Expats and foreigners visiting Japan are often surprised by how Japanese kids act; Westerners commonly report things like, less fuss, more mature behavior and greater self-sufficiency, than the kids in their home countries. And, for the number of foreigners making these kinds of observations, there are usually just as many theories as to why Japanese kids are the way they are; things like, “Japanese parenting style must be strict;” “Japan is so safe, giving kids more opportunity to learn independence from an early age;” “Japanese mothers don’t baby their children as much as Western parents do.”
There’s no question child development is complex, being influenced by a wide range of factors (e.g., culture, child temperament, a mother’s unique style, etc.), so it’s really no surprise why there are more questions than answers.
On top of this, the word gaijin (literally meaning “outside person,” and used by Japanese when referring to foreigners) is very revealing; “outsiders” are truly left in the dark in Japan, causing many to resort to speculation based off of public observations only.
What is the Typical Japanese Parenting Style?
Heidi Keller is known for identifying two types of parenting styles: proximal and distal. In short, the proximal parenting style is associated with consistent and prolonged body contact between the mother and child, while the distal parenting style’s emphasis is more on eye contact and communication through facial expression and words.
Proximal parenting style is common in Japan. So, things like co-sleeping, co-bathing, and play focused on physical contact between mother and child, are very much the norm.
Japanese mothers are also known for proactively predicting the needs of their child, making the prevention of fuss a high priority. Japanese mothers are also with their children, almost always, for the first two years of life. In fact, one survey found that Japanese mothers spend, on average, 2 hours per week away from baby, compared to American mothers who spend 24 hours away. Things like, babysitters, movie nights away from the baby, or weekend trips just for mom and dad aren’t common and not well accepted in Japanese culture. If you’re to be a respected mother in Japan, it’s expected that your baby will get your full attention for the first two years, bare minimum (however, mother’s staying home full-time is becoming less prevalent as more and more women are entering and staying in the workforce than ever before).
Westerners perceive the Japanese parenting style as spoiling children. In the West, mothers generally start influencing their children (consciously and unconsciously) in ways that encourage independence. A Western baby is viewed as initially dependent on mother, needing to be taught independence. One way to accomplish this, is to value and encourage self-expression. For a Western mother, allowing a baby to become fussy, is allowing the child to develop the crucial skills of self-expression and assertiveness; an attempt to prevent fuss altogether, would be to rob the child out of a very important lesson.
Japanese mothers tend to view their child as initially disconnected from the family, needing to be swayed into complete dependence on their mother. The result is an almost merging of the two minds; lines and boundaries are blurred and the child’s desires almost become the mother’s, and vice versa.
What’s the Result of the Japanese Parenting Style?
To understand the consequences of the typical Japanese parenting style (proximal parenting style), it’s first important to understand the term self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to the ability to control and monitor one’s own emotions, behaviors, thoughts and attention. A great example of this is the Marshmallow Test:
Self-regulation can been seen in a number of ways. For example, listening to a parent’s instructions, the ability to recover from emotional distress independently, or being able to persevere on a task, even after a number of failed attempts.
A perfect example of self-regulation in Japanese kids can be seen in this clip from “Hajimete no Otsukai,” or “My First Errand.” “Hajimete no Ostukai,” is a popular Japanese television series, which is a reality show, following two siblings, who have been tasked by their parents to go out in to town for the very first time. The kids chosen for each episode are shockingly young, both for Western and Japanese cultures (though not common to see kids this young wondering the streets in Japan, it’s not unheard of either). In this particular episode, you can see how well the siblings cope. Keep in mind how intense of a day this is for two siblings, out on the town for hours alone for the very first time.
Self-regulation at work:
Heidi Keller, in addition to identifying two distinctive parenting styles, found a high correlation between a proximal parenting style (Japanese parenting style) and the early development of self-regulation. So, in general, Japanese children are better at self-regulation than most Western children, earlier on in life. Keller also found a high correlation between distal parenting style (Western parenting style) and the early development of self-recognition.
What is self-recognition? Self-recognition is the ability to understand that one’s thoughts and emotions are different from others’ in the world.
Take the Mirror Test, for example:
So, Western children, though not as skilled in self-regulation as Japanese children, are able see themselves as players in their environment, earlier on; they begin to recognize they have influence and control over their environment: “I cry, I get fed.” “I whine and mom picks me up.”
Western babies slowly become masters over their environments through assertiveness and self-expression (self-recognition). Japanese babies, on the other hand, know from consistent experience, “mother is always around, and she always figures out what I need, whether I cry or not.” Japanese babies become masters at restricting their emotions and waiting until their needs are met by mom (self-regulation).
Understanding the influence proximal and distal parenting styles have on child development makes it easier to understand why Westerners commonly observe more calmness and obedience in Japanese children. But, there is still more to consider.
The Importance of Empathy
Considering how one’s own actions impacts others is crucial for maintaining one of the most valuable things in Japan: group harmony. This makes empathy the core of Japanese culture, and to no surprise, the core of Japanese parenting. While Western parents usually demand compliance from their children (for example, through the use of verbal commands and punishment), Japanese mothers are known for constantly feeding back to their children how their actions affect the feelings of others, or even the feelings of objects. Japanese children from an early age, begin to soak in the importance of considering others before they act.
Discipline in Japan
Japan is often viewed as a strict culture, which leads many foreigners to suspect strict rules and enforcement by Japanese parents at home. This isn’t always the case, however. While Western parents are more focused on rule compliance and consistency of enforcement, Japanese parents tend to give into rules more and not rely so much on punishment. Instead, Japanese children are part of small groups (school, after school clubs, sports, etc.), which emphasize the importance of cooperation and harmony. The social pressure from these groups act as rule enforcers, indirectly demanding compliance, and teaching children proper behavior and obedience.
Culture and Children
Culture begins to influence children even before they are born, from the things mother eats to the sounds they begin to hear while inside the womb. After children are born, the influence culture has, increases at a rapid pace. The timing of the development of certain skills in children, depends on the importance the culture places on that certain skill. So, in Japan, where things like empathy and restricting the display of emotions are valued, it can be expected that children develop these skills very early on. Or, in the U.S., where the individual is valued, with skills like self-expression and assertiveness being important, it can be expected that American children will develop these skills early on, relative to the East.
So, which parenting style is better? This is not the right question to ask, leading us further away from taking something of great value away from a cross-cultural comparison. Instead, maybe better questions to ask are: what can I take away from this? Is there anything I want to know more about? Is there something I can learn from the Japanese parenting style and incorporate into my own life? What stood out for me the most and why? Is there anything new I learned about my own culture?
It’s also important to remind ourselves that with cultural studies comes many generalizations. This is unavoidable. The possible consequences of comparisons like this, is that it can lead and encourage readers to stereotype. Please be aware of this in yourself, understanding that this is Japanese and American culture, in general. There are of course many subcultures in each country, and though the majority may be consistent with these findings, not all are.
Even if one has no interest in other cultures, comparisons like these are, at least, a way to become more aware of our own values that we often simply assume and unconsciously pursue.
Brian O’Sullivan, LMFT is a psychotherapist in private practice in Okinawa, Japan. Brian offers online counseling for clients in California, counseling in Okinawa, Japan, and online therapy in Japan.
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Developmental consequences of early parenting experiences: Self-recognition and self-regulation in three cultural communities.
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Situating the child in context: attachment relationships and self-regulation in different cultures.
The development of close relationships in Japan and the United States: Paths of symbiotic harmony and generative tension.
Infant sleeping arrangements and cultural values among contemporary Japanese mothers.
A Japanese translation of this post can be found at madameriri.com. Thank you Riyoko-san!