Parents and Children

Co-sleeping: comforting or coddling?

This unit looks at the relationships between parents and children, and issues of discipline, indulgence and how children learn (or are taught) the rules of society. We begin with the question of children sleeping in the same bed as their parents. Students can easily relate to this very concrete topic. Co-sleeping is common in Japanese culture, until the age of six or seven, but some sleep next to their parents, as our students shared with us in class. Sleeping with a comforting presence by their side has been a defining experience in their lives. They also often have the experience of sleeping together in the living room.

In the West, co-sleeping, especially after the child has reached an age  is generally frowned upon. As British Catriona says on page 59, people think it can hinder their child’s development: “In the UK, many people think that if little children sleep in the same bed as their parents they will never “cut the cord,” that is, become fully independent from their parents.” The idea that children should become independent is valued in the West as a whole, and by contrast not valued in Japan, where it is considered normal for these small, helpless beings to be nurtured and allowed to amaeru (depend upon) others

Parents’ privacy as a couple is also valued in Western countries, as American Bill states: “The parents’ bed should remain a place for the couple, not for the family.” This entails letting children cry at night for a few weeks after they are placed in a crib to sleep on their own. Children have to learn that they must sleep alone, in the dark, at designated times. Parents who follow that practice find it hard emotionally but necessary. In Japan, support for little children is total. The idea of letting a child cry is anathem. Respondent Jennifer says on page 61, “I get the impression that mothers in Japan are expected to devote all of their time and energy to their children.” Couples typically have very little intimacy for their couple life and accept it as inevitable.

Supporting children versus teaching them the rules of society

The question of discipline, or how strict parents should be with children, is the second aspect this unit deals with. Our French respondents and other ethnological sources lead us to believe that French culture is quite strict with children, since their early years. The general idea is that children must quickly learn the rules of society, lest they become “spoiled brats.” This means they must learn table manners, not to be noisy in restaurants, and other basic social skills. American parents are, in contrast, more intent on the idea of supporting their children. From the point of view of French people, this can lead to excessive leniency. For example, if a child were to interrupt adults who were in the middle of a conversation, a French parent would say “Let us speak!” to their child, and Even the conversation partner or a bystander (with no relation to the child) might make a remark to that effect! American parents are generally more forgiving of this behavior, and will stop to listen to what the child has to say. This leads to epic culture shocks between American and French people, as Raymonde Carroll delineates in her chapter on Parents and Children. Australian respondent Tim says on page 60 that “I would say that children in my culture are supported almost to the point of being indulged”, echoing the cultural pattern that Carroll describes in the context of American culture. In the One Step Further section, we have described this continuum as, “Parenting is centered on the child” vs. “Parenting is based on rules and manners”.

But again, it is a question of point of comparison. New Zealander Rick marvels on page 61 that, “I have always been struck by how much some Japanese parents pamper their children. I see my wife’s relatives sleeping in the same bed as their kids, preparing their meals, even letting them choose the family dinner menu. I sometimes worry that these children will never learn any responsibility.” 

Indulgence and socialization in Japan

At the same time, Japanese children also learn to follow the rules of society.  Rick continues: “But once they leave the house, these same kids are amazingly mature. Many small children walk by themselves to school, and carry out many duties in their classrooms, such as serving lunches and cleaning the school. This gap between indulgence and discipline is pretty startling for many Westerners I’ve spoken to.” 

Research and anecdotes reveal that Japanese parents are generally supportive of their children and tend to avoid any direct confrontation of wills. Social learning happens largely outside, in settings such as schools and clubs (see Unit 5: In the Clubhouse).. American professor and interculturalist John Spiri (see reference and link to article below) explains: “I’ve been shocked at times (not necessarily in a negative way but just very surprised) by how indulgent Japanese parents are. I feel Japanese parenting is more hands-off. For example, I recently saw the following scene play out in a nearby park. A Japanese mother tells her twelve-year-old daughter that it’s time to go home. The girl, tossing crumbs to carp in the pond, ignores her. More requests, with escalating firmness, are also ignored. The mother, and grandmother, wait for around five minutes. Finally, the girl finishes her feeding and they all walk off together. It was remarkable for me how there wasn’t a clash of wills between the mother and her child. I think that in a similar situation in America, parents would make it a question of obedience to their will.” 

This corroborates response No.2 in the One Step Further section, by a British mother who has raised her children in Japan. “A few things about parenting have surprised me while living in Japan. For example, we were at a friend’s house and their child was jumping on the sofa, so my kids started jumping up and down too. I told my kids to get down. I said, “We don’t jump on furniture.” But the mother said, “No, no, it’s okay!” I replied, “No, it is not okay. They can’t jump on furniture.” If other people’s kids jumped on my furniture I would tell them off.”

Individualism-collectivism: narrow scope, better vision

A connection can be made with the concepts of individualism and collectivism. When these concepts are used in a wide-ranging way, to make blanket statements (such as “Western cultures are individualistic and Japanese culture is collectivist”), they sometimes obscure important aspects of cultural diversity. 
As we saw in Unit 7 for example, French people can be considered to be either individualistic or collectivist, depending on the situation considered. In the public sphere, when surrounded by strangers, they don’t mind PDAs (an expression of an “individualistic” mindset), but in the presence of friends and family they are more restrained, by respect for the other people present (a more “collectivist” one). 
So, are French people individualist, or collectivist? It depends on the situation that is being considered. The individualism-collectivism continuum (or any such abstract concept) is most useful when it is applied with a more narrow focus, that is, on that of a specific situation. For example, the way people feel about PDAs in the public sphere, when surrounded by strangers (situation 1). the way people feel about PDAs in the presence of friends and family (situation 2).
In the same way, in Unit 8 (Conversation and Discussion) we saw some similarities in the way American and Japanese people view disagreement in discussion. In both of these cultures this is looked upon rather favorably, albeit to quite different degrees. This stands in contrast with people from French culture, and probably people from other Latin cultures, who are generally unfazed by disagreement and contradiction, and could therefore be seen as more individualistic, at least within the prism of that situation.
In this unit on Parents and Children, if we  attempt to categorize cultures using the individualist-collectivist continuum, we could posit that:On the topic of co-sleeping, Western cultures  considered as a whole are individualistic and Japanese culture is collectivist.On the other hand, from the point of view of how strict parents should be with their children (as described in the second part of this unit), our French respondents and other ethnological sources lead us to believe that French culture is quite strict with children, even in their early years. This can be seen as collectivist, because the focus is on learning and following the social rules of politeness, so as not to disturb others. American parents are, in contrast, more intent on the idea of supporting their children. From the vantage point of French people, this can be seen as individualistic, as they think it’s best to side with one’s child no matter what, even if that means defying societal norms..In Japan, support and indulgence for little children is total. Parents are supportive of their children and tend to avoid direct confrontation of the wills. Social learning happens largely outside, in schools and clubs. From both the points of view of co-sleeping and discipline, Japanese parents can therefore be said to have a more collectivist mindset.

References and further reading