cornerstone of democracy.

4. Practicing and building on the skills and values of adult culture

Children incorporate into their play many of the skills and values that they observe among adults. That is way farmers’ children play at farming, for example.

5. Getting along with others as equals

The adult-child relationship is not equal. The adult has all the power. By playing with other children, children learn how to get along with peers: how to pay attention to the needs of others, how to share, how to negotiate, how to assert their own needs and desires.

And here’s something else that Gray turns inside out and asks us to re-think. We bemoan the ‘screen time’ that our children have; we want to ban or limit that time. But Gray says that children are using the Internet to connect because adults have prevented them from getting together anywhere else. They have creatively found a way to do what they have always done.

If we did ban or limit screen time, Gray says, while still banning children from public spaces without adult supervision, we would finally succeed in destroying the culture of childhood.

We would prevent children from educating themselves in the ways they always have, and we would see the rise of a generation of adults who don’t know how to be adults because they never had a chance to practice it.

Gray’s entire article can be found at


What children want

I first saw this commercial in 2014 and have seen it several times again this year. It’s worth sharing.

Ikea Spain invited ten families to participate in the filming of a new commercial for the Christmas season.

First of all, the children were separated from their parents and asked to write letters to the Three Kings, making their requests for Christmas gifts. In Spain, the Three Kings, not Santa, bring gifts and they bring them January 6, not on Christmas Day.

The children’s requests varied from the expected (a Wii) to the musical (a guitar and a piano) to the downright impossible (a unicorn).

Their letters were folded and put into individual envelopes;  the envelopes were then sealed and placed in a mail box for delivery to the Three Kings.

Next the children were asked to write letters to their parents. What would you like from your parents this Christmas, they were asked.

The answers?

“I’d like my parents to spend more time with me.”

“I’d like my mom to tickle me.”

“I’d like my parents to spend one whole day with me.”

“I’d like my mom to play soccer with me.”

None of these were a surprise to the parents.

What they did not know was that their children had been asked a third and final question:

If you could  send only one of those letters, which one would it be? The letter to the Three Kings? Or the letter to your parents?

If you haven’t seen the commercial already and would like to see its conclusion, go to:

But I bet you’ve already guessed which letter the children chose to send.




Newcomers and oldtimers

Lately I’ve been thinking about newcomers and old-timers.

A newcomer is anyone who has just moved to your community, whether they moved there from just down the road or from a country half way round the world. Old-timers have been around so long no one remembers where they came from.

I am not a newcomer to anything except perhaps old(er) age. I live in the same community I was born in. And with the exception of the years I went away to school and the years I worked before marriage, I have lived here all my life.

I am a Canadian by birth.  I am not an immigrant, but I do have immigrant roots.

I am the fifth generation in a line that began in the Orkney Islands and the fourth generation in other lines that began in Iceland. My Scottish great-great-grandfather and my Icelandic great-grandfathers came here to escape poverty, crop failures and natural disasters.

I know that my ancestors faced some of the same challenges that today’s newcomers face. I know that children, for example, were given the strap at school for speaking their mother tongue instead of English. And that parents were told to speak only English in the home to make it easier for their children.

They were certainly different times, though. Today’s newcomers are not likely to be threatened by outbreaks of scurvy, although the harsh Manitoba winters continue to challenge all of us. My ancestors wrote letters to the home country that took months to arrive; Internet access has made communication speedier, although penmanship may never be the same.

I’ve come to realize that immigrant roots run very deep, even though we may not think about it much. The attitudes, beliefs, customs and folklore glimpsed in our words and actions can often be traced back to those who carried them as invisible luggage to this new land.

In a way, Canadians like me are a link between the old immigrant and the new.

Our ancestors came to Canada with the hope of a better life for themselves and their families. Generations later, we are that hope fulfilled.

That same hope lives in people who are newcomers to this country and it connects us each to the other in positive and life-enriching ways.















Yule cat blues


This is a tourist shop version of Iceland’s infamous Yule cat. It has a lengthy almost unpronounceable name, but all you need to know about it is that it comes to homes on Christmas Eve to see whether the residents are wearing new clothes. If they are not, it eats the children. (A less grisly version of the tale states that it will eat the children’s Christmas dinner instead).

Apparently there are similar stories about a goat in Norway and a bull in the Baltics.

The Yule cat may have been nothing more than an incentive for children to behave, similar to the threat of coal in a Christmas stocking. Or it may have been a reference to desperate times when the sheep sickened and died and there was no woolen yarn for making garments. Such times in Iceland’s history were marked by famine and high childhood mortality.

I had never heard of the Yule cat until a few years ago; certainly it played no part in our Christmas traditions. But my Icelandic mother always insisted that each of her six children had something new to wear on Christmas Eve. I thought it was just a family tradition. Now I wonder if it were not more of a cultural one.

Culture defines and shapes  families  and family life in ways that can sometimes be obvious, sometimes not so. But whether obvious or hidden, they are equally important.

Charlotte Shoup Olsen (associate professor and family systems extension specialist at Kansas State University) and Linda Skogrand, associate professor and family life extension specialist at Utah State University) note in an online dissertation that “educators need to have an understanding of the role that culture plays in family life among potential participants from their communities, especially if the targeted audience has a background different from the educator”.

Being unaware of one’s own cultural framework creates the “potential for both personal conflict and interpersonal misunderstanding in multicultural environments”, said P.M. Greenfield and L.K. Suzuki in the 1998 paper “Culture and human development: Implications for parenting, education, pediatrics, and mental health”.

Sharing of cultural backgrounds and traditions both within and outside the family unit can therefore be an effective way of increasing that necessary awareness.

And what better time for sharing than at this time of year when so many cultures have their own ways of celebrating and so many cultures do not celebrate at all?