Differential parenting of children from diverse cultural backgrounds attending child care

Research Paper No. 39 – April 2007


In Australia's multicultural society, approximately 4% of children under the age of 12 attending formal child care services speak a language other than English at home (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005). The Australian Institute of Family Studies' (AIFS) Child Care in Cultural Context (CCICC) study was designed to examine whether children from CALD backgrounds are cared for differently in day care and at home, and whether differential childrearing practices experienced across these environments have an impact on children's adjustment and wellbeing. The extent to which day care providers seek information about children's experiences at home and attempt to adjust the day care environment to avoid children having to deal with competing and potentially confusing expectations and responses was also investigated.

In order to examine these issues, children from Anglo-Celtic (Anglo), Somali and Vietnamese cultural groups using mostly formal (i.e., government-regulated) early child care services were represented in the research. These groups were purposely chosen in order to obtain wide variations in children's experiences of differential parenting. The Anglo cultural group was chosen because it is the dominant cultural group in Australia, and more likely to reflect the values of formal or mainstream child care services. The Vietnamese and Somali cultural groups were chosen because they represent cultures that were likely to reflect 'non-Western' childrearing values and beliefs. They have also been in Australia for varying lengths of time, and thus their levels of 'immersion' in and adoption of Australian cultural values were likely to be different. For a comprehensive overview of the study, the reader is referred to Wise and Sanson (2000).

This research paper focuses on similarities and differences in the parenting beliefs and behaviours of parents and day care providers. To simplify matters, parents and carers who are linked to individual children are referred to as parent/carer dyads, and the term 'carer' is used throughout the paper to refer to all those involved in non-parental child care, such as early childhood professionals and informal child care providers.

This introduction begins with a general overview of parenting and the factors related to variation in parenting beliefs and behaviours, with a particular emphasis on cultural influences. Previous research examining variation in parenting among parent/carer dyads, and the implications of these differences on children's adjustment in day care is then reviewed.

Variations in parenting

Parenting encompasses a number of different aspects, including beliefs, values, goals and behaviours. Each of these dimensions can influence, and be influenced by, child characteristics such as temperament (Chen & Luster, 2002), as well as aspects of the macro social system in which children grow up, such as war, the political climate and policies of multiculturalism and assimilation (Rosenthal, 2000). Parenting is also affected by physical and social contexts, childrearing customs and the psychological characteristics of adults (Boushel, 2000; Rosenthal & Roer-Strier, 2001).

This study focuses on parenting goals, discipline beliefs and developmental expectations as features of the social content in which children participate and thus experience directly. Parenting goals are objectives that adults have in mind when raising a child, such as independent or obedient behaviour. Discipline beliefs are attitudes held by parents and carers about the appropriateness of particular approaches to discipline, such as teaching, removing and spanking. Developmental expectations encompass ideas about what can be expected of children at different ages, such as the age at which a child is expected to reach key developmental milestones (e.g., smiling, crawling and identifying colours). Developmental expectations are generally thought to influence the way in which adults interact with children, although adult/child interactions are multi-determined (see Chen & Luster, 2002 for examples of other influences on parenting).

Cultural influences on parenting

Various aspects of parenting are known to vary both across and within cultural groups. Recent research has identified social class and childrearing experience as key sources of within-culture variation in parenting (Boushel, 2000; Cheung & Nguyen, 2001; Harkness & Super, 1996; McGillicuddy-DeLisi, 1992).

Harkness and Super (1992) developed the term 'parental ethnotheories' to help explain cultural differences in parenting. Ethnotheories are collective beliefs held by a cultural group about children's development and behaviour, and include expectations about the cognitive, social and emotional development of children (Rosenthal & Roer-Strier, 2001). They derive from parents' cultural experiences within their community or reference group, and reflect cultural beliefs about children's development and characteristics of children that are valued by the society in which the child is being raised (Harkness & Super, 1992; Rosenthal & Roer-Strier, 2001).

Culturally embedded beliefs and expectations are thought to give shape to the childrearing practices and other elements in the environmental context of the developing child. Specific examples of childrearing practices that are influenced by ethnotheories include the physical and social setting experienced by the child, such as the number and people living in a household, gender expectations, even the child care arrangements that parents make for their children, such as whether a child is looked after by a member of the child's extended family or by an unrelated carer in a group care setting (Harkness & Super, 1992, 1996; Segall, Dasen, Berry, & Poortinga, 1999).

Basic care regimes are also influenced by culture and cultural customs. Sleeping arrangements, for example, such as whether parents or siblings share their bed with the child or not (DeLoache & Gottlieb, 2000), as well as the time parents spend in close physical contact with their child by carrying/holding them, and soothing them with close physical contact, are both likely to reflect the habits and customs of the parents' culture (Webb, 2001). Cross-cultural differences are also recognised in a number of different aspects of feeding practices, with some parents encouraging independent feeding and others preferring to directly feed their children (see, for example, Harwood, Scoelmerich, Schulze, & Gonzalez, 1999).

Parenting goals

Culture is also thought to influence the three aspects of parenting under examination in this study. Gonzalez-Mena (2001) suggested that parenting goals, or the attributes that parents hope will be expressed in their children, are a reflection of the cultural context in which parents live. Researchers generally agree that parents hold childrearing goals that are consistent with the goals and expectations held by the culture with which they affiliate (Harwood et al., 1999).

Cross-cultural parenting research has also drawn an association between childrearing aspects (such as parenting goals, discipline practices, and beliefs about children's development) and the characteristics of 'individualistic' and 'collectivist' societies (Harwood et al., 1999).

Individualistic ('Westernised') societies are considered to value autonomy, independence and the ability to get things done on one's own, and thus encourage children to act autonomously and demonstrate initiative from an early age. Collectivist ('traditional') societies, on the other hand, place a sense of community and community responsibility above the interests of the individual. In these societies, children are encouraged to view difficulties as a group issue and are made aware of their responsibilities to their family and community.

In a study comparing Chinese-American and Anglo-American parents, Chao (1995) found that beliefs about building children's self-esteem or sense of self strongly differentiated the two groups of parents. Among the Anglo-American parents, 64% mentioned building children's self-esteem/sense of self as a childrearing goal, compared with only 8% of Chinese-American parents. Similar results were found in a study comparing Puerto Rican and Anglo-American mothers (Harwood et al., 1999).

Honest expression of emotion or 'affect' is another childrearing goal that is known to vary considerably across individualistic and collectivist cultures. If individualism is valued, then the expression of emotion is encouraged and children are taught to communicate their personal feelings. Collectivist societies, however, tend to emphasise emotional control (e.g., in Vietnamese culture; Gonzalez-Mena, 2001), or the expression of only positive emotion, so that group dynamics are not disrupted (e.g., in Hopi culture; Gonzalez-Mena, 2001). In Chao's study, helping the child to be aware of his or her feelings and encouraging the child to be honest about those feelings was considered an important childrearing goal by 40% of the Anglo-American mothers, while none of the Chinese-American mothers considered these aspects as important.

The aspirations that parents have for their children's development naturally influence the way they interact with their children. The extent to which parents wish children to develop a sense of family duty, for example, may determine the amount of time children are involved in household chores or watching over siblings compared to the time they spend in 'free play' (Harkness & Super, 1992).

Discipline beliefs

Cultural differences are also found in how parents manage difficult child behaviour. Removing a child from adults or peers for a period of time (commonly referred to as 'time-out') is often seen in Western cultures as an acceptable way to help young children avoid antisocial or difficult behaviour. However, parents who belong to a collectivist culture can view the use of time-out as very harsh, and tend to reserve it for extreme situations. Recent Australian research also found that parents' attitudes to physical punishment differed according to their cultural background. Kolar and Soriano (2000) explored the childrearing practices of Anglo, Vietnamese and Torres Strait Islander parents and found that although most parents most commonly used reasoning to discipline children (e.g., explaining to the child the necessity for rules and the consequences of their actions), beliefs about and the use of physical punishment varied between the three groups.

Developmental expectations

Empirical evidence suggests that parents of Anglo-Celtic origin often hold earlier expectations for development than parents from other cultures. In a study comparing African-American mothers and Anglo-American mothers, Sistler and Gottfried (1990) found that Anglo-American mothers had earlier expectations for the achievement of developmental tasks during infancy, such as eye contact and recognising their mother's voice. Edwards, Gandini and Giovaninni (1996) compared Italian and Anglo-American parents' expectations for the development of social skills, emotional maturity, politeness, verbal assertiveness, independence, school-related skills and compliance. They found that Anglo-American parents held expectations of earlier development than Italian parents in almost all these areas of development, with the most significant differences being in expectations about the development of social skills and verbal assertiveness. In contrast, Goldbart and Mukherjee (1999) found that Asian Indian mothers had the same expectations as Western mothers for aspects of children's motor development, such as the age at which children were expected to be sitting unsupported, walking unaided and feeding unaided. In addition, Asian Indian mothers held earlier expectations for dressing unaided and saying words, and later expectations only for becoming toilet trained.

Expectations of development are also known to influence parents' interactions with their children. Gonzalez-Mena (2001), for example, discussed the relationship between parental beliefs about the development of self-regulation and the encouragement of self-discipline compared to using parental discipline controls during early childhood. Gonzalez-Mena stated that Anglo-American and Canadian parents tend to encourage and support appropriate behaviour from the time children are toddlers, as they believe children have a capacity to control their own behaviour from a young age. In contrast, parents from other cultures, such as African-American and Hispanic cultures, tend to exercise parental control over the child's environment and the way he or she behaves until middle childhood. Moreover, cultural variation exists in when parents expect children to be completely toilet trained, which, in turn, dictates the timing and nature of toilet training. Gonzalez-Mena described situations where mothers from traditional cultures begin to toilet train their children at the age of 12 months. In contrast, Anglo parents typically do not begin to toilet train their children before they are at least two years of age.

Relations between acculturation and parenting

Acculturation can moderate the influence of culture on the rearing of children. Acculturation refers to changes in cultural models of parenting that results from continuous contact with another cultural influence, as in the case of migration (Segall et al., 1999). Although the process of acculturation is diverse and depends upon numerous factors, such as parents' attitudes to cultural assimilation, several studies have documented changes in parents' childrearing beliefs and behaviours across generations of migrant mothers and fathers (Leyendecker, Scholmerich, & Citlak, 2006) and within a single generation, according to the length of time spent in the host culture (Farver & Lee-Shin, 2000).

Nature and consequences of differential parenting

Immigrant or first-generation children using mainstream child care services experience intercultural contact at an early stage in development. Given the considerable influence of culture on parenting, these children may be required to manage two environments that have entirely different emotional and social demands (Fegans & Manlove, 1994). However, while Gonzalez-Mena (2001) has documented examples of 'culture clashes' in child care surroundings - such things as messy play, encouraging play that attempts to break gender stereotypes, and toilet training - very few empirical studies devoted to home-child care variations in parenting exist, and studies which aim to determine the association between such differences and culture are extremely rare.

Findings of researchers who have compared children's home and child care environments have been equivocal. Although empirical research has documented considerable differences between parents and carers along certain dimensions of parenting (referred to as 'differential parenting' from this point), such as responses to child initiations of interaction, social initiations to the child made by the adult, discipline practices and developmental expectations (Coe, Thornburg, & Ispa, 1996; Edwards et al., 1996; Nelson & Garduque, 1991), other studies have found a number of similarities between parents and carers. Feagans and Manlove (1994), for example, found that parents and carers in centre care settings valued certain social and emotional behaviours similarly. They also found that parents and carers agreed on the behaviours they did not find desirable in children.

Despite the inconsistent findings, it may be concluded that CALD children who spend time in child care services based on a Western perspective of development may experience differential parenting (Long & Garduque, 1987). Yet, the experience of differential parenting may not be limited to immigrant children. Various factors such as exposure to research about children's learning and development, the philosophy and objectives of the early child care and education system that are reflected in child care policies and curricula, as well as practical experience in early childhood care and education can create differences between parents and carers, irrespective of whether they are from the same cultural background or not.

Differential parenting, children's development and adjustment to child care

Developmental theory suggests that continuity across the settings in which children spend time facilitates better child outcomes (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), and may be particularly important in a cross-cultural context. Although some child care research suggests that differential parenting may be less important for development, and may even confer advantages when child care quality is high, or when the child care environment provides children with valuable new experiences and relationships, (e.g., nichd Early Child Care Research Network, 1996), these studies tend to focus on aspects of the child's environment that are related to cognitive and language development, whereas little attention has been paid to interactions that may relate to children's behavioural and emotional adjustment. On balance, the prevailing theory and research suggests that differential parenting may pose a risk for child development (e.g., van IJzendoorn, Taveccio, Stams, Verhoeven, & Reiling, 1998).

Despite the limited evidence base, there is growing awareness among early childhood professionals, services and policy makers that consistency across the settings in which children spend time constitutes an important dimension of good quality child care. An emerging literature aimed at child care professionals is devoted to the idea of family-centred practice, which advocates respect for cultural diversity and promoting healthy cultural identity development, as well as fostering good relationships with parents to help children manage the demands and expectations derived from culturally distinct child care settings; all thought to contribute to an easier transition to the child care setting (see Hand & Wise, 2006).