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The Yoruba family: Kinship, socialization, and child development

Introduction to the yoruba model
The Yoruba family

Introduction to the yoruba model

As noted in the chapter on Indonesia (ch. 6), our development of a model for testing the influences of family-level variables on child welfare uses data first analysed in relation to the child, bypassing family dynamics. In this chapter we orientate the reader to Yoruba concepts of family, kinship, and socialization and introduce the data, which we reanalyse in chapter 8 to explore the pathways through which family dynamics influence nutritional status and cognitive development and to test a model that brings these pathways together.

The survey data

The purpose of the Positive Deviance in Nutrition Research study, for which the data were collected, was to identify a wide range of factors that contributed to good growth and cognitive development under conditions of poverty in the greater Lagos area of Nigeria. Details of the methodology are reported elsewhere (Aina et al. 1992). The sample consisted of 211 two-yearolds, ranging in age from 22 to 26 months.

Three low-income locations were identified - the Makoko section of central Lagos, and a semi-rural area and a rural area, both in Ifo Ota. A sample of 181 children was recruited by taking the first eligible Yoruba children with birth certificates, discovered within walking radius of daily starting points that were systematically distributed in each location and selected on the basis of low-income housing. Eligible children were with their mothers, were 22-26 months in age, and had birth certificates. An additional purposive sample of 30 households was selected through screening for the presence of a malnourished child (mid-arm circumference less than 13.5 cm), to understand better the problems associated with malnutrition. This group was included in comparative analysis, not in descriptive statistics.

Survey instruments (see Appendix to chapter 8) were administered by a team of two university graduates in psychology during home visits of approximately three hours' duration. The instruments included the following:

1. Food frequencies, diet histories for infancy and weaning, questions about the family meal schedule, and maternal attitudes related to food beliefs and practices;

2. The Bayley scales of infant development (Bayley 1969), supplemented with interviewer-rated scales of behaviour and affect of the mother and child.

3. A sociodemographic questionnaire and a modified Caldwell HOME inventory (Caldwell and Bradley 1984);

4. Anthropometric measurements, including weights, heights, and mid-upper arm circumference of the children, and weights and heights of the mothers.

We used logistic regression to contrast children in the top one-third for both growth and cognitive development with those in the bottom one-third (n = 69 in each group); these groups are referred to below as the "high" and "low" developmental groups. Most of the high group were children whose Bayley mental development index (MDI) score was above the median of 91, whose height-for-age Z-score (HAZ) was above -2.25, and whose weight-forheight Z-score (WHZ) was above -1.25. All three scores were below these levels in the low group. A few children who had MDI scores above 100 but who had marginal nutritional indicators were placed in the high group. The children's HAZ scores were correlated to MDI at r= .3. (These Z-scores indicate how far below the norm these children fall, as measured against a well-nourished reference population measured in standard deviations based on the reference values.) The majority of mothers (76 per cent) were engaged in petty trade, while the fathers were mainly skilled labourers (39 per cent) or in farming or fishing (18 per cent).

The effects of social change on family dynamics

The rapid pace of change in Nigeria and the underlying assumptions of our research led us to deal explicitly with the effects of social change on family dynamics. Many of the variables that emerged as child-level correlates of good growth and high Bayley MDI scores of the two-yearolds in our sample appeared to reflect changes in traditional lifestyles and social values rather than differences in the family's psychosocial functioning or in economic resources. Our selection of families in lowincome housing within low-income neighbourhoods eliminated major socio-economic distinctions.

In North America, in the context of therapeutic or remedial programmes, the mother's verbal responsiveness to her child tends to be interpreted as a measure of maternal competence and possibly mental health, following what has been termed a "deficit" model - i.e. the mother whose verbal responsiveness is low displays a deficit in competence. In Nigeria, in the context of the government's Early Child Care and Development Programs, we chose to view differences in verbal responsiveness as differences between traditional and modern strategies of child-rearing. This interpretation avoids casting negative value judgments on persons and makes it possible to appeal to the desire to be modern in order to motivate change. We made this choice knowing that any single interpretation oversimplifies a complex web of causality in which differences in social background (class or rural/urban location), individual temperament, mental health, and maternal competence probably all contribute to differences in variables such as the verbal responsiveness of the mother to her child. As an aside, the perception that it is necessary to contextualize and interpret variables in a linguistic structure that empowers the users of the information is in itself post-modern, as discussed in chapter 2, pages 32-34. The need for modernizing influences to be reinterpreted through "redescription" from within each culture is a recurrent theme of this volume.

Recent history has transformed the requirements for profitable employment in Nigeria. Above the subsistence level, earnings now are tied to competitive educational achievement. Lloyd (1974) calculated that the Nigerian university graduate earned on average three times the annual salary of the secondary school graduate, while Aronson (1980, 71; citing Teriba and Philips 1971, 99) stated that a secondary school graduate earned two to three times what a primary school leaver could expect. Although professionals have been marginalized by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with inflation, these differences in earning power remain. Unemployment is high and competition for advancement steep. New livelihoods tend to depend on technical skill and individual competition, whereas the old relied on social skill and group collaboration. Our focus groups with low-income parents in Lagos found them acutely aware of the high returns of education, to the extent that most had entered their children into preschool lessons by the age of three at a going rate as low as US$0.02 per hour.

We estimate that the disparities in standards of living between rural farmers and the urban employed continue to grow larger with increasing pressures on the land. The Federal Republic of Nigeria and UNICEF (1990) estimated that more than one-half of Nigerian land holdings now are of one hectare or less, creating a situation in which the majority of farmers are constrained by small farm size to grow cassava to feed their families.

As noted in chapter 2 on theories of social change and the family, we assume that parenting codes are evolving compromise formulas for the accomplishment of multiple goals (LeVine 1974; LeVine, Miller, and West 1988). In the design of our research on Yoruba mothers and children, we assumed that rapid social change would lead to a lag in adapting parenting codes to new livelihoods and new values, and that rapidly adapting parents would have better child outcomes than those who still applied codes based on traditional modes of employment. We hypothesized that changing codes would have culture-specific influences on certain cultural food habits that appeared to be uniquely West African, while at the same time showing similarities to other changes in parent-child relations that have been documented universally in response to modernizing influences.

From a nutritional perspective, we found that almost all parents still followed, to a greater or lesser degree, a previously rational formula of rather severely restricting the amount of high-quality foods of animal origin given to very young children, in order to develop the child's moral character. Through the visible sequence of serving these foods and the sizes of the pieces given to different persons, this restriction taught children the order of rank and privilege within the family and lineage, preparing them to become selfdisciplined members of a hierarchically governed society. Our data confirmed that parents who believed in and practiced lesser degrees of food restriction had both better-growing and higher-scoring children.

As noted in chapter 2, we sought and found evidence of relatively universal changes in parent-child interactions, in response to modernization, that had been summarized by Werner (1979). Moreover, in the Yoruba data set, we found that such changes, listed below, were linked to superior child outcomes:

1. A change in discipline away from physical punishment and harsh scolding or threats that lead to immediate unquestioned obedience. In our sample, the mothers of children in the top developmental group displayed significantly less hostility (slaps, shouting, and threats) towards misbehaviour than those of children in the low group.

2. Acceptance of the child's dependency up to an older age. Our high-group two-year-olds were more likely to stay in sight of their mothers in safe play environments. While learning self-help skills, they were not yet expected to sweep, or wash clothes or dishes.

3. More affection and intimacy and a more personal relationship with the father. Mothers of high-group children were more often seen caressing and kissing their two-year-olds. These children more often ate with their mothers and their parents together and spent more time with their fathers and other male relatives than did children in the low group.

4. A more verbally responsive and a more school-like way of speaking and using explanations to teach the child. High-group mothers spoke to their two-year-olds slowly, in simple language, rather than rapid adult speech. Parents of high scorers in the ethnographic study explained many things to their children.

The debate in the sociological literature regarding the impact of modernization of industrial production and employment on the extended family system and, conversely, the effects of the extended family system on industrialization and socio-economic development, has been applied to Nigeria (Goode 1963; Gugler and Flanagan 1978). Whether or not industrial production reaches high levels, individualized urban employment has led gradually to the formation of small, self-contained families and to a reduction in the areas of life covered by extended family support. Lloyd (1972) documented ways in which traditional Yoruba lineage structures, inheritance laws, occupations, and social values worked against both the accumulation of capital and the establishment of family businesses. These ways were consistent with the conclusion by Dizard and Gadlin (1990, 27) that traditional precapitalist family networks in Europe and the United States were well suited to the dispersal but not to the concentration of surplus.

Several writers of the 1970s (Fadipe 1970; Lloyd 1974; Gugler and Flanagan 1978) demonstrated, however, that certain new and old social roles tended to be complementary rather than conflicting. Extended family support facilitated rather than hindered individual educational attainment, and repayment of these benefits to the extended family was important to the development of rural areas. Fadipe (1970, 315-316) concluded that- kinship solidarity remained strong but expressed itself not in physical presence so much as in financial assistance, advice, and guidance, through which educated members of the family tended to assume an importance greater than that of the official lineage head.

These observations are once again concordant with the view of Western development, noted by Dizard and Gadlin (1990, 29), that "the traditional family, even as it was slowly being transformed, subsidized a considerable portion of the bill for industrialization." More recently, Guyer (1990) has suggested that a fundamental reorientation is occurring away from crossgenerational and towards within-generational flows of resources, resulting in a change in the structure of kinship networks.

Focus group and ethnographic research

The above discussion sidesteps the specific skills, attitudes, and world views taught by old versus new parenting codes and the mechanisms through which specific new and old ways are adapted to their respective socio-economic climates. The high psychological costs of social change make it reprehensible to promote change without clearly understanding the ways in which change would be beneficial, even when the changes are statistically linked to positive outcomes. Therefore, we conducted an ethnographic substudy of the families of six of the highest and four of the lowest scorers on the Bayley MDI. We also used focus groups to explore the nature of old versus new parenting styles and family structures and to determine how well these styles adapted to the prevailing transitional economy and to the need to prepare children to compete on the world market.

These focus groups on child development and nutrition themes took place in the form of a periodic ongoing dialogue with members of urban communities neighbouring our sample area and among faculty members of the University of Lagos. These groups also explored ways in which socio-economic development could be accelerated by changes at the micro level of child care and by social programmes that promote child development. We looked for skills and attitudes that enable children to master technologies that are valued on the world market, and for family-level variables that are determinants of child development, and hence of socioeconomic development. Findings from this dialogue and from the ethnography enter into our discussion of changes in Yoruba family life.

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