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Parenting Around the World: Child-Rearing Practices in Different Cultures

Parents often face a seemingly endless array of choices when it comes to child-rearing. From deciding whether or not to work, to selecting breast milk vs. formula, to implementing permissive or authoritative discipline, it can be difficult for parents to decide on the right course of action. Although it may feel like there is only one best way to raise a child, a survey of global parenting reveals that child-rearing practices in different cultures are actually quite diverse in form, and the influence culture plays is profound.

Parenting Across Cultures: A Global Perspective 

Child-rearing in different cultures can be as varied as the countries from which they come. Some practices can appear neglectful by American standards, while others just seem unusual.

Norwegian parents let their kids sleep in the freezing cold, NPR reports. The French don’t cater to “fussy eaters,” instead serving children the same meals they themselves eat. And in the Polynesian Islands, it’s not uncommon for “older” children (think toddler and preschool age) to take care of younger ones — even those who are not their siblings.

“Argentine parents let their kids stay up until all hours,” NPR says. “Japanese parents let 7-year-olds ride the subway by themselves; and Danish parents leave their kids sleeping in a stroller on the curb while they go inside to shop or eat.”

Sara Harkness, a professor of human development at the University of Connecticut, discovered a trait that appears unique to American parents: their belief in the importance of early age cognitive stimulation. Her study on cultural models and developmental agendas for early infancy concluded that American mothers were more likely to emphasize the importance of maintaining high levels of mental arousal and activity than their counterparts in other countries.

“The most salient themes for the American mothers were Stimulation of Development, and, relatedly, Cognitive Processing,” the study states. “Together, these two themes capture these mothers’ concern with getting their babies off to the best possible start in maximizing their potential as actively thinking persons, a concern underlined by popular promotion of the importance of early brain development.”

The study also included mothers from the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Korea. Mothers in these countries placed emphasis on markedly different practices than Americans, including self-regulation through a restful and regulated environment, attention to the baby’s physical and emotional needs, emotional closeness, and protecting and educating the child.

Notable Cultural Differences in Parenting: The Individual vs. the Collective

One of the most widely debated issues in parenting is whether and to what extent a child’s individuality should be nurtured. There are two fundamental patterns in child-rearing, individualistic and collectivist, explains communication expert Marcia Carteret on Dimensions of Culture. Individualistic cultures emphasize self-sufficiency, while collectivist ones emphasize the dependence of individuals on the group of which they are a part.

American parents embrace the former. “In study after study, cultural anthropologists have found that the overriding goal of American parents is to make a child independent and self-reliant,” Carteret says. “Babies are bundles of potential and a good parent is one who can uncover the latent abilities and talents in their child, encourage the good while discouraging the bad.”

Furthermore, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture published a report on the culture of American families. Out of the four types of parenting modes Americans tend to practice, just 20 percent belong to the mode most likely to emphasize tradition. The other 80 percent of parents were defined by factors unrelated to custom or conformity, such as an emphasis on personal freedom, a lack of a particular child-rearing agenda and the desire to raise children more materially successful than themselves.

Through this lens, the gap between parenting styles in America and many parts of the world gives more of the impression of a chasm. Collectivist cultures, by far the global norm, train children in dependent behaviors including obedience, calmness, politeness and respect toward others. Ultimately, these child-rearing practices emphasize feeling responsible for behavior and avoiding shaming both personally and for the family, clan or community.

Specifically, collectivist values can often be observed in many Asian-based cultures. The Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families explains that Chinese and Filipino traditions regard adhering to the status quo as paramount in importance.

Children raised with Chinese values are instilled with an obvious and accepted duty toward their family. As part of their child-raising technique, Chinese parents are also expected to teach their children the specific practice of how to live harmoniously with others. Therefore, individual emotional expression is considered harmful, as it is a threat to maintaining harmony. This in turn creates a culture of “saving face,” which leads to shame on the child if society’s expectations for propriety are breached.

Filipino families have a similar system. They adhere to concepts like hiya (referring to “shame” or “sense of propriety”) and pakikisama (getting along with others to create harmony, even if it conflicts with an individual’s personal desires). Again, if these principles are rejected or breached, intense shame is attached to the act.

Causes of Differentiation

Parents generally raise their children with the goal of molding them into effective adults. But the definition of an effective, productive member of society differs from culture to culture: How important is happiness? Financial stability? Family connectedness? Faith? Generally, “success” is defined by what ethics, mores and standards of life practice the culture in question possesses.

Children stay up until 10 p.m. in Spain and Argentina because of the strong emphasis those countries place on the domestic unit. Sending children to bed earlier would mean they couldn’t fully participate in family life, something that those societies consider particularly important.

Some African cultures, like those in Zambia and Malawi, treasure the passing down of unique cultural traditions, considering it the job of elders to continue this practice. The Kisii people of Kenya give weight to eye contact. They refuse to look their babies in the eye, believing it will cause them to grow up thinking they are in control of their caretakers.

For many cultures, a strong intergenerational family unit is critical to the success of a society. Children provide the social safety net for elderly parents. The United States, in contrast, places a premium on job success and individuality, which can mean children moving far away to pursue careers.

Indeed, societal philosophies and their influence on families can prove both substantial and, at the same time, enigmatic. It can be hard to understand just how significant an impact culture has on child-rearing because those norms are so embedded in what parents consider to be “normal” or “right” behavior. But knowing how culture ties people together, for better or for worse, can have a significant impact on raising well-adjusted children.

Cultural differences in parenting abound, and for marriage and family therapists, understanding cultural mores is even more important to effectively help clients with the complicated web of family and cultural dynamics. Touro University Worldwide offers a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy that gives students an understanding of how to embrace different cultures when treating clients. The fully online program allows students to maintain their personal and work schedules.

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