When visiting foreign countries it's easy for expats to make simple observations and then form theories based off those observations. It's in our nature. Sometimes we're right, but often times we're far off. Culture is extremely complex and ever changing, making it that much more important in taking our time when coming to our own conclusions or trusting the theories of fellow expats.
Japan is no exception to this. Often times Westerners visiting Japan will notice how well-behaved, calm and independent Japanese children appear to be (e.g., little fuss when falling down or walking quietly alone at a very young age). Our Western minds love answers, so we start hypothesizing: "It must be strict parenting" or "Japanese parents don't show as much affection to their children, making kids less dependent on their parents."
Hedi Keller, a German psychologist did some interesting studies, comparing parenting in the West and East. What she found is very interesting.
Proximal vs. distal
Japanese parents tend to adopt a proximal parenting style. Proximal parenting is just as it sounds: close. Through things like co-sleeping, co-bathing, and tight living conditions, mother and baby are always near one another. Even more important than this is the heavy touch between mother and child. This consistent and prolong skin contact even has its own word: "Skinship," pronounced "Skinushipu" in Japanese.
The heavy touch at home may be surprising to foreigners who consistently observe thick boundaries and a lack of touch in Japan.
While in Japan proximal parenting is the norm, in the West distal parenting is more common. Distal parenting is just the opposite of proximal. Not to say that touch doesn't happen, but that other things become more of the focus. For example, during play, Western parents tend to focus their children attention on objects, words, and eye contact than they do on touch (relative to Japan).
Western parents also tend to spend more time physically away from their children than in Japan. In fact, Fred Rothbaum and others found that during the first 2 years of a child's life, American mothers spend approximately 24 hours every week away from their children (working, date nights, etc.), while Japanese mothers spend only 2 hours every week away from their child (this is changing however, as more Japanese women are becoming more powerful and gaining more respect in the workforce).
What's even more interesting is the outcome from these different parenting styles.
Self-regulation vs. self-recognition
Keller found a heavy correlation between proximal parenting and the early development of self-regulation, and between distal parenting and the early development of self-recognition. So, what does this mean?
Self-regulation is the ability to control one's own emotions and behaviors. Take for example the marshmallow test:
Or take a look at the show Hajimete No Ostukai, or "My First Errand," which is a popular Japanese reality show that follows incredibly young children who have been assigned a task by their parent, requiring the child or two siblings to go out in to town alone:
Self-recognition, on the other hand, is the ability to recognize a self exists. So, this means that one recognizes that his or her feelings differ from others and vice versa. It means that one recognizes that he or she has influence over the environment (e.g., I cry and mom brings me food). Take for example, the mirror test:
In short, Japanese children become better at controlling their emotions and behaviors earlier on than Western children do. So, things like increased patience or less fuss when falling can be expected in the Far East.
In the West, children are experts at being individuals, expressing and asserting themselves, and shaping their environments more so than children from Japan.
Proactively Preventing Fuss vs Expressing Needs
In Japan, mothers focus their attention on meeting the needs of their child before they exist. This is of course challenging, but not as challenging as it would be for a Western parent, given the fact that Japanese mothers are rarely away from their child. So, it can be said that in general, Japanese children have fewer reasons to fuss or cry because they know mother is usually there before they even need her.
Western parents tend to label this aspect of the Japanese parenting style as spoiling. In addition, to not allow a child to express their needs by fussing or crying is to neglect them of an opportunity to learn independence, communication, and assertiveness, all of which are heavily valued in the West.
Examining the differences in the parenting styles between these two very different cultures not only brings to light some new and interesting concepts, but may also help to highlight some of our own values that can often go unexamined and assumed. It also reminds us of the benefits and dangers from generalizing.
Generalizing helps to look at a culture as a whole and to tease out important differences between different groups of people. It helps us to learn about others and brings more awareness to our own values, which can often go undetected and assumed.
But, it can also reinforce stereotypes and cause us to assume a lot about others we meet. It's important to realize that not all Japanese fit into the proximal parenting style, just as not all Americans fit nicely into the distal parenting style.