How should you raise your children? That question is the heart of the early childhood development and education research interests of Noriko Porter, instructor in the Department of Human Development in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.
It’s also the heart of Porter’s interests as a mother who has experience raising young children in two very different cultures – Japan and the United States.
Those interests inspired a project that was part of the Ph.D. dissertation she defended a year ago at the University of Missouri, Columbia. The project recently was submitted to the journal Parenting: Science and Practice, and she also presented it at WSU’s Academic Showcase this spring.
Porter compared the childrearing concerns of Japanese and U.S. mothers by analyzing online parenting message boards managed by popular parenting magazines. She found many similarities, and she concluded these likely are the result of 1) young children’s universal needs, abilities and limitations and 2) historical trends toward the globalization of childrearing beliefs and practices.
But there were some significant areas of difference in mothers’ concerns – many of which might be explained by differences in the cultures of the two nations. Porter’s study sheds light on how culture can influence mothers’ parenting perspectives and concerns.
U.S.-Japan Parenting Differences
Feeding. While U.S. mothers were concerned with how much to feed their children and when to start infants on solid foods, Japanese mothers were worried that their children were not eating or drinking enough.
Japanese mothers may worry that their children eat less, Porter said, because children are offered a greater variety of foods than in the U.S., including those that cater more to adult tastes – like dried sardines and fermented soybeans.
Also, though obesity is increasing in Japan, the typical diet includes few fatty, high-sugar foods and obesity rates are much lower than in the U.S. – where eating too little was not a concern among mothers.
Sleeping. U.S. mothers were concerned about children not sleeping alone, while there were no Japanese postings about sleeping independently.
“In Japan, co-sleeping is taken for granted,” Porter said. “According to some practitioners, it promotes mother-child closeness and reduces the likelihood of nighttime sleep disturbances.”
U.S. mothers’ concerns also might be explained by the pressure American culture puts on the development of self-reliance, she said.
Physical development. More Japanese mothers worried about their children’s weight and appearance, while no U.S. message board postings reflected these concerns.
Japanese mothers were concerned about children being too fat, too small or having a big head or big stomach.
“It seems that these concerns reveal the collectivist orientation of Japanese mothers,” Porter said. “Living in an interdependent culture, parents may feel pressure not to stand out. This may be less the case in the U.S. because a larger part of the self is constructed through the expression of unique attributes.”
Discipline. More Japanese mothers posted messages about disobedience and said they administered punishments such as spanking or yelling. Mothers in the U.S. expressed concerns about their children hurting others.
Earlier studies indicate that most U.S. parents spank their children and that most U.S. parenting books discourage this.
“So U.S. parents may be less likely to admit that they spank or yell because they risk social censure,” Porter said. “Japanese parenting books and magazine articles, however, appear to be empathetic toward mothers who spank or yell.”
U.S. mothers’ most frequent reason for administering discipline – that their children would hurt others – may spring from a situational difference, Porter said: Japanese toddlers are less likely to attend child-care facilities and therefore have less opportunity to interact with peers.
Independence/autonomy. In this study, independence is defined as the ability to do something by oneself, while autonomy is the emotional state a child strives for in order to assert his or her own identity.
More U.S. mothers were concerned about independence, particularly about helping children become independent eaters and sleepers.
More Japanese mothers made message-board postings about autonomy and assertiveness, especially in the areas of discipline and development. Their struggles seem to reflect tensions, Porter said, between the Japanese concept of “amae” – a helplessness or desire to be loved that is acceptable in children – and Western child-development theory promoting autonomy.
“Mothers may struggle as they try to find a balance between honoring toddlers’ preferences and self-assertions and cultivating a feeling of oneness with them,” she said. “Resistance to parental requests may be interpreted as threatening the closeness of the parent-child relationship.”
Parental self-blame. Significantly more Japanese than U.S. postings indicated self-blame. Japanese parents felt guilty about their frustration, harsh punishment and not helping their children’s development. Some assumed their children’s negative behaviors were associated with their own personality.
An earlier seven-nation study analyzing cultural differences in mother’s assessments of their parenting found that Japanese mothers were the least likely to feel competent and satisfied. In addition, they were more likely to attribute parenting successes to child characteristics and less likely to attribute failures to child characteristics.
“Thus, they were in the difficult position of feeling more responsible for their children’s failings while taking less credit for their children’s achievements,” Porter said.
Such self-blame may have roots in Japanese culture, which puts value on modesty and exerts social pressure to appear self-critical, she said. But it also may reflect sincere insecurity about the parenting role.
Porter suggested that future research might focus on a larger number of message-board postings in just one or two areas that are of most concern to parents. Other options might be to analyze responses to online postings for the kinds of advice mothers give each other – and how that compares with advice given by childrearing professionals in each country.
–Cynthia King, WSU Today