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Childhood in a Sri Lankan Village

Shaping Hierarchy and Desire

Bambi L. Chapin

Publication Year: 2014

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.    

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Series in Childhood Studies

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This book illustrates the ways that children are shaped by those around them, those who care for them, and those they feel strongly about. Likewise, this project and my own development have been shaped by many others—more than I could possibly list in this short space. The central role in this project was played by the people in Sri Lanka who...

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Note on Translation and Transliteration

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pp. xiii-xvi

I have written this book with general readers in mind, rather than for specialists in Sinhala or others interested in close linguistic analysis. Accordingly, I have avoided diacritics and special characters, selecting spellings for Sinhala words that I felt best reflected local pronunciation, the Sinhala characters in...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-20

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...

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2. Sri Lanka: Setting the Ethnographic Context

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pp. 21-41

People often ask me why I chose to do this study in Sri Lanka. I find it a difficult question to answer. In some ways, I could have conducted this study anywhere, but I had to conduct it somewhere. In order to study the ways that children are shaped through their experiences with others, I needed to find some particular...

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3. Socializing Desire: Demanding Toddlers and Self-Restrained Children

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pp. 42-68

From early on in my fieldwork, I was impressed by the quiet, restrained, and self-denying manner of the Sri Lankan children I came to know.1 Bashfully pulling behind their mothers who came to my house for a visit, these school-age children would mouth a silent but smiling “baa” indicating that they “couldn’t”...

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4. Shaping Attachments: Learning Hierarchy at Home

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pp. 69-111

Children, like adults, participate in different kinds of relationships. Even between children and their parents, there are different types of interactions within these relationships.1 In the last chapter, I focused on one type of interaction in which children receive. In that type of interactions, children boldly...

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5. Making Sense of Envy: Desires and Relationships in Conflict

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pp. 112-143

The interlocking lessons about desire and hierarchy that children learn in their early relationships are built on and used as young people participate in all sorts of relationships. The model of hierarchy learned in childhood shapes relationships with peers as well as with juniors and seniors. The deeply learned...

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6. Engaging with Hierarchy outside the Home: Education and Efforts at Change

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pp. 144-167

Children bring the lessons they are learning at home into each new context they enter. The experiences that have in these new contexts—their interactions, the sense that they make of them, the strategies they undertake, the feelings that they have—add to the internal working models they are assembling...

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7. Culturing People

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pp. 168-180

I began this book with two contrasting ways that children and caretakers interacted in Viligama. In one, a little girl screamed for what she wanted and those around her gave in to her demands, no matter how unreasonable. In the other, she sat on her mother’s lap, quietly and contentedly accepting the bits of food...


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pp. 181-192


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pp. 193-204


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pp. 205-212

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813561677
E-ISBN-10: 0813561671
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813561660
Print-ISBN-10: 0813561663

Page Count: 230
Illustrations: 3 tables
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Series in Childhood Studies
Series Editor Byline: Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner, Ph.D., Founder of Rutgers University Center for Children and Childhood Studies See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 889644759
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Childhood in a Sri Lankan Village

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sri Lanka -- Social life and customs.
  • Parenting -- Sri Lanka.
  • Child psychology -- Sri Lanka.
  • Child development -- Sri Lanka.
  • Children -- Family relationships -- Sri Lanka.
  • Children -- Sri Lanka -- Social conditions.
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