Our curiosity about ourselves and our fellow humans is insatiable. We're fascinated by how others live, why we do the things we do. And as the recent firestorm created by Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" indicates, we're emotionally invested in understanding and comparing cultural influences in parenting.
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How We're Different
While we often oversimplify, attributing differences to "culture" when they're heavily influenced by economics, location and individual personality, cultural variations in parenting do exist. Many European parents feel more comfortable leaving their children alone, for example. Unlike Americans, who often live thousands of miles away from family, many children worldwide live with extended family who participate in child care and household decisions. While Americans and western Europeans believe in the primacy of the individual and raise their children accordingly, Asian and Native American families emphasise the welfare of the group. As a result, they're likely to insist children remain quiet and compliant, while American parents are more permissive, giving credence to children's opinions. In the U.S., adolescence seems to extend indefinitely, while in rural India, children as young as 7 are expected to work to support their families.
How We're Similar
In studying child rearing, however, one also recognises similarities. Latin American parents often practice co-sleeping, breast-feeding on demand and constantly carry infants. While many American parents use schedules and playpens, many who are not Hispanic espouse those same practices. Not unsurprisingly, children who sit still and play quietly are preferred -- by Sudanese, Japanese, Crucian (U.S. Virgin Islands) and American parents -- to those who get into everything, hammer adults with questions and jump on furniture (although American and highly educated Sudanese parents tolerate more questions in general). Regardless of culture, parents have high behavioural expectations (although Chinese parents use shame, Americans, guilt, and Sikhs, physical punishments to achieve this), and all desire happy, prosperous futures for their children.
Why It Matters
As the world grows electronically smaller, people migrate and we're thrown together to an unprecedented degree, we must be aware of culturally influenced child care to prevent misunderstandings. For example, in 1996, a Danish woman found herself the subject of a child welfare investigation for leaving her child outside a restaurant in a stroller while she ate inside. This was, she claimed, common in Denmark; New Yorkers viewed it (rightly) as dangerous. There are similar practices -- including corporal punishment, using older children as babysitters and, as Chua discovered, denying slumber parties, that incur harsh criticism in the U.S. which should be met with understanding and dialogue. In the case of child labour, the rural Indian practice of mildly sedating young children, female circumcision and child marriages, however, the danger to children requires that nations get involved to change some customs, regardless of cultural norms.
Why It Doesn't
Parental practices vary from nation to nation, class to class, family to family. Yet all want the best for our children. We make mistakes, we get some things right, and for the most part, our children grow up to become valuable, functioning adults. As parents, we're all in this together.
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