A Comparison of Americans’ and Samoans’ Approach to Child-rearing

Anthropologist, Margaret Mead believed in the force of culture to shape human personality and to affect the nature of value orientations and social institutions. Mead and Patricia Hersch conducted their anthropological studies, using a cultural relativism methodology, whereby the behavior associated with individuals and other aspects of the life cycle were evaluated only in terms of the cultural context in which they occurred (Holmes 17). The evidence that will be provided to substantiate this paper’s thesis include a discussion of the social conditions of both societies and the parents’ approach to child-rearing. In comparing the two societies, the Lockean doctrine, adopted by Mead is acknowledged. In essence, it is that explanations of the disturbances of adolescence can not be made in other ways than in terms of the social environment, which shapes the individual within its bounds. This doctrine is the principal assumption of cultural and social anthropology and is encompassed in behavioral science (Harris 26). The behavior of the parents and, other relatives, in each of the societies will be presented to demonstrate the impact they have on their children

Comparison of Samoans and Americans

Patricia Hersch immersed herself in the lives of eight teenagers in her hometown of Reston, Virginia, trying to understand what teenagers were feeling and thinking in today’s society. She presented her results in A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence. What their frankness about sex, drug use, depression, and the secret lives that their parents do not know about them depict them as a modern-day lost generation. American children are seeking their way in a constantly-changing world with no guideposts to aid them except each other. The guideposts they want, are adult interaction and attention. This is the main thing that they want and cannot seem to get (22-27).

Mead studied the adolescents in the Ta’u village of Samoa and published her results in Coming of Age in Samoa. Holmes (1987) was the first to return to Samoa and study the culture as a follow-up to Mead’s study, and despite some economic changes, the structure and unity of the Samoan family have remained unchanged. The static culture in Samoa is less like America’s dynamic, fast-changing society. The Samoans do not view life in terms of challenge and triumph. In Samoa, there is little reason to have a strong individual identity or to struggle with one’s parents. People identify with groups of people interconnected by multiple links. The reason that adolescence is relatively trouble-free is that, unlike American adolescence, they do not need to prepare for a complex society. According to Mead, in complex societies, parents are much more demanding of children, less patient and willing to keep them dependent (Mead, 1978, 56)

American children have been growing up without a substantial adult presence in their lives for years and are forming tribes as a way to bond with others. Hersch contends that their world is not primarily their own creation. Rather, it results from the decision of adults to leave youth to form what amounts to a tribe, complete with its own laws, mores and means. The tribes of American youth are groups of teens who express themselves through music, dress, tattoos and piercing, obsessive hobbies, consumption patterns, extracurricular activities, drug habits and sex practices (29). Teens have a desire to belong to a group and if they do not have strong bonds with relatives, they seek others. They have a feeling of estrangement and this motivates them to find comfort with a group (Hine 279). In the Samoan family, the child is bonded to all of the relatives. There is no need to search for a group to belong to in this society. Social organization in Samoa is a principal occupation. In the family as well as other areas of society, individualism has little significance. An individual is regarded as a necessary, but minor part of the family. The Samoan society is democratic and the principles of social structure are based on hereditary rank, the functions and privileges of relationship groups and the recognition of the rights of the village. Mead stated that this continuous use of cooperation units and continuous recombinations of these units is as important feature of Samoan economic and social life. (Mead, 1937: 289-291)

The Samoan individual is identified with three familiar groups, the immediate family, the household and the extended family. There is not clan or tribal organization. Within each large extended family there are subgoupings known as houses of children, which have been established by the offspring of the original titleholders. One’s influence is normally greatest in the family where one resides. In any family one’s influence is enhanced by skillful oratory, effective organization of family crises and generous giving to enhance the family’s interests (Holmes 37-38).

More than ten contemporary American teenagers have grown up without a parent at home during the day (Hine 276). There is the increasing prominence of single-parent households. There is the related fact of working mothers. More pressure on the parents results in stress and lack of time to spend with their children. There is a growing indifference of parents to their children’s curricular and extracurricular lives, only half of American parents get involved in their kids’ school activities. Beginning in the 1970s with the restructuring of the nuclear family, there has been an increase in antisocial behavior, risk-taking, and sexual activity by teenagers (Hine, 280). Their ties to their parents are looser, causing concern that they may be influenced by their peers. Every Samoan child has several parents who educate and discipline. The weaning of a child begins a longer and more gradual process of lessening dependence on the mother. An older sibling assists in taking care of the child. An uncle or older brothers spend time with the males (Mead 1928, 280). Because Samoan children form personal attachments with a number of surrogate parents, their personal attachments do not become intense at the loss of one of them as is experienced in America. Mead characterized the Samoans as possessing, “all the strength of the tough willows, which bend and swing to every passing breeze, but do not break” (1928: 495).

The structure of the Samoan household is such that there are a number of adults who may both discipline and reward the children. This results in a diffusion of authority and affects, making individual parent-child relationships less intense and stressful. Where a child identifies with a number of parents, personal attachments do not become so strong that psychological disturbances accompany the death or divorce of a given parent. In matters of discipline, it is difficult for a child to direct resentment against any single individual. The child is more flexible in his adjustment to new situations (Holmes 31). In contrast, to American families, there is a complete absence of complications arising from sibling order and only-child situations. In America, parents have turned to the government to enact and force curfew and to place other restrictions on the young (Hine 278).

For most American families, long work hours and parental absence from the home are not an option but a necessity. The pressure is on the parents to become immersed in work to support the material demands of the family not emotional bonding of their children. Because American parents spend less time with their children, they are not aware of everything that goes on with their lives, and they do not have control over their children. Adults’ fear of children as a group has increased. The result of this situation is that there are now laws that limit children’s freedom to move, gather and express themselves and laws that require states to prosecute them as adults for serious crimes. American children today nowadays are in trouble because adults have largely withdrawn from their lives. The risk-taking behavior of their offspring may at times horrify these parents, but then they remember their own youth in the ’60s, they are reluctant to interfere with their children’s freedom and space (Hine 281).

In the absence of adults, children construct for themselves a distorted simulation of adulthood from TV, the movies or their peers. They become a mixture of child and adult. However, in Samoa, adulthood is a tradition, patterns of behavior and attitude learned by observing real adults, who learned the same thing from other, still older adults.
In Samoa, children are taught to accept responsibility for the lives of others. There is a balance in the families between the influence of the male and female sides. This concept defines a pattern of respect which men must pay to all female relatives. When brothers and sisters have reached the age of fifteen, they must use discretion in their behavior toward each other. They may not touch each other inappropriately or say derogatory things to them. Children are more readily exposed to the facts of life in regard to sex, death, childbirth, and family leadership responsibilities, roles and obligations. This is obtained in the home from family members, immediate and extended. In the American families, the child often gets introduced to these topics through peers or the media. There is no dichotomy between a child’s world and an adult world. Coming of age involves assuming family chores and responsibility whenever the child is physically and mentally able. Full responsibility for caring for siblings often begins as early as five or six years of age. Many Samoan adolescents are functioning as adults in agricultural, work and household tasks. Life is simpler, and there are fewer decision-making dilemmas in Samoa than in the U.S. There are fewer conflicting moral and ethical codes. Samoan adolescents know that they will be successful if they work hard for their families and their village (Holmes 40-43).

A Samoan child is not harshly punished. Most punishment is directed toward smaller children with the idea that it will make them learn proper behavior. By adolescence, Samoans have learned to regulate their own conduct, and there is little testing of the limits of accepted behavior. If limits are violated, punishment is expected and not resented. In the American family, punishment is usually a form of behavior modification. The children are often reprimanded after the act of transgression in the hopes that they will not repeat the behavior, rather then teaching instilling in them the principles and morals when they are young (Mead 1928, 89; Holmes 109-110).
The conditions of modern life in huge urban centers are so complex that both the child and his parents find difficulty in adjusting to them. Adults and children life under conditions of competition and nervous tension. According to Shore, “There is among Samoans a stress on the maintenance of interpersonal harmony, at least in its external manifestations (Shore 117).


The main point that can be concluded from this discussion, is that parents need to bond with their children and spend time with them. The difference between good parents and bad parents is the time invested in guaranteeing that children are given priority in their lives and that they are provided with the emotional support and attention that they need. One of the most extensive surveys ever done on drug use, sexuality, violence, and suicide concludes that young people who feel connected to their parents and schools are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior (Russell 7). Hersch contends that if adults want to do more than look on in horror, they have to do more than “dialogue” with the tribe. Adults need to be willing to accept responsibility, assume authority, set limits, and say “No” to their children (89-93).

Works Cited
Harris, Marvin. “Margaret and the Giant-Killer.” The Sciences 23 (1983): 24-27.
Hersch, Patricia. A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
Hine, Thomas. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. New York: Avon Books, 1999.
Holmes, Lowell. Quest for the Real Samoa. Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey Publishers Inc., 1987.
Mead, Margaret. Culture and Commitment. New York: Anchor Books, 1978.
– -. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: William Morrow, 1928.
Russell, Gail. “The Challenge for Schools, Connect Adults with Kids.” Christian Science Monitor 90 (August 1998): 7.

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