When researchers at the University of Connecticut asked parents around the world to describe their children, they learned a lot about what cultures see and value. When it comes to parenting, Americans say their kids are smart, while other countries call them happy or easy or even-tempered.
A comparison between the United States and The Netherlands came first for the study. The researchers, the husband-wife duo of Sara Harkness and Charles Super, from the School of Family Studies at UConn, noted big differences. American parents talked about setting aside one-on-one time with children, while Dutch families try to do things together as a family each day, for example. They also take a more relaxed approach to getting young kids to sleep than the Americans, but the Dutch children end up getting more sleep.
In all, the duo and their international collaborators looked at descriptions provided by 60 families each from six different countries. In each country they questioned parents of a dozen children from each of five different age groups, starting with those who had kids 6 months old and ending with age 8.
American parents said their children "ask questions" and are "intelligent." Italian kids are "easy," "well-balanced" and "even-tempered" in equal measure, their parents said. "Happy" was the word in Australia, The Netherlands and Sweden, but didn't make the American list of top answers at all. That list also contained in equal measure the words "cognitively advanced," "independent," "rebellious" and "adaptable."
None of the words in any country were used first by a majority of parents; they were just the ones used the most. In America, for instance, 8 percent said their kids ask questions, while 6 percent said they are intelligent, but those were top answers in the "culture-specific" category. The other four words tied at 5 percent each.
There were also "common descriptors" across the countries: "sociable," "loving," "active" and "strong willed." For instance, 10 percent of American families describe their children as sociable — in Australia, it was 15 percent.
"If you look just at the words parents use to describe their children, you can almost always predict where you are in the world," wrote Nicholas Day for Slate. "In other words, your most personal observations of your child are actually cultural constructions. In a study conducted by Harkness and her international colleagues, American parents talked about their children as intelligent and even as 'cognitively advanced.' (Also: rebellious.) Italian parents, though, very rarely praised their children for being intelligent. Instead, they were even-tempered and 'simpatico.' So although both the Americans and the Italians noted that their children asked lots of questions, they meant very different things by it: For the Americans, it was a sign of intelligence; for the Italians, it was a sign of socio-emotional competence. The observation was the same; the interpretation was radically different."
In an article in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan noted that "the authors write that these terms might hint at local, cultural constructions as to what it means to be a child in each country. It's interesting that the findings are in line with other deep dives into the contrasts between European and American parenting, such as with the book 'Bringing up Bebe,' in which an American mom living in Paris realizes that the secret to having your kid play quietly without bugging you is to simply schedule fewer activities and laissez-faire."
In an interview with Day, Harkness voiced concerns about the American approach to parenting. “We’re on the verge of trying to export very ethnocentric ideas about what competencies children need to develop at a very early age, which is really unfortunate,” she told him. “The U.S.’s almost obsession with cognitive development in the early years overlooks so much else.”
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