Human development occurs over what are described as stages of physical and social growth. Developmental stages are marked by age, and assume a cumulative progression of physical and cognitive abilities, as well as social achievements. However, psychologists and social scientists point out that developmental stages often do not account for the role of culture in human growth. At each stage of human development, culture affects learning, identity, social behaviour, and standards for personal achievement.
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From the moment of birth, children are absorbed into culture. The ways that they are handled, fed and clothed are all influenced by their birth culture and their caregivers' approach to child rearing. Different cultures have different beliefs with regard to infants' sleeping arrangements and whether or not they should be left to cry or play alone. These different approaches to early childhood care can affect cognitive and emotional development, as well as contribute to the growth of the child's self-confidence, risk taking behaviours and feelings of security.
Middle childhood, generally defined as the period from ages 6 to 11, is a time when children are actively socialised into their culture through family, school and play. During this time, children begin to learn the values most upheld by their culture and are exposed to social differences, such as categories of age, ethnicity, and importantly, gender. Young children start to identify themselves in terms of being a boy or girl, and this self-concept affects their dress, their manner of play and also the way that adults will interact with them . Additionally, during middle childhood, different cultures place different emphasis on learning and skill set development. Psychologist Barbara Rogoff discusses in her 2003 book, "The Cultural Nature of Human Development," how middle class American families tend to age segregate their family members and do not consider childhood as a period for learning adult skills. In Mayan families, by contrast, young children spend more time with adult community members and from a young age begin participating in adult.
Adolescence is a period when sexual maturation takes place and young people undergo significant physiological and social changes. In some cultures, such as mainstream American society and Western Europe, adolescence is regarded as a time of preparation for adulthood, where development is assessed according to building skills in logic and problem solving, and demonstrating greater levels of responsibility. However, in many other cultures, adolescence is not viewed as separate from adulthood, but rather as the time for beginning formal labour activities and commencing childbearing.
Stages of development suggest that during each part of the lifespan, people achieve physical and social milestones. Culture plays a large role in determining development in adulthood, by helping structure ideas about personal meaning and achievement, as well as expected social roles. In a culture that values material success, development in adulthood is measured according to one's ability to participate in the market economy. Additionally, while many cultures emphasise the role of women as mothers and caretakers, others lay stress on women's educational advancement and economic self-sufficiency.
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