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Monday, 23 April 2012

East and West: Parenting Styles

When I read articles and books on child psychology and parenting, I increasingly realize how Western-centric all the available research is. With a few exceptions (most notably, Chua’s sensationalist book about tiger parenting),  all the child psychology and parenting literature available is written by Westerners, about Western kids, and for Western parents.

 Interestingly though, most of the literature presents itself as universal, and Western child psychologists seem convinced that their findings apply to all children around the world.  After leaving the US and moving to Singapore, I have been struck by how un-universal Western child rearing and parenting styles are, and I have also become increasingly aware of the very different value systems that inform Western versus Eastern parenting.

Singapore has a substantial Indian population, and since I’m Indian, I have easy access to this particular community. For months now, I’ve been informally polling Indian moms in the playground about their views on childrearing and parenting, and I’m fascinated by what I’ve found. Most of the moms are middle and upper class Indians now living in Singapore, and they have school age children under the age of 12. Simultaneously, I’ve been aware of the marked differences between Eastern and Western parents during parent conferences at the school where I work.

A big qualifier:  I'm making massive generalizations here based on a very limited sample, and there are bound to be many exceptions to these broad stereotypes and statements. In fact, I've worked with many students and parents that defy these stereotypes completely. I have encountered extremely intense and high pressure Western parents and very relaxed, laid-back Indian parents. Obviously, one should never pre-judge a child/parent/person, but nevertheless, I have noticed broad trends and am interested in exploring them further.

 Here are some of my findings:

1. “The Individual versus the collective”
This finding has been documented in numerous sociology/anthropology studies, and I see it very clearly around me. 

Western parents believe strongly in the idea that their child is an individual whose individual rights should be respected. They are often hesitant to critique, punish, or push their children too much because they believe that this will infringe on the child’s individual rights, and it may hinder the child’s development by squelching his creativity and preventing him from expressing his true self. They don’t want him to conform to a group, and they hope that he will be his own person.  They want to encourage choice and freedom, even if that means occasionally letting the child fail or letting the child challenge them/talk back because they believe strongly in the ideals of individuality, self-expression, creativity, independence and free will. 

In contrast, Indian parents believe strongly that their child is part of a family and a community, and that it is of paramount importance that the child realizes that every decision he makes and every action he takes has consequences for the entire family and community. They see the Western way as selfish: it is selfish to focus on the individual, and it is unseemly for a person to consider his own needs as more important than the needs of others. Each child’s life is inextricably linked to the lives of his parents, grandparents, and his community. He must understand how to respect others (particularly his elders), and how to act in a way that maintains harmony in the family and the community. Indian mothers seem far less concerned with self-expression and independence than they are with the child's ability to respect his elders and show consideration for the family unit. 

If the Indian child challenges his parents, speaks rudely, or slacks off academically, the parents don’t see it as a natural part of growing up, like Western parents do. They see it instead as selfish and aberrant behavior that is inexcusable. When asked what parents value most, almost all the Indian mothers I polled said “manners” and “respect.”  When one looks at Indian mythology and stories, these values of respect, loyalty to the family, and filial piety are evident everywhere. Children are expected to sacrifice their own personal feelings and desires for the sake of the family.

Where Westerners may view personal sacrifice  as oppressive, Indians view it as noble and good. One's duty or dharma, in Indian terms, often entails making sacrifices for the sake of the family and community.  For example, a child may want to play instead of study, but clearly for both the child’s own good and the family’s good, it is better for the child to study. Therefore, the Indian parent would feel absolutely justified in making the kid study, regardless of what the child wants. The stereotypical Western parent, on the other hand, would engage in a discussion with the child, and then second-guess herself, wondering whether she is somehow infringing on the child’s individual rights and squelching the child’s creativity by “forcing” him to do something against his will.

One of my Western colleagues used the word "oppressed" when she described the ways in which an Indian/Asian child is "limited" by his parents. In the Western mind, dictating terms to a child is oppressive because it is a violation of that child's individual rights. In contrast, in the Indian mind, it is absolutely necessary because it ensures that the child understands his/her role in the family and it keeps the child on a path that the parent believes will lead to future success and happiness. 

2. Approach to Academic Work: How much should a parent demand of a child? Is it right to push a child academically? Is it fair to the child? Are Asian/Indian children “beaten into submission” by their parents? Is pressure good or bad?

These are interesting questions to consider. The Western view is that parents should be involved in the child’s education and they should make sure that the child does his/her homework. However, at the end of the day, most Western parents will concede that their true goal is to make sure that their kids are “happy” and that they feel good about themselves. In this regard, they worry about striking a balance. They want to motivate and inspire their children, but they also want their children to be happy, and they want to praise and validate their children as much as possible.

The Indian view is quite different. As one Indian mom said to me, “happiness is all well and good, but it won’t get my child a job, and it won’t put food on his table when he’s an adult. He may think that watching television or hanging out with his friends is making him happy, but I know that in the long run, he will be happy if he does well in school and is able to succeed professionally.” Similarly, they seem less concerned with self-esteem. As another Indian mom, who admits to regularly berating  her son for not studying enough, said to me, “if he works very hard and does very well, he will develop self-esteem. So, I have no qualms about shouting at him for not working hard enough or not getting top grades. Self esteem is the reward of hard work.”
I wonder about two things when it comes to the amount of parental pressure that one exerts. Firstly, I think that there is a connection between the economic standing of a society and the degree of anxiety/pressure that a parent feels. India is still a developing country, and Indian parents are acutely aware of the global competition that they are engaged in. They constantly make comments such as “life is not easy” and “look at the competition.” They know that their own country will not provide their child with any back-up (social security/welfare etc) and that the playing field is still not entirely level for Indians. They are absolutely sure that the stakes in this game of education are very, very high, and that failure is not an option. So they push their kids like crazy.

 In contrast, Westerners have dominated the world for the last four hundred years. They have good safety nets: their kids can work at Starbucks and still live somewhat decently, they can rely on the state for public services of a reasonable quality, and they know that the world still favors them over others. In some ways, they can afford to consider “happiness” over “success.”

While part of the explanation for Asian parental anxiety versus Western parental complacency may be economic, a part is also certainly cultural.  Asians feel morally justified in pushing their kids, so they do. Westerners don’t feel as though it is morally right to push their kids too hard, so they don’t. Indians/Asians raise their kids to be obedient (“no back-chat allowed”) so their kids listen when they are told to stay home and study. Westerners raise their kids to challenge authority (“it’s good to question the system”) so their kids may challenge them when they are told to stay home and study.

3.  Western parents focus on Reading; Indian parents focus on Math.

This has been a particularly interesting finding. All Western books on early childhood stress the importance of reading aloud to your child, and then go on to cite numerous studies that show high correlations between “language immersion” and later academic success. They claim that the single most important thing a parent can do to improve their child’s educational outcomes is to read to the child on a daily basis. However, they say almost nothing about early Math skills.

Indian parents (and I think most Asian parents) are, interestingly, fairly relaxed about reading but totally obsessed with their child’s performance in Math. They may or may not read to their child on a daily basis, but they all immerse their child in a Mathematical world from an early age. Most of the Indian moms I polled began formal Math instruction with their children by age 4, and some by age 3. By the time their child turned 5, without any exceptions, they “sat with their child” on a regular basis to work through Math workbooks. They also encourage “Math games” such as chess, building  (lego) activities, and board games. 

They are big fans of the Singapore Math curriculum, and even the most liberal and low-maintenance moms admit to supplementing the school’s Math curriculum with frequent Math sessions.  The Indian moms I spoke with in Singapore uniformly believe that you cannot trust “International Schools” (read “Western schools”) when it comes to Math because Western schools don’t value Math sufficiently.

Where Western moms are convinced that reading to their child is the most important thing that they can do for their child academically, Indian moms are convinced that giving their child a solid Math foundation is their top job on the academic front. Read more about Asian moms and math here: Building a Math Rich Home: Learn from the pros. And read more on Asian moms and the stuff they do here: What Asian Moms Know

More to come on this topic!


  1. I think Indian/Asian parents give their children little opportunity to develop their own initiative and independence so as to protect them from frustration and danger...The mantra is not 'experience and learn' but 'don't experience and learn'...Obedience is considered not only a useful quality in social interactions, but it is also considered more safe...In teaching self-control and respectful behaviour to children, parents emphasize the concept of shaming...As a result, women in India often stay on in abusive marriages because they shiver at the thought of 'shaming' their parents and community...

    Indian society stresses on mutual help, mutual understanding, and tolerance and yet Indians are some of the least tolerant and most selfish people around...Why?

    I for one feel that good manners are of the utmost importance...In a crowded country like India, the art of living together is no small art...How to diminish friction; how to promote ease of intercourse; how to make every part of a person's life contribute to the welfare and satisfaction of those around him/her; how to keep down offensive pride; how to move among people inspired by various and conflictive motives, and yet not have collisions - these are things good manners teach...

  2. Sraboney, Interesting comment. Indian culture's emphasis on obedience and family honor ("shaming") could (does) prevent people from questioning the system, taking risks and thinking independently. I think that the ideal parenting style is probably a fine balance between Western freedom ("go out there, experience the world and learn for yourself") and Eastern respect ("remember how important family and community are.") On the one hand, we definitely want our daughters to reject abusive marriages and stand up for themselves, so we have to empower them to think for themselves and value themselves. On the other hand, we don't want a total disintegration of the family system (America has a 50% divorce rate, individualism at all costs etc.) so we do want to raise kids with Eastern values as well (respect parents and elders, value the family, make some sacrifices for the sake of the family/community.) It's all about striking a balance as parents -- but that is definitely difficult to do.

    When it comes to manners/tolerance etc. I think that the spectrum is wide -- some Indians are helpful and unselfish, others are intolerant and selfish. I don't necessarily agree that Indians are less tolerant and selfish than other groups of people (I think all people of all nationalities are fairly selfish and flawed), but definitely we should teach our children to be kind, generous and compassionate, not just to their immediate family and friends, but to all people.

    1. I think the caste system and patriarchy in India teach intolerance...Just yesterday there was a story about how 12 high caste men attacked a low caste man because the latter had the audacity to ride a motorbike in front of them...Every other day there is a news article about honour killing...Today there is an article about the action khaps are going to take against Amir Khan for what he said on his show 'Satyamev Jayati'...Isn't this intolerance? Yes, it's true I cannot generalize but I think a vast majority of parents teach their kids to be tolerant and docile within the rules of their community and be intolerant towards those who do not conform to these rules or are different...As you said, we don't teach children to be independent thinkers, we teach them to be followers...