All the signs were there—the pitter-patter of little feet, high-pitched voices rising and quickly escalating into yells: “I had it first, it’s mine!” “No mine!” as the kids pulled simultaneously at the same toy.
I dashed into the battle zone before the yanked-on object became each others’ hair, hoping to worm the combatants to a truce. Too late. My husband had grabbed the coveted toy and within minutes both culprits were stalking off to their respective time-out spots. In separate rooms, of course. Quietly, I backed out for the mandated one-minute-per-age-of-life wait.
Only a few years earlier, that same scene would have been followed by a tangle between my California-born husband and me, his Egyptian-born and bred wife. “You’re too strict!” would have been countered with “You’re too lenient!” He’d use time-outs, I’d scold and teach while our cute little guinea pigs—whose passion it was to watch the fun and seek cracks in Mom and Dad’s armor—ran circles around us. Heaven knows it’s taken us years to come to our own truces!
Somewhere between the philanthropic images of loving parents showing their child how to cope with the outside world and the specter of fearful images invoked by the proverb “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” lie varying discipline interpretations for most of the cultures of the world.
Discipline practices in China are based on ancient Confucian ethics and the belief that infants arrive from the gods with an inherently good nature that is to be respected. This belief fosters interdependence within families, requiring that the elders responsibly teach, train, educate, discipline, and govern (“guan”) their children.
According to Dr. Vicki Ritts, associate professor of Psychology and Behavioral Science at St. Louis Community College, “The Chinese conceptualize childhood as two distinct periods called the ‘age of innocence’ and the ‘age of understanding.'” Dr. Ritts states that during the age of innocence, Chinese mothers nurture their children and tend to their every need, often to an extent that would be considered lenient or indulgent by Western standards. This is because they believe that children lack cognitive competence at that age and are not capable of much learning. It is when children reach the “age of understanding” at around age 5 to 6 years that stricter methods and training are abruptly implemented.
As part of this training, there is an emphasis on culturally-approved behavior as well as academic performance. Although terms like “training” and “governing” may raise Western brows or be considered authoritarian, that is not the case within the Chinese culture, where love, concern and involvement are all equated with discipline, high parental expectations and obedience teaching. Piety and a sense of obligation to parents (“hsiao”) are also valued.
In her paper, Infusing Culture into Parenting Issues, Dr. Ritts quotes Kojimo, 1986: “In Japanese culture, Shinto beliefs traditionally regarded children under seven as ‘belonging to the gods.’ In order to keep the gods happy, children were indulged and treated with leniency so that they did not decide to return to the gods.” She adds that Japanese toddlers are encouraged to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of others and to conform to social expectations.
Judy Coker, an American teacher on Sabbatical at Kyoto International School in Kyoto, concurs. “Children are definitely revered,” she says. “They are smiled at, fussed over, and indulged by everyone.” As far as kids being treated leniently, she adds, “To the Western eye, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between being ‘very spoiled’ and ‘treated gently!’ It often looks to us as though the young children simply run the show, and mothers dash after them trying to keep up.”
However, Coker’s experience does not bear out the idea that toddlers are more sensitive to the needs of others. “Again, to my Western eye, they seem to be just as egocentric as Western toddlers and expect the world to revolve around them…and, here it seems to! Every bump is fussed over and given a bandage, every whimper is addressed and consoled. Conforming to social standards seems to take place once the child enters school.”
In Japan, mothers are often responsible for disciplining the children, rarely displaying anger, but placing emphasis on explaining the consequences of children’s actions as a reason for self-restraining. Grandmothers also play a dominant role in child-rearing. As in Chinese culture, discipline becomes stricter when the child reaches the “age of understanding.”
The children of India, a predominantly Hindu nation with large minorities of Sikhs and Muslims, are raised within a hierarchal kinship structure and Hindu religious beliefs. “Obedience to authority, passivity, and interdependence are highly valued,” explains Dr. Ritts. “Childhood is viewed as a sensitive time period where children are moldable. Thus, the environment, especially the parents, are believed to play an important role in child development.”
Indian moms lovingly massage their babies daily and carry them close to their bodies. Co-sleeping during the early years is another characteristic of the close mother-infant relationship. Yet, while infants and young children are indulged, Dr. Ritts points out that the need for guidance is recognized, as is the belief that children are capable of learning at a young age. Discipline is often strict and children are taught to obey their parents. Physical punishment is sometimes used to discipline, control, and teach the child appropriate behaviors.
In Egypt, kids are called “Amood el Agazah,” meaning the staff of old age that elderly parents can lean on for support and care. Although little is known of disciplinary practices in ancient Egypt, it is clear that children were valued. Babies were carried in slings around their mothers’ necks and were nursed for three years. Many toys and games were found in excavations. Good manners, morals, and self-control were instilled early on, along with the importance of living with Ma’at: a belief in the divine order of life and its aftermath. Discipline in the temples, where children were placed for academic education, was often harsh.
Today, children are cherished among Egyptian families, but socio-economic structure plays a large role in how they are raised. In rural settings farmers have large families, and kids as young as five work with their families in the fields. Girls’ childhoods are short, with arranged marriages still the norm at the age of puberty. In urban settings, families tend to be smaller. Kids are taught obedience and respect for their elders, with high value placed on academic performance.
As in the rest of the Middle East, society sets strict codes of conduct and behavior, and children are expected to conform.
The Workshop on Child Rearing Practices and Beliefs in Sub-Saharan Africa, held in Windhoek, Namibia in October 1993, points out the similarity of practices within traditional societies studied in Mali, Nigeria, Namibia, Zambia, and Malawi.
In those countries, not only are children highly valued, but being childless is considered the worst fate that can befall a man and a woman. The entire community considers it their responsibility to see that each child, a “gift of God,” is raised appropriately. Elders transmit their cultural values and teach the young, and discipline centers around the values that children are expected to learn.
In Malawi, the workshop report quotes the saying, “M’mera ndipoyamba,” meaning that the child is like a plant that must be nurtured while young so it will grow strong and productive. Most of the cultures studied set goals around the development of their children’s appropriate social skills and humanistic values.
“In Nigeria, there is a clear expectation that the child should be ‘good.'” In other words, one who follows cultural tradition and cares for the parents. Nigerian parents disown a child who does not conform to cultural norms.
While recognizing that generalizations about Native American Indians can seldom be made because tribes are different, it appears that children occupied a special place in Native American culture. They were taught to respect life, and were viewed with love and caring (Gridley, 1974; Terrell and Terrell, 1974).
In her article, Guidance of American Indian Children, Dr. Harriett K. Light, Professor of Child Development and Family Relations at North Dakota State University gives the results of a study conducted on 32 American Indian teachers who attended a Head Start training session in North Dakota. The teachers were asked to state childhood behaviors they found most bothersome and methods of discipline used. “The behavior that bothered most teachers was disrespect towards older people … physical aggression … swearing, rudeness, disobedient behavior, behavior that was dependent and clinging, jealousy, silly, and attention-getting.”
Ninety-one percent of the respondents to the study said they never used spanking to discipline a child, the remaining nine responded that they spanked sometimes. Talking about bothersome behavior and explaining what should or should not be done was the method most frequently used to discipline the children.
According to Dr. Ritts, in the Navajo Indian culture collective behavior is encouraged, but individualistic behavior is respected without punishment. “The belief in the inviolability of the individual plays a large role in the parents’ attitude toward discipline,” she says. “Discipline is typically conducted by persuasion, ridicule, or shame. Corporal punishment is basically nonexistent. An adult or older child tends to divert the young child rather than use punishment.”
The term Latino refers to people from many different countries who are united by a common language—Spanish. While there are many differences from one country to another, certain attitudes and family features are common to Latino families. “Familalism is one of the most prominent cultural values,” says Dr. Ritts. “Families emphasize sharing and cooperation rather than competition. Extended family support is the norm.” She adds that children in those cultures are expected to be calm, obedient, courteous, and respectful of adults. “In Latino families discipline is often strict. It was originally thought that Latino parents were more authoritarian than American parents. Today the belief is that Latino parents exhibit a broad range of parenting styles comparable to American parents.”
Although the use of time-outs, a term that originates with sports, is a typically American and Canadian form of disciplining children, European cultures appear to be on the same page in terms of implementing other forms of discipline. Distraction tactics work for very young children, while rewards and withdrawal of privileges are effective for older kids, as are democratic parenting styles that involve kids in family rule-making, all of which appear to be fairly universal among American and European parents.
Changing European times have ousted old sayings, such as “The nail that stands up gets hammered down,” and “Children should be seen and not heard,” even as several Western European countries followed Sweden’s lead by outlawing spanking and implementing legislation that prohibits corporal punishment.
The range of child-rearing philosophies and discipline styles around the world is perhaps as wide and numerous as there are parents to implement them. Learning about other cultures provides parents with opportunities to discover alternative discipline-effective methods that foster motivation, creativity, and emotional health in our children.