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According to sociocultural theories, child development differentiates in specific social and cultural contexts. Culturally- specific beliefs and practices influence children's development in its unique way (Berk, 2009). This essay sets out to examine how Chinese children's developments in academic learning and temperament are impacted by culturally-specific child rearing practices in Chinese society. Ecological systems theory by Bronfenbrenner and sociocultural theory by Vygotsky are applied to analyse the general practices, the assumptions, the beliefs and the implied values of child rearing in China.
Definition of Culture and Society
Culture and society may mean different things to different people. For instance, society is defined as "an association with one's fellowsâ€¦; the system of customs and organization adopted by a body of individualsâ€¦; the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered communityâ€¦" in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2002, p.2906, cited in New Zealand Tertiary College[NZTC], 2010). In this essay, society refers to the aggregate of people living together. Thus the Chinese society means the populations live in China. Culture in this essay refers to "the distinctive customs, achievements, products, outlook, etc., of a societyâ€¦"as defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2002, p 575, cited in NZTC, 2010). By culturally-specific child rearing practices within this essay, it means the consistent and similar child rearing practices adopted by Chinese, such as feeding, toilet training, sleeping arrangement, and discipline.
Academic Knowledge & Temperament of shyness
Generally, there are three broad domains of child development: physical, emotional and social, and cognitive (Berk, 2009). This essay will focus on studying the sociocultural influence on Chinese children's academic learning (cognitive development) and temperament (emotional and social development).
In a study of Hong Kong-Chinese preschool children's literacy skills, it is advised that 75% of five years olds can write their names in Chinese correctly; more than 50% of four years olds can write appropriately using strokes and stroke patterns (the two smallest units in Chinese writings); 75% of three years old can differentiate drawing from writing, and 20% can write appropriately (Chan & Louies, 1992, cited in Chan, Juan, & Foon, 2008). In international cross-cultural studies of reading, mathematics, and science achievement, children from participating Chinese cities: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao are rated top performers, way above the international level (Programme for International Student Assessment, 2003, 2006, cited in Berk, 2009).
Despite academic achievement, most cross-cultural studies define Chinese children as shy, withdrawn (Chen, Rubin, & Li, 1995, Chen et al., 1998, cited in Berk, 2009). In a cross-cultural study of Chinese and Canadian two-year-olds, Chinese toddlers were found significantly more inhibited than Canadian ones (Chen et al., 1998, cited in Papalia, Olds, & Feldman, 2004).
Child rearing practices in the Ecological Systems proposed by Bronfenbrenner
Bronfenbrenner defines the environment influencing child development into five different layers from the innermost to the outermost levels: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and the chronosystem. The microsystem refers to children's immediate environment, such as home and early childhood centre .The mesosystem is the interaction between the microsystems. Other social settings outside the immediate environment that affect children's development make up the exosystem. The macrosystem, the outermost level, includes "cultural values, laws, customs, and resources". Chronosystem means the environment systems is an ever-changing system. Any changes in life events imposed by others or by the children can modify the systems (Berk, 2009). The influence of Chinese-specific child rearing practices on children's development in academic knowledge and temperament of shyness are analysed as below.
At home (microsystem), the childcare is mostly carried out by mums. Chinese mums are found to indulge their infants and even toddlers in terms of feeding, sleeping (Roopnariane & Carter, 1992, cited in Yunus, 2005). They always keep their children close to them and favour physical contact. The mums start toilet training the babies when they are six months and they are successfully trained by one and half years old (Whiting & Whiting, 1975, Sung, 1995, Lee, 1999, cited in Yunus, 2005). The father's role is to discipline children. The discipline is taught by induction: explicit statement of what exactly the child is expected to do and why. If the child doesn't do as told, some parents might resort to scolding, retrieving their love or even physical punishment (Berk, 2009).
Most Chinese children start to go to kindergarten at three years old, spending eight to nine hours daily in the kindergarten. For the microsystem in kindergarten, there are strict learning, lunch and sleep routines arranged and implemented by teachers. Children wait for teachers' instruction and do as told. The interaction between teachers and children is mostly teacher-initiated and teacher controlled. In particular, teachers seem to be more concerned at following the daily routines and pre-planned activities than attending to children's feelings (Liu & Elicker, 2005; Wang, Elicker, McMullen, & Mao, 2008). Even young children are expected to pay close attention to lessons (Dehart, Sroufe, & Cooper, 2004).The highly teacher-initiated, teacher-controlled classroom climate has significant influence on children, making them disciplined and self-regulatory (Hart, Burts, & Charlesworth, 1997, cited in Charlesworth, 2004).
The parenting style both at home and in kindergarten is less warm and more controlling (Dehart et al., 2004; Berk, 2009). Yunus(2005) suggests that Chinese parenting is more authoritarian compared to Western parenting. The communication pattern is one way communication: adult to child. At most time, children listen attentively to what parents or teachers say. Children are not to openly express opinions on certain issues (Chiew, 2000, Zhao, 2002, Akhtar, 1998, cited in Yunus, 2005), or express strong emotions ever since they are babies (Berk, 2009). In terms of emotional educations, both parents and teachers do little to help children release emotions, encouraging them to hide their emotions. Being reared in an authoritarian way and explicitly discouraged to express strong emotions both at home and in kindergarten, Chinese children are inclined to be shy and withdrawn (Chan, Bowes, & Wyver, 2009). Children being taught emotion-feeling rules and display rules justified with moral reasons further contributes to Chinese children's shyness and inhibition(Wang, 2006, cited in Chan et al., 2009),.
Almost all Chinese children are discouraged to play at home. "Don't think of playing all the time. Learning is important. Number 1." is often said to children by their parents or even relatives. Children are taught to count and write their names since they are three in most cases. Therefore, for home activities as well as mum-child interaction, it would be mum teaching the child to write and count, to teach appropriate social behaviour through fable storytelling, especially respecting the elders (Pearson & Rao, 2003). A recent survey shows that before children attend primary school, 88.6% parents teach their children reading, recognising Chinese characters and counting; 28.2% parents teach their children foreign language, and 20.3% parents tutor their children the courses for primary school (Wang, Wang, & Chen, 2010). In addition, most activities and learning in kindergarten put great emphasis on academic skills (Wang et al., 2008). In a cross-cultural study of preschool teachers' beliefs and practices, the most often carried-out activities reported by the 269 Chinese teachers are: flashcards with words/math, worksheets, cutting own shapes, competitive math activity, reciting alphabet, rote counting, copying from chalkboard, writing on lines, reading or pre-reading, recognizing single letters, and evaluation of worksheet (Wang et al., 2008). Play is merely used as a vehicle to teach proper conducts (Papalia et al., 2004 ) A lot of demonstration, lessons, time to practice academic skills, and explicit values of academic skills, facilitate Chinese children's development in academic knowledge (Chan et al., 2008; Gershoff & Aber, 2006, cited in Berk, 2009).
The interaction between Chinese parents and teachers (mesosystem) is limited (Schwartz, 2003, cited in Yunus, 2005). While parents do concern about their children's learning, they assign the teaching responsibility to teachers, holding the teachers mainly responsible for children's learning in kindergarten (Morrow, 1999, cited in Yunus, 2005). In a survey of parents' expectation of kindergarten teaching, parents' main aspirations for their children are possessing academic skills and filial piety (88%) (Xinyuan Kindergarten, 2010). The implied message of valuing academic skills results in that teachers put a lot of efforts in academic teaching to meet up parents' expectations.
The child rearing is shared among the extended family (exosystem) in China. Especially grandparents take up a large role in raising the children. The filial piety and the whole system of family are greatly valued among the extended family (Yunus, 2005). Children are taught the importance of respecting the elders and the obligation to contribute to family's honour by behaving properly (Zhao, 2002, cited in Yunus, 2005). When children are shy, reticent, quiet, they are considered by the extended family to be well-behaved and having sense of understanding (Hart, Yang, Nelson, Robinson, Olsen, Nelson, Porter, Jin, Olsen, Wu, 2000). Children are constantly reminded that their first means to fulfil family responsibility and obligation is through education (Yunus, 2005). The expectation of academic achievement and honouring family reputations placed by extended family put pressure on parents' child education and children's motivation towards high academic performance.
Chinese child rearing practices are based on the following assumptions (Macrosystem): children inherently penchant for the good; proper training during early childhood helps to build children's positive character; formal education and high standards of academic achievement is important for children's development (Yunus, 2005). The Chinese families are greatly influenced by Confucian philosophy stressing the importance of academic achievement and social harmony. It is the custom that parents are to provide an environment conducive to academic achievement, while children are to work hard for hight performance in academics. Besides, they value the doctrine of mean (Zhong Yong Zhi Dao in Mandarin), not being extreme. Inhibited, sensitive, and socially restrained behaviour are highly valued in Chinese culture (Ho, 1986, Lao, 1996, Chen, in press, cited in Hart et al., 2000). In addition, they prioritise the importance of maintaining social order and interpersonal harmony in the society at large (Hart e al., 2000).
The one-child policy in China also affects children's development to a great extent. Having only one child, a lot of parents do their best to start their children's education at the possible earliest age to make their children more advantaged within the intensely competitive Chinese educational system (Brassard & Chen, 2005). Government also devote the increased resources to the care and education of children to support the families (Dehart et al., 2004).
Figure 1. Chinese Child Rearing Practices in the Ecological Systems.
Vygotsky's sociocultural theory
According to Vygotsky's sociocultural theory, each culture provides own context and different goals for children (Drewery & Bird, 2004). Vygotsky proposes that cultural influence upon children is through cultural tools, which refers to the knowledge of cultural practices that help children fit into their cultural context, including language, rituals, ceremonies and social values and beliefs that guild people's thinking (Crain, 2000, cited in NZTC, 2010).
As analysed above, the Chinese cultural tools that help Chinese children fit into the society including Confucian values of academic achievement and social harmony, social values and belief of early formal education, language that explicitly expressing high academic expectations and proper social behavior of respecting elders and maintaining harmony in social settings. These cultural tools support the daily child rearing practices, educational activities, the routines, the child-adult interactions both at home and in kindergarten. Through interaction with their parents, teachers, extended family, children learn, apply and internalize these cultural tools into their own thinking, and fit into the society (Crain, 2000, cited in NZTC, 2010).
Different sociocultural environment places different goals and expectations on children. In China, children are expected to fulfill the goals and expections of academic achievement and maintaining social harmony placed by their parents, teachers, extended family, and society at large. The values, beliefs upheld by the society affect the parents and teachers, while the teachers and parents influence children's development in academic learning and temperament through specific child rearing practices.