• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 16th April, 2008

What hope (or danger) of a global “gold standard” for parenting?

Spend much time perusing research on parenting, and you might be persuaded that parenting is an emerging science, and that once the relationship between parenting practices and children’s outcomes has been thoroughly understood, we will be able to describe how it’s done – by applying universal, timeless criteria and routines.However, some researchers approach parenting as an art, more specifically as a cultural art. From their perspective, what passes as good parenting depends on people being in touch and in tune with the particulars of time and place. Industrialized western cultures, for example, tend to value independence, and western parenting thus tends to encourage children to be rugged individualists, competing with one another for prominence. At the other end of the spectrum are families in rural communities who subsist by farming. Here parents focus on connections among individuals; they are physically more affectionate with their children and they stress the importance of respecting elders. By the same broad reckoning, in between the industrialized and the remaining rural communities are families who still have roots in interdependent cultures but are now living in urban areas. Such hybrids tend to emphasize the importance of both interconnection and independence in their children.The Chinese have a word for this sort of safety net of relationships – Guanxi – whose intricate expression of ideas about connectedness and context is beginning to attract attention in the west, particularly among a new generation of organizational and management theorists.To examine the fluid differences in “ethnotheories” across cultures and generations, a group of German researchers from the Department of Culture and Development, University of Osnabruck and Indian researchers from the Department of Child Development at Lady Irwin College, New Delhi, interviewed mothers and grandmothers of three-month-old infants in four different cultural environments.Their work focused on urban German and Indian middle-class families and on the Nso people from the Northwest Province of Cameroon in Western Africa who represent a people in awkward transition between the rural and the urban. The researchers spoke to 134 mothers and 66 grandmothers As expected, they found that the Berlin mothers were the most interested in their children becoming independent, and the rural Nso mothers were the most focused on connection. But they also found signs of a global trend toward parenting that encourages autonomy. For example, the differences among the ideas of the grandmothers in different cultures were more pronounced than the differences among the mothers. Even the Nso mothers tended to focus on independence more than did their own mothers.If the globalizing trend, here intruding on the realm of emotional attachment, is real and continues, perhaps there will come a day when all countries agree on a constructed gold standard of parenting. Until then, how well we parent will depend at least in part on how well adjusted we are to where and how we live.• Summary of “Grandmaternal and Maternal Ethnotheories About Early Child Care” by Bettina Lamm, Heidi Keller, Relindis D. Yovsi, Nandita Chaudhary in Journal of Family Psychology, February 2008, Vol. 22, No. 1, p. 80–88.

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