East and West may be reshaping each other’s parenting

Photo: Aikawa Ke. Creative Commons.

Individualist values from Europe and the US are transforming parenting globally, but East Asian values are also migrating the other way.

The attention that Western society gives to “Tiger Moms” is an unexpected story of cultural exchange around parenting. Many tend to think that Western ideas on child-rearing—focussed on parenting that develops individuality, self-assertiveness, and autonomy—will gradually come to rule the world. Such a shift has certainly been well documented in agrarian economies as they industrialise.

However, the “Tiger Mom” concept has very publicly migrated the other way—from East to West, that is, from the more traditional world to the “developed world”. In the West, concerns about the importance of education have made parents ready for fresh thinking. They’re open to the idea that pushing their children hard to achieve academically may have something more to offer than laissez-faire Western approaches that have failed some children.

What does this cultural exchange tell us more broadly? The starting point is that good parenting is not uniform the world over. That’s because societies hold different goals for child development. Consequently, parents have different expectations of their children, and these expectations shape their child-rearing practices. The value differences are sometimes framed as “collectivism versus individualism,” “interdependence versus independence” or “self-orientation versus group-orientation”.

Parenting in individualist and collectivist societies

In most Western societies, such as Europe and the US, individualism, independence and self-orientation are viewed as important. Parents encourage their children to develop skills that support these values, such as assertiveness, self-confidence, self-expression and autonomy. They want their children to develop a positive sense of self and personal worth.

“Phenomena such as the Tiger Mom suggest that parenting is open to pluralist influences from other cultures if parents think that their children will benefit.”

In more collectivist societies, often found in the East, overall societal values tend to include group harmony, interpersonal cooperation and responsibility. These general cultural values affect the beliefs of parents, who emphasise responsibility, co-operation, obedience and self-control to help children to develop skills for operating well in a group. These children typically learn how to control their desires, needs and behaviour from the early years.

Having different goals influences how parents interact with children. Research shows that Western parents tend to be more sensitive to children’s specific needs and pay more attention to their developmental stages. When they interact with children, they try to explain when they want them to do something. Western parents tend to be more patient than their Eastern counterparts, using a “low power” strategy that involves explanations as well as listening to and trying to communicate with children about their views and feelings.

In more collectivist cultures, such China and Korea, parents are expected to assume greater responsibilities in child development. To fulfil that expectation, they tend to be highly involved in childrearing and child education, sometimes using “high power” strategies. They may order their children to do certain things, providing little explanation or reasoning. They want their children to obey them, so they emphasise compliance and obedience. In a “high power” approach, if children don’t listen, parents may use force or punishment. This approach reflects the parents’ goals: to develop children who listen and who learn qualities such as cooperation, compliance and self-control, which could be useful for adapting to the society.

east west parenting
Photo: Chris. Creative Commons.

The impact of social and economic changes

Globalisation and economic change within countries are affecting cultural values that underpin such parenting strategies. As countries in Asia, Africa and South America become industrialised and westernised, their cultures grow more individualistic, and parents are adapting their child-rearing styles and values.

Research in Turkey by Cigdem Kagitcibasi and Bilge Ataca, published in 2005, demonstrates that over a 30-year period, as the Turkish economy grew and families became richer, parents changed their views about why they had children. In the past, parents had highlighted the economic support children provided in old age, and they fostered more collective values. Now, elderly people require less financial help from their families. These days, parents say they are raising children more for enjoyment. They want their children to develop independent skills and positive self-esteem.

Major changes like this have occurred in many economies. I have researched shyness in children and seen how attitudes in China have been shaped by economic change and Western values. Shy children typically have problems in the US and Canada—they are perceived as anxious in social interactions, they experience problems with other children, and their academic achievement may suffer because teachers consider them to be immature.

However, in China and other societies such as Indonesia, shy children were traditionally viewed as well behaved and competent. They did well at school. They were liked by peers, parents and teachers, had good relationships and didn’t display the loneliness or depression that could be seen in similar Western children. That was 20 years ago. Now China has become more westernised, and evidence shows that shy children, particularly in urban areas, experience exactly the same problems as in Western countries. They are less accepted and less liked by others. They are sometimes rejected and start to develop psychological problems. This change shows that cultural norms have altered and have had an impact on children’s development.

In China, we’ve also asked adolescents at different historical times about their parents’ child-rearing style. They report that over the past 15 years, parents have become less authoritarian and less power-assertive, as well as more sensitive to their feelings and needs, encouraging them to exercise greater independence and autonomy.

Traditional values survive

However, it’s a mistake to think that traditional values are abandoned. Societies find ways to integrate new ideas with their more established beliefs. Every society is becoming more diverse and having to accept a mix of parenting values. This seems to be just as true for Western societies, which are also affected by globalisation, technological change, population movement and new cultural communication, all of which can influence values and, ultimately, parenting styles.

“In China, adolescents report that parents have become less authoritarian and less power-assertive, as well as more sensitive to their feelings and needs.”

Researchers have yet to develop much empirical data on the influence of other cultures on Western parenting in the US and Europe, but phenomena such as the Tiger Mom suggest that parenting is open to pluralist influences from other cultures if parents think that their children will benefit. Evidence indicates that in recent years many parents in the West, including fathers, have become more involved in parenting, children’s education and supporting children’s participation in extracurricular programs. Parents also have higher expectations for their children around school achievement, and they supervise and monitor their children’s activities more closely. With the current tendency for college students to return home after graduation, parent-child “interdependence”, which is often used to describe family relationships in Eastern and other collectivist societies, is likely to become more acceptable in the West.

The US emphasises individuality and self-confidence, which have been seen as cornerstones of economic success. But the message from Japan, China and Korea is that their traditional values—self-control, modesty and compliance—might lead to greater achievement. Perhaps we may see some of these values gradually integrated into Western models of parenting.

Mechanisms for changing parenting values

The mechanisms for such fusion are considerable. In the US, for example, family cultures are diverse because of immigration. Peer group interactions are key to the melting pot of values. In school, children meet peers with different cultural values—they challenge one another and begin to change their views. Children are more sensitive to different values and have more opportunities to learn from peers.

Parents also have increasing opportunities to learn about new values through their interactions with families of different backgrounds, and through the media: the Tiger Mom phenomenon is rooted in media influence, following the publication of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by the American author and lawyer Amy Chua.

It seems likely that research may gradually discredit the view that the West’s parenting norms are simply spreading around the world alongside economic development. A more subtle picture may emerge of a nuanced dialogue between cultures that are learning from each other about how best to raise their children.

Policy Implications

Governments should create environments and provide resources that facilitate inter-cultural communications and interactions.

Practical Implications

Practitioners should understand there are multiple pathways in child development in contemporary societies and help parents and child learn diverse values and skills.

Xinyin Chen

Xinyin Chen

Professor of Applied Psychology at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Full profile
Posted on:

Original research and references

  1. Chen X, Fu R & Zhao S Culture and Socialization In Grusec JE & Hastings PD, Handbook of Socialization; theory and research, Second Edition, 2015