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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2016

An International Perspective on Child Psychology
Uwe P. Gielen, PhD, St. Francis College (NY)
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Nawang Tsering (pseudonym) is a 14-year-old boy residing part of the year in the high-altitude Changtang area of Ladakh, located in northwestern India. A member of the Changpa, a nomadic Tibetan people, he originally grew up as a refugee in his family’s tent, surrounded by yaks, sheep, and goats, but now he attends a boarding school in the SOS Tibetan Children Village near the town of Leh. As holds true in one way or the other for so many other children in India and other “developing” countries, his world is simultaneously shaped by age-old traditions and the forces of globalization. For Nawang, these include Tibetan traditions and the Buddhist beliefs and practices of his semiliterate parents, his status as a refugee in India’s steadily changing multicultural and multilingual society, and the influences emanating from his internationally financed school. However, it is unlikely that lives such as his will find their way into one of the many available mainstream textbooks on developmental psychology being published in the United States. Although American children make up no more than 3.4% of the world’s more than 2.2 billion children below the age of 18 years, most of these textbooks still rely far too much on research conducted on children residing in North America.
I began teaching developmental psychology in the early 1980s. Having just spent eight months in Ladakh and other regions of India between 1977 and 1981, I was struck by the many discrepancies between the lives of the village and small town children I had encountered in India and the lives of the children that were being depicted—both explicitly and implicitly—in the American developmental psychology textbooks of the day. Most Indian children lived then (and still do) in one of the country’s more than 600,000 villages, attended school for a limited number of years if at all, assumed important responsibilities at an early age such as taking care of siblings, and had limited or no say in whom they would marry in their teenage years. Child marriages remained especially common for girls, most of whom were not allowed to engage in activities considered provocative and shameful such as dating. In addition, many young boys and girls could be found on construction sites or in factories where they had to endure many hours of hard work. Even today, such conditions can still be encountered, especially in India’s poorer regions. At the same time, however, Indian society has also been changing steadily, with decreasing birth rates, fewer child marriages, expanded access to schooling, and increased exposure to the outside world. These trends, as well as the influence of legislative changes and various reform movements, are helping to redefine, step-by-step, the nature of Indian childhood.
Paralleling these changes between the 1970s and 2016, the nature of developmental psychology, as conceived both in the United States and abroad, has undergone significant changes as well. Because psychology has grown into a truly global enterprise, today’s students do enjoy increased access to research being conducted by psychologists and other social scientists on children living around the globe. Readily available overviews of such research include the global information and extensive demographic data provided by UNICEF (2015), Gardiner and Kosmitzki’s (2011) cross-cultural introduction to the human life cycle, internationally oriented volumes on children such as the one edited by Gielen and Roopnarine (2016), summaries of worldwide research on children conducted by anthropologists (Lancy, 2015), and broadly conceived surveys of adolescence (Arnett, 2012).
Furthermore, journals such as the International Journal of Behavioral Development, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, and Journal of Research on Adolescence publish many international studies. In addition, new disciplines such as cultural psychology and cross-cultural psychology have emerged during the last 40 to 50 years. They have proven to be of special interest to non-Western psychologists who may look at both traditional American and European psychology as rather ethnocentric enterprises.
Moreover, the nature and scope of migration to such countries as Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, and the United States have changed considerably in recent decades. In the United States, for instance, immigration prior to 1965 was largely limited to persons of European descent. After the passing of the revolutionary Hart-Celler Immigration Reform Act of 1965, however, immigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa began to increase sharply. Today, 75 to 80% of all newer U.S. immigrants are of non-European descent. As a consequence, developmental psychologists are increasingly studying bicultural immigrant children and adolescents who may come from a broad variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. At the same time, numerous adolescents living in the non-Western world are now being exposed to overseas influences via mass media, the Internet, school and college textbooks that were conceived abroad, and sports events with a worldwide impact such as the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Based on such experiences, they are undergoing a process sometimes designated as remote acculturation. Indeed, childhood in many countries is becoming increasingly “glocal” in nature, meaning that it is simultaneously global and local in nature. For students of developmental psychology, these intricate aspects of modern childhood provide many opportunities to develop novel and creative research projects.
Suggestions for Students
Are you thinking about going to graduate school in the foreseeable future? Are you interested in working with children as a psychologist, educator, or social worker? Should this hold true for you, becoming familiar with a variety of cultural and global influences on children and their families will broaden your mind as well as your ability to function successfully in an ever more multicultural and complex world. Here are a few practical steps that you might wish to consider in this context:

Choose a cross-cultural or cross-national topic for an independent study project, your departmental or honors thesis, or any other research project. If your project is substantial in nature, you should also consider submitting it as a proposed poster for presentation at a psychology conference, and/or in the context of a Psi Chi or Psi Beta Honor Association-sponsored event, or at an appropriate campus event. Many psychology conferences now include displays of student posters. Seeing your poster at a conference is a gratifying experience—and adding your poster presentation to your CV will surely strengthen its persuasive power! 

Attend psychology conferences that include presentations and posters on international topics. Such topics can not only be found at conferences of international organizations such as the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development but increasingly at the meetings of regional and national organizations such as the Association for Psychological Science and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Join an internationally oriented professional organization as a student member. Examples include the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development, APA’s Division 52: International Psychology, and the International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Pertinent information is readily available on the web.

Do volunteer work or choose an internship that includes working with children from a variety of cultural backgrounds including immigrant children, refugee children, and if culturally appropriate, Native American or First Nations Canadian children.

Study or work abroad: Immersion in a foreign culture represents an optimal way to experience the exciting, if occasionally irritating, challenges that exposure to a new sociocultural world typically brings. After graduation from college, some students choose to teach English as a second language for a limited time in countries such as China or Japan. For many of them, this will turn out to be a demanding, invaluable, and financially feasible way of experiencing a foreign culture in some depth while assuming maturitypromoting responsibilities.

Before you apply for graduate school, examine developmentally oriented journals to find cross-culturally oriented research studies on children that interest you. Then find out more information about the authors of such papers and attempt to contact them, especially those who teach in graduate programs that interest you. While doing so, keep in mind that professors typically receive endless e-mails, so not all of them are likely to answer. Later on, in graduate school, it will be of great importance that you work with a creative and supportive professor who, hopefully, will also become the mentor for your dissertation or master’s thesis.
For additional practical suggestions regarding internationally oriented experiences, please consult Takooshian and Stambaugh (2007).
Take-Home Message
This article started off with a description of Nawang’s difficult childhood, which is simultaneously being shaped by complex and evolving Tibetan, Ladakhi, Indian, and Western influences. Multicultural and at times troubled lives such as his are steadily becoming more common whether they be those led by Syrian refugee children in Germany, West African boys dreaming of becoming stars on an English Premier League football team, Thai girls enamored with the singing and unconventional behavior of South Korean pop stars, European American teenage boys falling in love with East Asian girls they met in one of their classes, Middle Eastern Muslim girls covered by colorful hijabs and attending the Catholic college where I teach—and so many others. Globalization brings with it many exciting, challenging, but at times anxiety-arousing changes in children’s lives. Any students who begin to immerse themselves in some of their dynamic multicultural worlds are on the right path toward preparing for life in an increasingly multiplex world.
Arnett, J. J. (Ed.). (2012). Adolescent psychology around the world. New York, NY: Psychology Press. (Jeffrey Arnett has done much to help internationalize developmental psychology and is especially well-known for his work on adolescence and emerging adulthood.)
Gardiner, H. W., & Kosmitzki, C. (2011). Lives across cultures: Cross-cultural human development (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. (This is a concise and easy-to-read overview of the human life cycle as seen in cross-cultural perspective.)
Gielen, U. P., & Roopnarine, J. L. (Eds.). (2016). Childhood and adolescence: Cross-cultural perspectives and applications (2nd ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. (In this broadly conceived volume, leading developmental psychologists provide integrative summaries of globally and cross-culturally oriented research on children.)
Lancy, D. F. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (David Lancy reviews numerous ethnological studies on children many of whom live in small scale societies.)
Takooshian, H., & Stambaugh, L. F. (2007). Becoming involved in global psychology. In M. J. Stevens & U. P. Gielen (Eds.), Toward a global psychology: Theory, research, intervention, and pedagogy (pp. 365–389). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. (This chapter provides practical advice for faculty and students. It is part of an innovative volume that outlines what a global psychology might look like.)
UNICEF. (2015). The state of the world’s children. New York, NY: United Nations Children’s Fund. (This yearly publication can be downloaded from the web. Each year it focuses on a different theme while also including up-to-date global statistics.)

Uwe P. Gielen (PhD in social psychology, Harvard University) is executive director of the Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Psychology at St. Francis College, New York City. His work centers on cross-cultural and international psychology, Chinese American immigrant youth, international family psychology, and moral development. Dr. Gielen is the senior editor or coeditor of 24 volumes that have appeared in five languages. Having served as president of the Society for Cross-Cultural Research, the International Council of Psychologists, and the International Psychology Division of the APA, he has given more than 340 scientific presentations in 34 countries.


Copyright 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 4) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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