When John Whiting came to publish his dissertation research on childrearing practices in a New Guinea tribe (Whiting 1941), he titled the work “Becoming a Kwoma.” The title was deliberately chosen to express the idea that children are not born with an understanding of their cultural identity, but that they must learn to think and act like members of a particular social group. This theme has received renewed attention under the rubric of “the acquisition of culture” (Schwartz 1981, Harkness 1990), drawing metaphorically from the field of child language to suggest the kinds of mental processes that may be involved in the child's learning of the culture. In both recent models of culture acquisition and earlier formulations of “childhood socialization,” the role of parents is taken as central.
Strangely, however, anthropologists have rarely examined the processes by which parents learn to be parents in a manner consistent with the beliefs and practices of their own culture. In traditional societies where the ethnographer could at least imagine a time before contact with western culture, the task of learning to be a parent as part of learning the culture may have seemed fairly straightforward. Ethnographic accounts of traditional societies in East Africa, for example, detail how children are trained to be child nurses at an early age, how they learn the lore of married life through the circumcision ceremonies, and how they begin married life and parenthood under the close supervision of their elders.