Differential parenting of children from diverse cultural backgrounds attending child care

Research Paper No. 39 – April 2007

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This research paper examined differences among parents and carers involved in the AIFS Child Care in Cultural Context study along aspects of parenting beliefs and behaviours, and the association of culture to such differences.

General attitudes towards child development and its influences

Mean sample scores produced a useful description of the parenting beliefs and behaviours of parents and carers involved in the current study. They showed that both parents and carers regarded child independence and social skills very highly. Child compliance was valued to a lesser extent, but both carers and parents considered it to be an important attribute. In respect of discipline beliefs, both parents and carers believed reasoning to be a relatively effective measure in managing difficult child behaviour, but believed that the use of power was considerably less effective. 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. Parent and carer mean group scores consistently fell within guidelines for expected developmental milestones published in most Western child health and development handbooks and manuals. However, there were some contrasts in parent and carer expectations. Parents expected 2-year-old children to be toilet trained and to be able to sort objects, whereas carers did not expect these skills to develop until children were aged 3. Parents also expected 3-year-old children to be well behaved and to obey adults, and they also expected them be able to recognise familiar signs. On average, carers did not expect these skills to emerge until children were aged 4.

Cultural variation in parenting

Although substantial variation within cultures is to be expected (Gonzalez-Mena, 2001), a large body of empirical research points to culture as a source of disparity in beliefs about children's development and its influences (Harkness & Super, 1992). In accordance with these earlier findings, cultural variations in parenting beliefs and behaviours were clearly evident in the study's sample of parents and carers.

Cultural variations in parent scores on parenting beliefs and behaviours

The pattern of differences observed in parenting goals reflects the generalisations of individualistic and collectivist societies outlined in the introduction to the paper. 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. Cultural differences in childrearing goals were not affected by the length of time parents had spent in Australia, however, which is at odds with the literature suggesting that most individuals make some adaptations to their new cultural context after a period of time (Chao, 1995; Harwood et al., 1999).

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. However, the length of time Somali and Vietnamese parents had spent in Australia accounted for these differences, suggesting that the sample of Somali and Vietnamese parents altered traditional beliefs about discipline when exposed to Australian norms, which is more in tune with the prevailing literature (Segall et al., 1999).

There was also a clear cultural patterning of differences in relation to developmental expectations. Somali parents expected earlier motor development than Vietnamese parents, which may be a reflection of an African lifestyle that emphasises the importance of physical skills for survival (Dybdahl & Hundeide, 1998). Somali parents, however, expected children to achieve language, cognitive, independent and obedience/self-regulation milestones later than all other cultural groups, whereas Anglo parents expected children to achieve independent and obedience/self-regulation milestones significantly earlier than the other groups. The fact that Anglo parents held earlier expectations than parents from other cultures mirrors much of the American literature that has found earlier expectations in Anglo-American parents as compared to the expectations of parents from other cultural backgrounds (e.g., Sistler & Gottfried, 1990; Edwards et al., 1996). Once again, differences between Somali and Vietnamese parents were accounted for by the length of time parents had spent in Australia. This suggests migrant parents may alter traditional beliefs about the rate of child development to accord with the prevailing attitudes of the mainstream Australian culture.

Cultural variations in carer scores on parenting beliefs and behaviours

Comparisons across groups of carers on parenting beliefs and behaviours revealed that Anglo/diverse and Vietnamese carers were somewhat more similar to each other in their responses than Anglo and Vietnamese parents were to each other. However, Anglo/diverse carers valued independence more and compliance less than Vietnamese carers, and Vietnamese carers had later expectations for language development than Anglo/diverse carers. Somali carers had significantly different responses to Anglo/diverse carers across all aspects of development. With the exception of motor development, Somali carers expected development to occur at a slower rate, valued independence and social skills less and compliance more, and believed power assertion and inductive reasoning was less effective than Anglo/diverse carers. Vietnamese and Somali carers differed considerably in their responses. Vietnamese carers valued social skills more than Somali carers, had earlier expectations for all aspects of development except motor development, and thought power assertion was more effective. However, both level of education and years of experience in the early childhood field accounted for these differences, suggesting that exposure to Western theories of child development and direct experience in early childhood education may have some moderating influence on carers' attitudes towards child development and its influences.

Differences between home and child care experiences

The expectation that there would be differences between parents and carers on parenting beliefs and behaviours was supported by the current findings. Across most measures of parenting employed in the study, and especially in relation to control-related aspects of childrearing, significant differences were observed between groups of parents and carers. 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 for children's developmental milestones. This was most apparent in relation to motor development, independent behaviour and cognitive development. The finding of differences between parents and carers is consistent with previous studies (Coe et al., 1996; Edwards et al., 1996).

In addition to exploring differences between parents and carers overall, the current study also hypothesised that differences would be accentuated when parents and carers were from different cultural backgrounds. Results of the analyses supported this prediction, showing more disagreement among culturally mixed parent/carer dyads than culturally matched parent/carer dyads in relation to the importance placed on compliance and independence, expectations for language development and expectations for obedience/self-regulation. Contrary to expectation, however, there was more disagreement in relation to expectations for independent behaviour among culturally matched parent/carer dyads than among culturally mixed parent/carer dyads. On balance, these findings are consistent with Harkness and Super (1992), who suggested that parents and carers from the same cultural background would have more similar childrearing models than parents and carers from different cultural backgrounds.

The direction of difference (that is, whether discrepancy scores were positive or negative in value) also changed along some aspects of parenting when culturally matched and mixed parent/carer dyads were compared. In culturally matched parent/carer dyads, parents valued independence more than carers, whereas in culturally mixed parent/carer dyads parents valued independence less than carers. In culturally matched parent/carer dyads, parents had earlier expectations for language development, independent behaviour and obedience/self-regulation, but in culturally mixed parent/carer dyads, parents had later expectations in these areas than carers.

Implications for services

The study is characterised by several measurement and design issues that restrict the reliability and validity of the findings. First, the non-randomised nature of the sample selection means that the findings described above cannot be generalised. Second, it was not possible to control for parental length of time in Australia in all analyses, so firm conclusions cannot be drawn. Third, analyses of differences among parent/carer dyads focused on group differences, which include group averages or mean scores, and do not take into consideration the considerable range of discrepancy scores among individual parent/carer dyads. Finally, while this paper focuses on culture as an important aspect of parenting beliefs and behaviours, it does not control for a range of other important influences, such as parental education and socio-economic factors. A multivariate approach is clearly indicated to examine the influence of culture on parenting beliefs and behaviours relative to other potential influences.

Despite these limitations, the CCICC study provides an important first step in understanding parenting beliefs and behaviours among a culturally diverse sample of parents and carers in Australia, and importantly, the adjustment that children have to make when they encounter a child care setting.

The current study found considerable differences among parents and carers in respect to parenting goals, discipline beliefs and developmental expectations. However, due to the nature of these differences it is not logical to conclude that the demands of child care were new or unexpected for children involved in the study generally, as they were likely to have already encountered similar or higher expectations for obedience and a range of developmental tasks at home with their parents. For example, in relation to developmental expectations, parents were generally more likely to have earlier expectations than carers in relation to skills such as toileting, independent behaviour, motor skills and cognitive development. Moreover, parents valued compliance in children more than carers, and expected obedience at an earlier age than carers, and thus perhaps placed more demands on children in this respect than carers. It also appeared that carers would be more likely than parents to reason with children if they did display unwanted behaviour, which is unlikely to be a confusing experience for a child no matter how they are disciplined at home.

The situation may have been different for CALD children, however, as the results suggest that in culturally mixed parent/carer dyads, parents value child independence significantly less than carers. Parents in culturally mixed parent/carer dyads also have later expectations for independent behaviour and obedience than carers. By way of example, this could have meant that in day care, toddlers may have been expected to serve and feed themselves at mealtime, and perhaps help to tidy the meal area and wash their own hands afterwards, whereas these tasks may have been done for children at home. Given the differences in expectations for obedience among parents and carers in culturally mixed parent/carer dyads (which are consistent with disparate beliefs about the development of self-control between collectivist and individualist cultures), CALD children may have been disciplined more frequently in day care, or disciplined for behaviour that is not corrected at home.

Parents in culturally mixed parent/carer dyads also had later expectations for language development than carers. This could have meant that children were exposed to activities designed to encourage language, such as reading and conversations that they were not exposed to at home. Alternatively, higher expectations for language development may have meant that children were expected to follow instructions that they may not have understood, or they may have been expected to use words for communication when they were used to non-verbal means of communication at home.

Without further analysis it is unclear whether greater expectations for obedience and independent behaviour in day care makes the day care experience more difficult for CALD children to negotiate or not, nor is it clear whether higher expectations for children's language development in the day care situation confer better language outcomes or are a source of stress and confusion. It is also unclear the extent to which the differing demands of day care studied in this paper influence child development relative to other consequences of children's day care experience, such as separation from parents and siblings, and contact with a peer group, as well as indices of child care quality, such as the staff-to-child ratio.

While the relation between differential parenting and child adjustment in the study sample is addressed in a forthcoming paper (Wise & Sanson, 2006), the fact that children from CALD backgrounds encounter new and potentially conflicting expectations in day care carries some important implications for services. Carers not only have the responsibility of promoting healthy cultural identity development (Gonzalez-Mena, 2001), it would appear they also have the responsibility of understanding the home environments of all children in their care, especially those from CALD background, so that sources of difference can be identified and addressed, either by moderating the carer's expectations or through explicit discussion with the parent where this is deemed to enhance children's adjustment to the child care setting.