Childhood in a Sri Lankan Village: Shaping Hierarchy and Desire

Childhood in a Sri Lankan Village: Shaping Hierarchy and Desire

Childhood in a Sri Lankan Village: Shaping Hierarchy and Desire

Childhood in a Sri Lankan Village: Shaping Hierarchy and Desire


Like toddlers all over the world, Sri Lankan children go through a period that in the U.S. is referred to as the "terrible twos." Yet once they reach elementary school age, they appear uncannily passive, compliant, and undemanding compared to their Western counterparts. Clearly, these children have undergone some process of socialization, but what?

Over ten years ago, anthropologist Bambi Chapin traveled to a rural Sri Lankan village to begin answering this question, getting to know the toddlers in the village, then returning to track their development over the course of the following decade. Childhood in a Sri Lankan Village offers an intimate look at how these children, raised on the tenets of Buddhism, are trained to set aside selfish desires for the good of their families and the community. Chapin reveals how this cultural conditioning is carried out through small everyday practices, including eating and sleeping arrangements, yet she also explores how the village's attitudes and customs continue to evolve with each new generation.

Combining penetrating psychological insights with a rigorous observation of larger social structures, Chapin enables us to see the world through the eyes of Sri Lankan children searching for a place within their families and communities. Childhood in a Sri Lankan Village offers a fresh, global perspective on child development and the transmission of culture.


In the Sri Lankan village where I conducted ethnographic fieldwork, little children are given whatever they demand. Yet, somehow, they turn into undemanding, well-behaved ten-year-olds. This surprised me. Like many in the United States, I believed that giving in to children’s selfish and rudely articulated demands would reinforce that behavior, teaching children to expect that they will always get their way if they scream loudly enough. However, in the Sri Lankan village I call Viligama, this did not seem to be the case.

Other things surprised me, too. A two-year-old girl whose mother gave in to her temper tantrum demanding ice cream would, at other times, sit quietly on her mother’s lap while her mother popped little balls of rice and curry into the girl’s open mouth. As she fed the girl, the mother did not ask which bits of curry she wanted next or whether she was full. Instead, the mother confidently gave the child what the mother deemed suitable, as she did with the girl’s eightyear-old brother. This surprised me because of the contrast between the two styles in which the girl was given things—one in which she demanded her own way and the other in which she passively accepted whatever she was given. But it also surprised me because of the contrast between the way this mother fed her children and how I fed my own son. Like many mothers in the United States, I had encouraged my son to feed himself from his own plate sitting in his own chair, beginning almost as early as he could eat solid food. By the time he was four and we were living in Viligama, mealtimes were sometimes a struggle, as I tried to get him to try unfamiliar foods, not expecting that he would just happily eat whatever I gave him.

Further, the style of interaction in Viligama in which children accepted what their caretakers provided, without a discussion of preferences or choices, did not stop at age six or at ten or even at eighteen. When it came time for young . . .

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