What Immigrant Parents Can Teach Us About Raising Good Kids

Kids behave better when parents are consistent with each other.

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Culture has a big effect on how parents raise children, and since 20 percent of children in the United States were born to immigrant parents, with that number expected to rise to 30 percent by 2015, those families have a big impact on American culture, too.

As a member of an immigrant family (my husband grew up in Russia), I’m intensely curious about how parents use their native culture for better or worse in raising children. The current issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, which is all about immigrant families, gives clues as to how culture affects child rearing. For instance, immigrant Chinese-American moms and dads are much better at being on the same page in their expectations for children than are European-American mothers and fathers, who vary much more in their parenting style and behavioral standards, according to research by Carol Huntsinger and Paul Jose. The Chinese-American parents present much more of a united front.

“Chinese parents have a more similar idea of how children need to be guided,” Huntsinger, a professor of education at Northern Illinois University, told me. “The European-American parents tend to have much more individual ideas and do their own thing. That’s what we emphasize in this country.” That’s for sure, I thought, thinking of my husband’s and my very different ideas on discipline, which I think comes more from American culture than from his Russian heritage.

Compared with the European-American kids, the Chinese-American children were better behaved and did better scholastically, Huntsinger found in following 35 Chinese-American families and 38 European-American families in the Chicago area. This was based on reports from the children themselves from ages 5 to 9, as well as their parents and teachers. The Chinese-American children also had fewer behavioral problems if their fathers endorsed the Chinese notion of chaio shun, or training: that the parents supervise children very closely, and children don’t have a lot of freedom to make their own choices.

“It really addresses how close they keep their children,” says Huntsinger, a child development expert who has been studying immigrant families for almost 20 years. “They’re with them most of the time. They’re there to correct them at most points in their early lives. They don’t let misbehavior pass.”

The take-home message: “If mothers and fathers can be consistent, there will be fewer behavior problems,” Huntsinger says. That’s a message that makes sense in any culture.

I’m fascinated by research into how parents raise kids, and I wrote about behavioral psychology’s approach to “evidence-based parenting” last year.