Differential parenting of children from diverse cultural backgrounds attending child care

Research Paper No. 39 – April 2007

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Executive summary

A great number of Australian children spend time in non-parental day care, and studies continue to address important questions about the impact of these experiences on children's adjustment and development. Increasingly, it is acknowledged that the effects of day care need to be considered in the light of children's circumstances and experiences at home. However, little attention has been devoted to understanding differences between children's home environment and their child care context, and whether or not discontinuities between these two social systems have implications for development.

The Child Care in Cultural Context (CCICC) study puts the spotlight on the experiences of children from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) cultural backgrounds attending long day care services in Melbourne, Australia. Its aim was to measure social aspects of children's home and day care environments, and to quantify the nature and extent of differences between these two systems.

As beliefs about child development and the factors that influence it vary considerably according to cultural context, it was expected that children raised according to a 'non-Anglo' cultural tradition would be required to make considerable adaptations to a mainstream day care service that is organised and managed according to the dominant Australian culture and a 'Western' perspective of child development. The level of early childhood education and training received by child care workers, as well as their years of experience in the early childhood profession, are also thought to have considerable influence on ways of thinking about children and childrearing, potentially increasing differences between parents and carers.

Study participants were recruited through contact with long day care services and family day care schemes in inner-city Melbourne with large enrolments of Somali and Vietnamese children. The parents and carers of 238 individual children took part in the study, reporting on 87 children from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, 82 children from Somali backgrounds, 68 children from Vietnamese backgrounds, and 21 children from other diverse (non-Anglo) backgrounds. The children were aged 0-4 years (M = 29.2) and 143 (55.4%) of the study children were boys.

Parents and carers provided independent information about aspects of parenting, including parenting goals, discipline beliefs, and expected ages and stages of development. The current paper examines variations among parents and carers along these dimensions of parenting, and reports associations between parenting and culture among the parent and carer samples, and associations of parenting to early childhood education/experience among the sample of carers. Finally, differences between the parenting beliefs and behaviours of parent/carer dyads overall, and in contexts where parent/carer dyads are culturally 'matched' and 'mixed', are discussed.

Mean sample scores showed that both parents and carers regarded child independence and social skills very highly, whereas child compliance was valued to a lesser, albeit moderately important extent. In respect of discipline beliefs, both parents and carers believed reasoning was an effective discipline technique. In contrast, parents and carers believed the use of adult power was relatively ineffective. The age at which parents and carers expected children to acquire particular skills varied to a considerable degree, perhaps reflecting the wide range of what is normal development. Rates of child development were within age ranges adopted in most 'Western' child development references, although carers had generally later expectations for development than parents.

Cultural variations in parenting beliefs and behaviours were clearly evident in the study's sample of parents and carers, reflecting generalisations of 'individualistic' ('Western') and 'collectivist' ('traditional) societies. Independence and social skills were characteristics valued more among Anglo parents than Vietnamese and Somali parents, whereas compliance was valued more by Vietnamese parents than the other three cultural groups. In relation to discipline beliefs, Somali parents believed reasoning was a more effective strategy than Anglo parents, and Somali parents also believed that power assertion was a less effective strategy than all other cultural groups. There was also a clear cultural patterning of differences in relation to developmental expectations. Somali parents expected earlier motor development than Vietnamese parents, but expected children to achieve language, cognitive and obedience/self-regulation milestones later than all other cultural groups. Anglo parents, by contrast, expected children to achieve obedience/self-regulation milestones significantly earlier than the other cultural groups. The length of time Somali and Vietnamese parents had spent in Australia accounted for significant differences among Somali and Vietnamese parents in relation to discipline beliefs and developmental expectations. This provides some evidence of acculturation in this sample of migrant parents.

Comparisons across groups of carers on parenting beliefs and behaviours revealed fewer differences among Anglo/diverse and Vietnamese carers than there were among Anglo and Vietnamese parents, although Anglo/diverse carers still valued independence more and compliance less than Vietnamese carers, and Vietnamese carers had later expectations for language development than Anglo/diverse carers. In contrast, Somali carers had significantly different responses to Anglo/diverse carers across all aspects of development. With the exception of motor development, they expected development to occur at a slower rate, they valued independence and social skills less and compliance more, and believed power assertion and inductive reasoning was less effective.

Vietnamese and Somali carers differed in their responses across all aspects of development, except in relation to the importance placed on independence and compliance, the effectiveness of inductive reasoning and expectations for motor development. Vietnamese carers valued social skills more than Somali carers, had earlier expectations for all other aspects of development except motor development, and thought power assertion was more effective. Both level of education and years of experience in the early childhood field accounted for differences observed between Vietnamese and Somali carers.

The expectation that there would be differences between parents and carers on parenting beliefs and behaviours was supported. Parents valued both compliance and social skills significantly more than carers. Parents also believed that power assertion was more effective in managing difficult child behaviour than carers. Generally, parents held earlier expectations than carers for motor and cognitive milestones, as well as independent behaviour. Differences between parents and carers in relation to the importance placed on compliance and independence, language development, independent behaviour and obedience/self-regulation were also accentuated when parents and carers were from different (or 'mixed') cultural backgrounds. Interestingly, and in contrast to the general group trend, in culturally mixed parent/carer dyads, parents valued independence less than carers, and had later expectations for language development, independent behaviour and obedience/self-regulation.

While differences across home and child care environments were evident in the sample overall, the fact that parents had generally earlier expectations for development and possibly higher requirements for obedience leads to the conclusion that day care experiences were unlikely to be confusing or disorienting for the children concerned. However, there appeared to be real incongruities in day care for CALD children whose parents and carers were from different cultural backgrounds. Higher expectations placed on them in relation to obedience/self-regulation and language development could be stressful for these children.

While further analyses will tease out the association of home-child care discontinuity to child outcomes, the current findings suggest that children from CALD backgrounds encounter new and potentially conflicting expectations in day care. This indicates the need for carers to understand the home environments of all children in their care, especially those from CALD backgrounds, so that sources of difference can be identified and moderated where this is deemed to be making a negative impact on children's adjustment.