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Study shows parenting styles have similar effects in China and U.S.

Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor
217-333-5802; diya@illinois.edu

Released 9/14/2007

Photo of Eva Pomerantz
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Eva Pomerantz, right, an Illinois professor of psychology, and graduate student Qian Wang studied the effects of parenting styles in China and the U.S. The study is the first to definitively show that the effects of parents’ control and autonomy support are quite similar in the two cultures No other study has examined the effects of parenting styles over time and in socio-economically equivalent families in the two cultures.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new study from the University of Illinois puts to rest the idea that overly controlling or manipulative parenting styles are less destructive to a child’s emotional and academic functioning in China than in the U.S.

The study found that “parents’ psychological control” – the use of emotional manipulation such as withdrawing love, inducing guilt or shaming children for not behaving in accordance with the parents’ wishes – has similar negative effects on children in China and the U.S. The study appears in the September/October issue of the journal Child Development.

The researchers also found that setting reasonable limits on children’s behavior (behavioral control) and supporting children in making decisions on their own (autonomy support) had similar positive effects on children’s academic and emotional functioning in the U.S. and China. The positive results were significantly stronger in U.S. children, however.

Previous studies have compared the effects of parenting styles in China and the U.S., but have not settled the debate over whether cultural differences meant that Chinese children were less affected by parenting practices shown to have negative effects on children in the U.S. No other study has examined the effects of parenting styles over time and in socio-economically equivalent families in the two cultures.

“The finding is the first to definitively show that the effects of parents’ control and autonomy support are quite similar in the two cultures, but that there are some differences, and these seem to revolve around this issue that autonomy support is more beneficial in the U.S. than in China,” said psychology professor Eva Pomerantz, one of the principal investigators. “This suggests that there’s a basic need for autonomy, but its fulfillment appears to be more important in the U.S. than in China.”

Pomerantz and graduate student Qian Wang examined parenting styles and the emotional and academic functioning of 806 American and Chinese seventh graders. The students were from working- and middle-class families and were enrolled in academically similar public schools. The six-month longitudinal study included children’s reports of parenting styles as well as the students’ assessments of their own emotional and academic functioning. For example, the children reported on their experience of happiness or sadness as well as their studying strategies. The researchers also obtained records of the children’s grades.

“Psychological control had a negative effect on children’s emotional and academic functioning in both countries and the strengths of the effects were similar,” said Wang, who conducted the research for her dissertation.

“Satisfying children’s need for autonomy is important in both countries. It matters for children’s academic and emotional functioning,” Wang said. “But it was more so in the U.S.”

Pomerantz said that the heightened response to autonomy support in American children might be a result of U.S. culture being more supportive of children’s independence.

“Everybody has a basic need to feel autonomous – that is, for self-determination,” Pomerantz said. “But America is this very individualistic, autonomous society; we really value being unique and doing things on our own.” Other traits, such as harmonious social relations, may be valued more in China, she said.

Editor’s note: To reach Eva Pomerantz, call 217-244-2538; e-mail: pomerntz@illinois.edu.   

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