The Carrot and the Stick: The Differences Between Western and Chinese Parenting

The Carrot and the Stick: The Differences Between Western and Chinese Parenting
Sep 11, 2018 By Eddy O’Neil , eChinacities.com

Foreigners and locals sharing a country invariably end up discussing how their cultures differ. Ultimately, a lot of these conversations are somewhat superficial and do not massively impact our lives. One subject that has a far more profound influence, however, is how we raise our children. Below I’ve outlined how Chinese parenting compares to that of the West.

Immediately after birth

Naturally, after a child is born there are a number of precautions that are undertaken to make sure mother and baby are healthy and safe. For example, if a baby is born premature or sick, they will be placed in an incubator at the hospital.

In China, many families go further with these precautions. The first month after birth is of particular importance in Chinese culture. During this time, the baby and mother are often confined to the house. In some cases, the mother is told not to shower and also kept to a strict diet of Chicken soup.

These precautions all stem from a strong belief that the mother and child are especially weak and susceptible to sickness during the first month. If the baby goes outside, it is exposed to risks. If the mother showers, then she might catch a cold. If she doesn’t have a strict diet, she might get sick and pass something on to the baby.

In the West, the mother and child are not restricted in where they go, what they eat or when they shower. It’s not unusual to see them both out and about within a couple of weeks.

The first couple of years

The differences continue to manifest themselves in the first couple of years of a child’s life. By themselves, the below factors may not seem so significant, but together they create quite a varied picture of early childhood.

In the West, the child is encouraged to be independent as early as possible, whereas in China, the parents’ priority is that the child is protected. In the West, babies usually sleep in a separate cot as it’s considered dangerous for them to sleep in the same bed as the parents. This means that when the child graduates to a proper bed, they are better adjusted to sleeping on their own.

In China, however, many parents want the baby to sleep in the same bed as them. This helps when it comes to night feedings, but when the child gets older it can understandably be harder for them to adjust to sleeping alone. This in turn often leads to the child sleeping with the parents for several years.

This same dependency extends to breastfeeding. In the West, those mothers who breastfeed typically begin weaning at around the six-month stage. This makes the child less dependent on the mother and makes it easier for others to care for the child without the mother being present.

In China, however, the weaning process may not begin until 18 months and sometimes not until three years. This creates a strong bond but also a dependency between the child and mother, and makes it difficult for the child to be alone or with other adults for an extended period of time.

There’s also a marked difference in the way the babies are clothed in this first couple of years. In the West, parents use diapers for the children until they are toilet trained. Although this is changing fairly quickly in China, many parents still opt not to use diapers and instead use “split pants”, basically crotchless trousers. The child is simply held with their legs up when they need to go to the toilet. Chinese parents often state that diapers are unhealthy and even cruel.

While the protective nature of Chinese parenting may seem excessive and even counter-productive at times, when you look at recent Chinese history it’s understandable. The older generation has grown up in a time when infant mortality was much higher than it is today, and China’s One Child Policy has only just been relaxed. It is perhaps not surprising that children are so cherished and protected in China.

Socialising with other children and with animals

Socialisation is an important part of any childhood. It helps form our personality and the adult we grow up to be. In this way too, there are some noticeable differences between Western and Chinese parenting.

In the West, many parents view socialisation to be as vital a part of a child's development as education. Parents will often take part in regular activities so their child can begin to interact with other kids and adults. This can take the form of casual playdates at a friend's house or joining sports clubs to learn new hobbies.

In China, socialisation is a less deliberate and planned part of a child's development. It still happens organically, but it’s not viewed as nearly as important as education.

Additionally, socialisation with animals is markedly different between China and the West. In the West, children often grow up with family pets, ranging from dogs, to cats, rabbits, gerbils, you name it. Having a pet is great fun and a source of happiness for the child, but more importantly, it teaches them a great deal. They develop empathy with other living creatures and also a sense of responsibility.

In China, however, the concept of having a pet is still relatively new. Many adults are terrified of dogs (rabies is still a thing here) and so they teach their children to be fearful of them also. Animals are considered to be dirty, to the extent where people may even get rid of pets they previously “loved” before having a baby. This viewpoint is slowly disappearing as pets become increasingly popular in China, but it will still be some time before they play as central a role in a child’s life as they do in the West.

The role of grandparents

Perhaps the most significant difference between Western and Chinese parenting is the role that grandparents play. While their role in the West is still of importance, they are usually a secondary influence in a child's life — someone the child will visit regularly and spend time with during the holidays.

In China, however, grandparents are often more like a second set of parents and, in some cases, they spend more time raising the child than the actual parents. To understand why this happens, it's important to look at the background. China does not offer the same social security for the elderly as many Western countries. As a result, it’s expected that parents will be supported by their children in later life.

This usually results in the parents of the husband moving into the family home, while the parents of the wife may receive a dowry at the wedding. Furthermore, it’s quite common for both a child’s parents to need to work full-time to support the family, so having the grandparents in the home to help raise the child facilitates this.

This phenomenon can lead to huge differences in a child’s upbringing when compared to the West. Firstly, as everyone knows, children tend to be spoilt by their grandparents. Secondly, the children are being passed down the values of the generation above their parents. In a country like China that has changed so much in the past 30 years, the difference between the values of parents and grandparents can be striking.

Parents and children living separately

Sometimes the parents will even leave their children in their grandparents' hometown while they go to work in the city. This is because it’s significantly cheaper to raise kids in the countryside and jobs are much more abundant in the city. Rent is massively cheaper in rural areas, kids have greater access to schools as they are considered locals through their family hu kou registration document, and in general everything is cheaper. In these situations, the grandparents become de-facto parents.

While the socio-economic reasons for parents and children living separately in China are understandable, the idea would be unimaginable for most parents in the West.

The importance of academic success

The idea that Asian children are pressured by their parents to succeed academically is something of a stereotype, but it’s worth trying to understand why this stereotype exists.

The Chinese education system is quite rigid and arbitrary. Teachers deliver the syllabus in a set way and examinations reward those who learn information rote-style. The gao kao test, taken at the end of secondary school in China, is a notoriously difficult exam that has a huge impact on a young adult’s life.

In the West, however, there’s generally more flexibility in how children are taught and kids are encouraged to think critically and explore their interests. Exams are not the be all and end all, as there are other ways of assessing talent and other routes into a career.

It’s therefore not surprising that parents in China feel pressure to make sure their children achieve academically, while parents in the West feel more free to encourage their children to find what they’re passionate about.

A sense of indebtedness

Lastly, and rather fittingly, is the difference of opinion between Western and Chinese parents when it comes to the sense of indebtedness they feel their children owe them.

In the West, parents do not expect any tangible repayment from their children for having raised them. They may occasionally remind them to not wait too long before making them grandparents or half-jokingly ask not to be forgotten about in a retirement home when they’re older, but this is nothing compared to the sense of indebtedness people in China feel to their parents.

Children are expected to give not insignificant hong bao lucky money to their parents at Chinese New Year, and many will send back a portion of their salary each month and also handle hospital bills. All of this is considered the duty of the child, and if the child was not to take care of their parents in old age it would be seen as a great shame on the family.

While this dynamic might seem alien to many Westerners, it’s important to remember that it’s often driven by necessity. Without proper social security, many older Chinese people are forced to depend on their children. Furthermore, they likely did the same for their own parents, so there’s a sense that this is just how family works in China. 

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Keywords: Chinese parenting

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