Eastern vs. Western parenting

Over the past decade, there’s heightened interest and discussion about the critical importance and impact of different parenting styles — in particular eastern vs. western parenting — on a child’s academic performance, self-confidence, emotional development, behaviour and ability to cope with life’s challenges – Aruna Raghuram


A progressive educated new-age parent would not imagine forbidding her child to have a play date, watch television or choose the extracurricular activity she wants to pursue! But these are among the many things Amy Chua, an ethnic Chinese professor at Yale Law School and author of the bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), forbade her two daughters from doing. Her controversial book is an ode to the authoritarian Asian parenting style vis-à-vis American soft parenting.

Over the past decade in particular, there’s heightened interest and discussion about the critical importance and impact of different parenting styles — in particular eastern vs. western parenting — on a child’s academic Amy Chuaperformance, self-confidence, emotional development, behaviour and ability to cope with life’s challenges. In the 1960s, US-based clinical and developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind (1927-2018) famously categorised three parenting styles — authoritarian, disciplinarian; permissive and indulgent; and authoritative — commonly used today by family coaches to help parents understand and improve their parenting skills. According to Baumrind, authoritarian parents are disciplinarians and punishment is common, and communication is mostly one way: from parent to child. Conversely permissive parents are more like friends than parents, and their parenting style is liberal. Baumrind believed that the authoritative style — wherein parents draw boundaries and provide guidance, but also give children the freedom to make decisions and learn from their mistakes — is the most beneficial for all-round development of children.

While Eastern parenting (Chinese, Indian) is generally regarded as ‘authoritarian’, Western (US, Europe) parents are believed to be more liberal, ranged between permissive and authoritative. Within India’s aggressive, upwardly mobile middle class, Eastern parenting is the rule rather than exception with tiger parents demanding blood, sweat and tears from their children, especially in the pursuit of academic excellence. The flourishing private coaching schools industry — typified by the cram schools of Kota (Rajasthan) — which rake in a reported Rs.75,000 crore per year, are testimony to the aggressiveness of India’s tiger parents. On the other hand such micro-managing of children’s lives is rare in America where children are not burdened by high parental expectations, and their sensitivities are a national preoccupation.

“Most Indian parents have very high academic expectations of their children and aggressively push them to attain them. This authoritarian parenting style doesn’t always work with children. Every child has unique talents and aptitudes, and a one size fits all approach isn’t advisable. The role of parents is to provide conducive and positive home environments in which children can develop their academic as well socio-emotional skills. Parenting styles need to be adapted and modified to suit the child’s personality and talents,” says Dr. Sumithra Prasad, psychologist and general secretary of Chennai-based Dorai Foundation, which works with special needs children.

The history and culture of a country greatly impact parenting. A case in point is China. Comments a study titled ‘Cultural differences in parenting practices: What Asian American families can teach us’, published in ResearchLink (2010): “Chinese culture is largely influenced by Confucian philosophy. This philosophy emphasises respect for authority, devotion to parents, emotional restraint, and the importance of education.” Therefore Chinese parenting practices are based on the concepts of chiao shun (to train) and guan (to govern and love). Similarly, India’s ancient child-rearing traditions including the gurukul system are based on respect for authority, devotion to parents with Sushant Kalragreat importance accorded to learning and education.

“In the Eastern hemisphere including India, cultural conformity and family bonds are very strong and deeply rooted in the community. Extended family and even neighbours contribute greatly to raising children. In Western culture, this is regarded as interference and an infringement of personal space of nuclear families. Moreover it’s common in eastern cultures for parents to be actively involved in the lives of children after their marriage and joint families are still very prevalent in rural India. Parents support children — emotionally and financially — throughout their lives in India. This authoritarian style has its advantages and has worked well for many children,” says Sushant Kalra, founder of Parwarish, a Delhi-based company which organises parenting workshops.

Can both styles work?

Research conducted by Stanford University highlights that the European-American and Asian-American approaches work. In their study My Mother and Me: Why Tiger Mothers Motivate Asian Americans But Not European Americans, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2014), scholars Alyssa Fu and Hazel Markus suggest that motivation “comes from within an individual in Western families”, while Asian children “find strength in parental expectations”. The bottom line is that children can be motivated either way.

In the Google age, where family dynamics are constantly influenced by social media and technology, parents are adapting and customising child-rearing styles and strategies. According to Xinyin Chen, professor of applied psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, globalisation and new technologies are influencing cultural values that underpin parenting styles, and consequently the East and West may be reshaping each other’s parenting norms. Chen says that as countries in Asia, Africa and South America become industrialised and westernised, their cultures are becoming more individualistic and parents are adapting their child-rearing styles and values accordingly.

For instance, in China, parents are reportedly becoming less authoritarian and more sensitive to the emotions and needs of their children, encouraging them to exercise greater independence and autonomy. Similarly, there’s growing evidence to indicate that in recent years a rising number of Western parents have higher expectations of their children in terms of academic achievement, and supervise and monitor their activities more closely.

“The attention that Western society gives to Tiger Moms is an unexpected story of cultural exchange around parenting… the Tiger Mom concept has very publicly migrated the other way — from East to West, that is, from the more traditional world to the ‘developed world’. In the West, concerns about the importance of education have made parents ready for fresh thinking. They’re open to the idea that pushing their children hard to achieve academically may have something more to offer than laissez-faire Western approaches that have failed some children,” writes Chen in the online Child and Family Blog (February 2017).

In short, it is in the best interests of children that the East and West learn from each other and adapt and customise their parenting styles to suit their children and families.

Do you prefer Eastern or Western parenting?

Here are some pointers to assess which parenting style you follow and lean towards:

Father and DaughterIndependence. Western parents accord great importance to nurturing independent children. For instance, it’s normative in the West for infants to sleep in a separate room with teens moving out of the family home once they turn 18 years. On the other hand in South Asia parents tend to be more protective of their children. In Indian families, it is not unusual for youth to live with their parents until they get married and even after that, in joint families.

In most Western societies, individualism and independence are viewed as positive, laudable traits. In contrast, in collectivist Eastern societies, parents expect obedience and co-operation.

Academics. Eastern parents demand good academic performance. In fact, they believe their children’s academic success reflects successful parenting. On the other hand Western parents don’t push their children too hard as they are highly sensitive to hurting their self-esteem which may lead to underperformance in life.

Decision making. Very often, Eastern parents make decisions for their children — beginning from how much and what to study to which career to choose. Chennai-based education consultant and author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age (2016), Maya Thiagarajan, cites the example of a young Indian mother justifying academic pressure in her book: “But I feel I am doing my duty when I make my daughter study hard, because then I know that I am helping her learn and succeed. It’s when I don’t make my child do extra work that I feel terribly guilty.”

In Western households, children are encouraged to express their opinions and make independent decisions.
punishment. It’s common for eastern parents to use force or punishment including corporal punishment against disobedient children. However in most Western countries, physical punishment in home environments is banned and can be punished under law. But it’s common in the West to ‘ground’ children wherein they are not allowed to go out, meet friends or play, as punishment.

Give and take. Eastern parents are known to make huge financial and personal sacrifices to provide for their children, and expect their offspring to care for them in their old age. Western parents believe in personal fulfilment and the pursuit of happiness. Says Maya Thiagarajan: “I think that on average Indian mothers are very giving. At times, this can backfire — we need to step back and let our children have difficult experiences because that’s how they learn and develop resilience, independence, and inner strength.”

Fun/enjoyment. Western households allow time for friends and social events. In an Eastern household, parents would think twice before letting their child attend a birthday party as they feel more useful things can be done with that time. As Amy Chua writes in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To be good at anything you have to work…”

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