I am going to be running a series of posts exploring culture within the family. Here, in part one, I am talking about how we create culture and what this means for an understanding of behaviour and interactions between parents and children.
How We Make Culture
As human beings, one of the super cool things we do is make culture. I don’t mean just creating literature, art, or behaviours, like hand-shaking or nose-wiping, that have particular meanings in a particular country. Those are to do with ‘large culture’, which describes national characteristics and products. I am talking about ‘small culture’, where groups of individuals, each with their own unique perspective, come together and interact, and from which special patterns of behaviour and shared meanings evolve.
Culture is more than manners or identity, more than an elaborate means of not pissing each other off. It is an expression of what looks and feels real to a set of people, of the understandings they have about themselves, their environment, and one another. It also reflects the changing nature of our perspective on the world, which has the capacity to shift from moment to moment.
The ‘small culture paradigm’ was outlined by Adrian Holliday, who also described culture-making as an ‘innate human ability’. In his work, he argues that culture-making is at the heart of all groups and institutions that people create, and allows us to co-operate and transfer ideas from one person to another. Read his paper on small cultures here.
The conclusion that I drew from this is, the better we are at recognising and using this ability, the more we can explore the creative potential inherent in interaction, and the stronger our connections with others can be.
A really great example of culture-making in progress is to watch children playing a game like hide and seek. Though there are basic generic rules and behaviours involved in the game, which the participants may or may not actually understand, new rules and expressions of the game will appear through that episode of play.
So, perhaps some bossy older kids will want to create new rules with ‘safe spots’ and chasing, while errant younger players might decide they want to hide, then leap out and ‘scare’ the seeker, because they cannot wait to be found. The way each player sees the game and wants it to evolve will be expressed in their behaviour, and how they understand rules and roles within the game, as it continues, will develop based on reactions to that behaviour.
Whether everyone gets along and the game is thought to be satisfying and fun depends on the ability of the kids to align their understandings around that expression of the game being played at that moment. If they cannot do this, then someone will be deemed to be ‘spoiling’ the game, and a radical change of play may be needed to set things ‘right’, or there will be branching off into new groups, new games, and new rules and understandings will be forged around those. Childhood play is really Culture-Making Practice par excellence.
I wrote a post about culture-making a while ago, which you can read here.
Culture Making In The Family
When members of a family interact, culture-making happens, and small culture arises between them. On the surface, there are the behaviours each individual deems appropriate to the moment, which spring from what makes sense to them at that time. This will, in turn, depend on their view of reality and mood.
Through this process there will be an inevitable evolution of understandings about the rules governing family life, and the way the family works together (or not!). By rules, I mean the logical ideas each person is using to reason about and react to what is happening. So, this includes both actual ‘Do This, Do Not Do That’ stuff, but also ‘I see the world like ‘this’, so doing ‘that’ makes sense to me’ type rules. No two people will understand rules in the same way, and the same person will have different ideas about rules from moment to moment.
There will be a tacit range of mutual understandings between the parents and children, which come from the fact that the individuals concerned have participated in this cultural group for a prolonged period of time. A lifetime, in the case of the kids.
These shared ideas are a bit like the generic elements of hide and seek, and provide a basis for everyone to work together.
For instance, you might create an understanding between you that bedtimes follow a particular routine of pyjamas, stories, toothbrushing, and cuddles. The routine itself might come from parental decree, or arise between the parents and children’s ideas. Family in-jokes and rituals are other great examples of these behaviours, such as the ‘cuddle attack’ created by my husband, and perpetuated by all. The point is, the ideas of the participants are somewhat aligned in proceedings.
There will also be differences in how each family member perceives the world from moment to moment and person to person, which causes them to act in divergence from generic understandings, from one another.
Differences in our ideas about ‘the rules and how they operate right now’ adds a frisson of unpredictability to any small culture that gets constructed.
For instance, my older two kids like to play a game at mealtimes where they make their spoons into little characters that talk to each other and jump around with great hilarity. The game always begins with the spoons greeting one another, then a big bounce, accompanied with a shriek of delight. After that, the spoons might chase each other, chat, or whatever. The game often gets rather excitable, and meal times take much longer because of the ‘inter-bite’ play.
The main factor in whether I find this behaviour sweet or irritating is my mood, accompanied with whether we have to be anywhere soon after the meal. I might also be less into this ritual of theirs when we have guests who appear unamused. There is a gulf in perceptions about table manners, and expectations regarding timely consumption of food, which may be wider or narrower, and more or less apparent, depending how disposed I am to their antics. Though the antics themselves are variations on a predictable theme. There is no ‘correct’ response, only a reaction based on current interpretation.
The result is that sometimes I am happy to let the spoon game play out, and other times, I discourage or even ban it. Sometimes I barely notice it. There has been no overt rule making, as there has with things like throwing in the house. However, there are times when it infringes on a ‘don’t knock stuff over if you can help it’ rule, or a ‘try not to be late’ rule which are part of my personal ideas. My rules, however, are my understandings, which the children do not appear to share.
I might respond to the apparent difference in our understandings by trying to introduce my rules to them. I might let the whole thing go because it does not seem a big deal. At the end of the day, I know my rules do not have to be my children’s rules. However, there is a place for teaching moments, and parents often do set rules about time, safety, respect, and avoiding accidents. After all, it is part of the mechanics of family life to do stuff like planning ahead and taking care of ourselves, our loved ones, and our living space. Parents have more experience in this area.
So, if i want to bring our understandings of reality into alignment, the kids would need to see the basic necessity of my rules. So, it falls to explaining, teaching, nagging, modelling, or all the above to try and make that happen, or having faith that all will become apparent to them on its own as their experience grows!
I can look back and see this behaviour swimming in the ebb and flow of our small culture, being created and recreated differently at different times.
How Culture Evolves
Unlike large culture, the small culture evolves on a continuous basis and changes according to who is participating in a group at a particular time, and their perspective in a given moment.
So, when one parent is caring for the children, the culture is not the same as when both parents are present, or when a sibling is born, the culture is not the same as before the youngest came along. The small culture will also be affected by moods and rhythms within the group. In fact, the culture a group of people construct can be completely different between two in the afternoon and eight at night the same day, because it is always in motion. Just think how different your relationships can look depending on whether you are in a benevolent frame of mind or feeling put upon and knackered, and how this influences the way you interact with others.
This means that there is always new culture being made, and if there is anything that we do not like about the way things are working, it is reassuring to think that it can be changed. Change not only occurs through acting in new ways to produce new results, but also thinking in new ways, so that things look and feel different. Equally, that is why sometimes our mutual understandings seem to be going swimmingly, but the next moment everything is turned on its head. That is all part of the fun.
Because we are so good at making culture, even if we don’t realise that is what we are doing, then we often try to create it, work it, and shape it, with the idea that we are going to get it ‘just so’ and that will be it. Job done. However, even when we experience everyone working together and doing everything as expected, it cannot possibly last. Something shifts, a mood changes, or a perception alters, and BAM! new culture appears, which may leave us feeling like we are at square one again and it is not fair.
However, the inevitable movement of culture is a wonderful gift. Not only are we assured a new start every time things go pear-shaped, we get to play, experiment, and imagine all kinds of new ways that we can work together. Small culture needs to change all the time because people do, relationships do, and it just doesn’t make sense to cling to a stiff turgid structure for interaction. This is especially true when you are making culture with babies and small children, who transform at an alarming rate.
Difference Is A Natural Part Of Small Culture
The world is full of opinions about how families should look, act, and feel. There are any number of views about what is appropriate in the raising of children, or of household decorum. There are ‘large culture’ assumptions about how say, British or Islamic families are, or how ‘Attachment Parenting’ families behave. In reality, there are as many expressions of British, Islamic, or AP family cultures as there are interactions in each family group. Large culture is an influence on family small culture, as Parenting Literature can be, but is only part of the picture.
The only constant is change, so diversity is inevitable in the way people choose to behave and assign meaning to what is happening in their relationships, under their roofs (whether we are talking houses, apartments, caves, tents, or the big blue beyond).
It does not make sense to try and make your family interaction an exact image of a book, or personal vision, or inherited structure. It is a waste of energy. So too, is telling other people they should conform to your expectations, or pouring judgement on those who do and see things differently.
It is possible to aim for an alignment of realities between family members, to the degree that you can work together. It is possible to negotiate about what is OK and not OK, and to create rules. It is also fine to be flexible, especially when your family members are in the early years and undergoing an intensive period of change. Small culture can be create and recreated as many times as you need to, to get it to work for harmony in family life, rather than against it.
In my opinion, understanding that culture is created and that we have culture-making ability could really help families to live together in happiness, and support one another.
In Part Two of Small Cultures With Small People, I will talk about how human development affects culture-making in the family. Then I will go on to discuss ways of negotiating how small cultures get created in Part Three.
Watch your culture-making! Notice this power you have!
What did you see? Do you find this a useful way to look at family behaviour?
I would love to hear some comments…
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