What’s good parenting for children in one place may be harmful in another

Photo: Bart. Creative Commons.

Some parenting practices are beneficial to children in all societies, finds research; others can be good or bad, depending on the local context.

Many countries, including some richer nations, could learn from one another about parenting and child development. Our cross-cultural research shows that good parenting practices are often applicable everywhere, irrespective of local circumstances. However, our work also highlights that some practices which may benefit children in some cultures can actually harm them in other contexts.

Our Parenting Across Cultures (PAC) project is a long-term study of mothers, fathers and children from 13 cultural groups in nine countries (China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Philippines, Sweden, Thailand and the US). It has identified some universally good aspects of parenting and some aspects whose value depends on the local context.

“The value to child development of parental control is culturally variable. In some places, it helps children thrive. But the picture is different elsewhere. A parental behaviour in one culture can produce a different impact when applied in another.”

Parental warmth is good for children everywhere

We’ve found, for example, that parental warmth, love and acceptance are positive in every culture studied. All children benefit from feeling loved and accepted. However, the ways that parents show that love vary between cultures. In some cultures, parents are more likely to be physically affectionate, hugging and kissing their children. In other cultures, the same love is less overt, provided, for example, by preparing meals in a special way. These parents may not say, specifically, “I love you,” but their actions make the child feel loved and accepted.

In contrast, the value to child development of parental control is more culturally variable. In some places, such as Kenya, parents who seek obedience and compliance are typically the most loving and warm, and their children thrive. But the picture is different in, for example, Sweden and among European Americans in the US. Among these people, some of the warmest, most loving parents, whose children typically do very well, are those who seek less control and compliance.

“Parental warmth, love and acceptance are positive in every culture studied. All children benefit from feeling loved and accepted. However, the ways that parents show that love can vary between cultures.”

Good practices in one place can produce problems elsewhere

So a parental behavior in one culture can produce a different impact when applied in another. In the Philippines and Thailand, for example, children often continue to ask parents for permission or seek advice throughout their adult years before making decisions. People are also expected throughout their lives to provide support for their birth family. However, in Sweden and among European Americans, there are very few such family obligations. In countries where such obligations are normally expected, children typically thrive in families that reinforce such norms. In contrast, when these obligations are imposed on children in countries where they are not common practice, young people are more prone to depression, anxiety and problem behaviors.

Globalization is affecting parenting

Globalization makes it important to understand these cultural differences in parenting styles and their impact on children. Family policy makers should take culture into account when developing programs and policies that will, for example, affect diverse communities with different traditions of parenting. Globalization also means that children are increasingly influenced by other cultures, either around them or in the media, which can confuse both them and their parents. It’s also more likely that mothers and fathers will bring different value systems into their parenting, potentially producing confusion and conflict, particularly as more-involved fathers may seek greater influence on parenting practices.

Low-income nations are often faster to adopt best practice

Research findings about what is universally good for children are increasingly being embodied in international standards, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which are framed partly around children’s rights such as freedom from poverty, abuse and exploitation. Such standards have largely been generated in richer countries, notably in Scandinavia, and then gradually been rolled out around the world. Ironically, they are sometimes more readily incorporated into law by poorer countries than countries such as the US that have a traditional focus on human rights. This is because poorer countries are often more willing to adopt international standards. That said, in some cases, such legal prohibitions may not be well enforced, having not been born out of established child protection cultures.

Some low-income countries in South America, for example, have been faster than North America in prohibiting corporal punishment. The US is the only country that hasn’t ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Meanwhile, Canada and Australia haven’t reached the same standards of legal protection for children as some countries in Africa. Corporal punishment, though prohibited in low-income countries such as Kenya, remains legal in UK homes. This is despite the fact that research has demonstrated that corporal punishment increases children’s aggressive behavior, anxiety, and depression and decreases children’s academic achievement and social competence.

Our research highlights the importance of learning and tolerance, and understanding cultural context, when considering best practice in raising children. It’s particularly important not to assume that all the lessons of good parenting flow from high-income to low-income countries. Sometimes the reverse is true – richer countries can also learn from elsewhere.

Policy Implications

Policy makers should pay attention to policies that have worked well in other countries to gain ideas that could better promote child well-being in their own country.

Practical Implications

Before intervening to try to change parents’ behavior, practitioners should listen to parents to understand cultural beliefs and expectations that might be motivating their behavior, so that any suggestions for changes can be offered with cultural sensitivity.

Jennifer E. Lansford

Jennifer E. Lansford

Research Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy and Faculty Fellow, Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University, USA

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Original research and references

  1. Lansford JE et al. How international research on parenting advances understanding of child development Child Development Perspectives, 2016