parent-child relationships


parent-child relationships
Traditionally, fathers have believed that their role, as a counterpoint to the role of mothers was decidedly not to encourage or tolerate emotional indulgence and promote dependency. They assumed instead the role of stern disciplinarian (Fei 1939; Ho 1987). Chinese fathers were not, however, without compassion or love for their children. Most Chinese fathers, in fact, felt a warm deep sentiment towards their children, though the articulation of that sentiment was restrained by their traditional parenting role and its expectations (Solomon 1971). In some cases, a father supplied strict discipline as a complement to a mother’s overindulgence (Solomon 1971). It was a posture that occasionally produced resentment and acute anxiety for the child later in life (Solomon 1971:39–61). It was assumed as well that the sexual division in parenting roles contributed to producing a more responsible and ethical person overall.
The sex-linked parenting roles, moreover, were sustained by the different roles men and women occupied within the social structure. On the one hand, by controlling the distribution of the family inheritance, a father could effect his own special, if not psychological, dependency on the part of the child. On the other, a mother’s parenting style was seen to derive as much from her being considered an ‘outsider’ as from the ‘natural’ attachment fostered by childbirth and early child care: given her reduced importance and status in her husband’s family, the mother needed both a friend and an ally (Wolf 1972). In this way, the different access to, and use of, economic and psychological ‘resources’ contributed to the establishment and elaboration of the two complementary parenting styles: the father as disciplinary provider, the mother as intimate nurturer.
The ‘traditional’ Chinese conception of the parenting process assumes that, within the domestic sphere, men perform an instrumental or competence-directed role, whereas women perform the more expressive or empathetic role. The typology is an accurate representation of how the Chinese peasant views parent-child relations. It is also strikingly similar to the parenting style found in Taiwan (Ho 1987). However, in contemporary China, the emergence of a new urban infrastructure has fostered a supportive environment for the expression of warmer sentiments and closer interaction between father and child. This new attitude is now readily found in casual conversation and reflective comments, and stresses the importance of intimate father-child interaction. As such, it challenges the traditional father-child role, a role and style of interaction that had been seen already by fathers of the previous generation as no longer satisfying or necessary. Although urban Chinese continue to publicly value sons over daughters, I have found that parents are also very happy with the birth of daughters. In fact, even in those families that unreservedly wished for a son, parents rapidly adjust and come to value their daughter. Sons, moreover, are increasingly regarded as unreliable in fulfilling family obligations. They are seen as easily lost to their wife and her family, while daughters are thought of as more considerate and faithful in continuing to visit their natal home. Sons, therefore, are now viewed as less of an asset than before.
Chinese have a clear sense of gender-specific duties. This sense is patterned by the setting, timing and manner of parental interaction with the child. A child’s age and sex affects the frequency and style of parental interaction. There are several developmental stages of parent-child interaction: early infancy, late infancy (ying’er), and early childhood (er’tong). During the infant stages the mother is the more involved parent, whereas the father becomes more involved when the child reaches the childhood stage (three to six years old). This is especially so if the father is highly educated.
There are also gender differences in parentchild caretaking styles. For example, women typically hold a child close to their body, while men hold the child away from their body. Mothers are also more patient and will wait twice as long before picking up a recalcitrant child. When walking together, however, women rarely walk ahead of a child, while men do. The style of conversation also differs between mothers and fathers. If a mother holds the child she rarely talks to it, but as soon as she starts walking, she breaks into a continuous mode of verbal coaching and patter (this pattern is less so in southwest China). The mother cares for a sick child, dresses the child for school, and scolds the child when he or she misbehaves. The father remains somewhat aloof and only takes on the disciplinary role when something serious occurs. As a child enters late childhood, parents become sensitive about touching a child in public. This is especially so for father-daughter relations but not mother-son interaction. Chinese fathers also indicate they are more demanding with their son than their daughter. They interact with their daughters more openly, more warmly and less critically. Moreover, fathers tend to speak less harshly to their daughter. Whenever fathers discuss their children, it is common to stress ‘how wonderful little girls are’. This is a new occurrence, and as such it constitutes an enormous shift in a patrilineal tradition that valued sons and grandsons over daughters and granddaughters.
The socialist transformation of cultural meanings has had a corresponding impact on men’s conception of themselves as husbands and fathers. Young fathers continue to assume a firm and somewhat formal posture towards their sons, while paradoxically insisting they do not want to be as formal and reserved as their fathers had been with them. Although many contemporary Chinese fathers wish to become a close friend with their child, as opposed to striking the more traditional note of the stern moral authority ever ready to criticize shortcomings, they remain uncertain and confused as how to express this desire (Jankowiak 1993). Warmth and immediacy of affection are not easily achieved. It is easier for them to accomplish this with a daughter than with a son. Significantly, fathers are more ambivalent than mothers in balancing their obligations as both spouse and parent. This ambivalence is profoundly articulated by many college-educated fathers who voice concerns that their child loves its mother more than them. Although the male desire to become more emotionally involved is far from achieved, it is a desire frequently heard in intimate conversation among close friends. As such, it has enormous implications for the quality of future parent-child relations and the development of a new Chinese person.
See also: little emperors
Farrer, J. (2002). Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform. Chicago: University Chicago Press.
Fei, Xiaotong (1939). Peasant Life in China. Chicago: University Chicago Press.
Jankowiak, W. (1993). Sex, Death and Hierarchy in a Chinese City. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ho, D. (1987). ‘Fatherhood in Chinese Society’. In M.Lamb (ed.), The Father’s Role: Cross-Cultural Perspective. Hilldale: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Solomon, R. (1971). Mao’s Revolution and Chinese Political Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wolf, M. (1972). ‘Uterine Families and the Women’s Community’. In M.Wolf (ed.), Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
WILLIAM JANKOWIAK

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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