How Do Children Learn to Count?

According to mainstream linguistics and experimental psychology humans are born with an innate understanding of numbers. Show a nine month old baby two or three objects and it will know there is a difference between the two sets of things.

However, it is also widely understood that some cultures are better with numbers than others. The Chinese for example are often cited as having extremely high levels of maths attainment and their children are some of the best in the world when it comes to maths. The Piraha in the Brazilian Amazon however, go against most accepted knowledge about human culture and lack even the words for one and two. Instead they have hói meaning ‘a small size or amount’ which can mean anything from 1 -3, hoí ‘a somewhat larger amount’ which can be anything from 2 – 7 and than the term baagoi which is for larger also unspecified quantities. Although children can be taught to count to ten in Portuguese their parents have completely lost the capacity to learn to count to ten by the time they reach adulthood in large part because their language just doesn’t allow for that comprehension.

Whilst we’re all born with the same capacity to learn and use numbers, it is clear that our culture and our language shapes how well we do this as we grow up. So, if we want out children to be great at maths can we learn from the Chinese? In Chinese the words for eleven and twelve are ten-one and ten-two (and so on), as a consequence it has been claimed by many researchers that this linguistic advantage explains their prodigious numeracy. However, it’s not just their language. The Chinese love numbers and numerology plays a significant role in religious beliefs and rituals. Parents also greatly value their children’s maths achievements. So, if we want our children to be great at maths perhaps the one thing we can do is to learn to love maths ourselves.


These are the main articles I used for this post. The New Yorker article is a fun read as is Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, which is a great non academic anthropology book about the truly fascinating Piraha.

Linguistic and Cultural Variables in the Psychology of Numeracy

When to stop breastfeeding


When it’s time time to wean* your child from breastfeeding the advice currently is to take it at the child’s pace and not to force it. However, if the Bofi in central Africa are anything to go by that might not be until they’ve reached the age of three or four which is pushing it, as far as most Western mothers are concerned. I’ve been wondering how best to go about it with my very keen to feed toddler and found the accounts of differing methods amongst the Bofi very interesting.

Whilst both communities call themselves Bofi and share the same language, one community are farmers and the other foragers and live in distinct ways.

Bofi foragers let their child decide when they want to stop breastfeeding and make no conscious effort to hurry the process along although they do progressively spend less time with their children as they work more, allowing other members of the family to hold and care for them. Letting their children decide when to stop is in line with how they see themselves and their offspring. They value independence and Bofi adults respect their children, seeing them as capable of making their own decisions. Children aren’t warned off playing with sharp objects and they are given the choice of whether they would like to help their mothers or to play instead. When a mother was asked when she planned to stop breastfeeding she laughed and replied ‘Only he knows. Ask him. I cannot know how he thinks/feels.’

Bofi farmers on the other hand encourage obedience in their children and use fear and corporal punishment as methods to achieve this. Which sounds harsh but is actually very similar to Western parenting. e.g. ‘don’t go in the forest because it’s dangerous, the spirits might get you. Don’t touch that knife, you’ll cut yourself.’ etc When it comes to stopping breastfeeding the age of two is considered optimum. Mothers start by feeding less and working more until finally they choose a day and then either paint their nipples red with nail varnish or bandage up their breasts telling their toddlers that they have injured their nipples and can no longer feed them.

As a result Bofi farmer children cry and fuss a lot more than their foraging counterparts during weaning which is probably also made worse by the fact that they are held a lot less than forager children and that once they are weaned they aren’t really held by anyone at all, spending their days with siblings whilst their mothers work.

What are the consequences of the two different methods? Well, they both get weaned eventually and there is no evidence that the attachment is any weaker in farmer children nor that they suffer emotionally later on. Western mothers, like Bofi farming mothers, often have to or want to return to work earlier so weaning will be more upsetting for their children but you can ease the process by making sure they get plenty of cuddles from you or others. I on the other hand feel reassured that I’m not some weirdo for still feeding my toddler so perhaps I’ll wait a little longer.

*By weaning I mean stopping breastfeeding altogether not introducing solid food.

If you want to read more here’s the academic article by by Hillary N. Fouts, Barry S. Hewlett, and Michael E. Lamb where I got most of my info.

Birthing Partners


Husbands or partners getting involved during labour and at the moment of birth is a relatively new phenomenon in the West (although there are exceptions, aristocratic men in Britain for example, notably Prince Albert, attended their children’s births). Traditionally midwives or later on doctors would attend births with fathers pretty much entirely excluded from the process until the 1960’s. However, it seems like it’s not just modern Western men that get involved. Huoarani fathers to be are also their wive’s midwives (midhusbands?!)

Expectant fathers are the main or only support during their wife’s labour, massaging their backs and applying pain relieving leaves to their stomachs, back and temples. They may even reach inside if for instance the umbilical chord has wrapped around the baby’s neck and once the baby is born they will also cut the umbilical chord. After the birth they will restrict their diets in the same way their wives do and stay close by.

This mirrors their attitude to their community as a whole. If a member of the long house (even if they don’t actually live in long houses anymore) gets ill then the whole community may follow a particular diet until the patient is better. Long houses but couples especially may consider themselves ‘one flesh’ in this regard.

So if your partner complains about attending ante-natal classes, or is out drinking as much as they can ‘while I still can’ point out that some people view pregnancy and birth as a team and how about giving you a massage instead.

With thanks to Laura Rival for this article.


Attachment and talking to your infant

The NHS along with most other medical and psychological research advises mothers to look at and talk to their babies right from birth. Failure to do so can result in delayed and restricted speech and potentially even psychological damage. Really? What if you’re not a very chatty sort of person? Or you’re really tired today and just want to flop next to them on the floor and let them rummage about without asking them what sound a cow makes?

gusii baby
(A mother carries her baby in Kenya.RADU SIGHETI / REUTERS)

The Gusii inhabit the highlands east of Lake Victoria in Kenya. Bob LeVine studied a group of Gusii mothers in comparison with a group of mothers in Boston, Massachusetts and found some fascinating differences in the way they respond to their babies. Gusii mums don’t look at or talk to their babies very much at all. If their babies cry or babble they respond in much the same way for either sound by touching and holding their infants. So whilst they may not talk to them much their babies do get lots of cuddles. The aim is to soothe and protect rather than stimulate and educate.

Boston mums like the rest of us, talk and look at their babies much more. Partly this is because we put babies in prams and highchairs so talking makes sense if you’re not holding your baby. But also we value talking and looking people in the eye, so that’s what we do with our babies too. The Gusii however don’t really like eye to eye contact when they talk to each other so partly they’re just teaching their children to fit in. Talking to babies who can’t talk back is seen as a waste of time. Do their babies still learn to talk? Of course they do, and significantly there’s no evidence they are less attached to their mothers either.

Don’t feel like playing with your baby much today? Don’t worry just carry them around a bit instead. Some days you might just not feel like holding a non-stop one way conversation or pointing out the colours, or shapes or other mind numbing details. Skip it today. The baby will be fine and you’ll feel like chatting another day. Babies need responsiveness but not necessarily to be looked at, talked to and taught all the time but to feel secure when they’re in distress, the rest seems up for debate.

To read the paper in full click here: