News tip: Across the globe, a mother’s love wears different guises

During this Mother’s Day weekend it is interesting to examine the various ways mothers express love from country to country and culture to culture. Jennifer E. Lansford, a research professor, found there were culturally different definitions of good mothering that can affect everything from discipline style to how a mother interprets a baby’s cry.

Lansford, a developmental psychologist, studies parenting around the world. Her current research centers on parenting practices in nine countries: Colombia, Kenya, Jordan, the Philippines, China, Italy, Sweden, Thailand and the United States.

“In some countries, like the U.S.,” Langford says, ”mothers are more likely to express warmth directly. Americans verbally praise their children, or hug or kiss them. But in other countries, mothers express warmth indirectly.

“In Bangladesh, a mother will peel an orange or apple very carefully and present the segments to the child. The child recognizes that the mother is doing something special for the child, and clearly interprets the action as an expression of love:  ‘my mother loves me so much that she’s making this special effort for me.’  In that country, it’s a common way to show affection.

“Mothers in Japan are considered good mothers if they anticipate the needs of their children, whereas mothers in the U.S. are considered good mothers if they respond to children’s needs. In the U.S., an infant cries and the mother responds by picking up the baby and feeding her, or changing her, or otherwise responding to her needs. Japanese mothers try to prevent crying before it happens. They would say,  ‘My infant usually eats every two hours, so it’s probably time to feed the baby.’

“Mothers in Colombia, Kenya, Jordan and the Philippines, along with African-American mothers in the U.S., tend to believe parents should exert firmer control over kids. Sometimes they call it ‘no-nonsense parenting.’  In other countries, such as Sweden, the idea of being a good mother would involve giving the child more freedom.

“More authoritarian parenting might be adaptive in riskier environments, because the consequences of misbehaving are greater in those environments. So, for instance, a parent might say to a child, ‘As soon as you leave school, you come right home.’ There’s reason to impose that constraint if the neighborhood is dangerous.

“You don’t want to go too far with cultural relativism. But part of being a good mother involves tailoring your parenting to the specific cultural context in which you’re raising your child,”  concludes Landford.

Jennifer E. Lansford is a Research Professor at Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy,  for contact call (217) 586-2870.