The influence of culture in parenting

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Are your parenting decisions your own? – Actually No! Parenting styles, skills and practices are influenced by many factors like the ethnicity, race, social class and also economics! So even though you often think you are making your own decisions, these factors (and other social features) are making those decisions for you.

Not convinced? here is a small example from our life.  What does LilM eat? – Primarly south Indian food. Why?- because that’s what we ate as kids. Why? Because we are from the south of India. Who decided what she should eat? – her parents. But where we come from- the community, ethnicity shaped that decision for us.

Similarly, she has been encouraged to say namaste to elders, because in our way of things (longer way of saying culture) respecting elders is big. Infact many scholars observe that respecting elders and obedience is very important in the Indian ways (note the plural) of parenting.  If you scrutinise it, you will definitely realise how deeply your parenting practices are influenced by culture.  So what is this culture?

Culture can be losely defined as a way of life. It refers to norms and social behaviors. Culture is everything from the way you eat and dress, to the way you talk and socialise. It is much beyond a set of customs and traditions. It is also a set of values.

We can all agree that cultural practices, values and social norms keep evolving over time. As life and the environment around us develops, our culture also changes. Take for instance how we did away with child marriages in our society? Two generations ago, getting married before 18 was common, now it is on the decline. It seen as a social evil not a social norm.

Like culture, parenting also keeps evolving over time. A lot of it is the direct result of the development of science and technology. From television to the internet, a lot has happened.  But some of it is also the result of how fluidly cultural exchange is happening now.  Different communities are now adopting each other’s behaviors and instead of alienating themselves, they are seeking to grow together.

In the Indian context, there are many visible changes; be it in the way we educate our children or even something as basic as toilet training. Back in the day, schooling started much later for kids than it does now. The popularity and development of what can be called as the english educational system in India is a direct result of our culture mingling with the British way of life.  The fact that it is the legacy of our colonial past rarely irritates the parents of today. The gurukul system has declined in the wake of these turn of events.

Another example I took is that of toilet training. World over, different countries do it differently. Even in our own country, it is done differently by those in rural areas and urban settlements. In some countries, toilet training happens very early, it starts within the first few months; whereas in other countries it is not an odd sight to see children diapered well into the age of 2 or 3, sometimes maybe more. Long ago, we didnt have the concept of toilet seats specially designed for children here. It is something that has come from the more developed parts of the world because of our open economy etc.

 There are studies that suggest that, in individualistic countries (this particular study has taen the example of Germany. But any country that culturally gives more importance to a person over a group comes in this category); parents spend more time talking to the baby about the baby. While in more communal countries (ones that give more importance to the ‘we’ feeling.), parents  spend more time speaking to the baby about other people.  You can read more about developmental psychologist,Heidi Keller’s work in this field here.

These differences mean that children develop differently in different cultures. To extend the above example, a child raised in an individualistic society, will learn to identify himself soon, but will learn self regulation and cooperation later.  They will also be more independent. Whereas in the communal background, the child will be more dependent on the family, but will learn to cooperate and follow instructions soon. This means in the former environment, the child may happily play alone while in the latter environment he/she is more likely to pick up their toys once they are done when asked. Both have some merit!

Culture also plays a role in deciding WHAT we teach our children. In a community that thrives on agricultural activities, children may be encouraged to learn certain outdoor fieldwork related tasks early. Similarly in a hunter-gatherer arrangement, they may be first picking up basic survival skills.

It is widely believed that Indian parenting focuses most on academic learning. Excelling in studies is deeply desired by parents. One way of looking at it is that the size of our population makes life very competitive, which led to a situation where excelling is not an option but a necessity. (this is not an endorsement of that trend, but a statement on its existence).

Just like we focus on academics and others focus on survival skills, the Spanish are eager to make their children sociable. So you see, what a parent thinks is in a child’s best interest will also vary from culture to culture. So, parents know what they are upto with their kids, most of the time.

Interestingly, what parents interpret out of various actions of children also varies across culture. A child asking too many questions can mean he is inquisitive, can mean he is trying to be social. In Europe it reflects smartness while in Italy they say the child is developing interpersonal skills.

One of the most widely discussed and criticised parenting practice in India is corporal punishment for children. It is not unheard of here, that a parent spanked their child. But it is a big deal in other parts of the world, some cant seem to digest it at all. It is believed that this is common here, because of the importance placed on obedience. But the trends are changing now, in the wake of other parenting styles that are less authoritarian taking firm roots in our culture too.

Many thinkers believe that the Indian way of parenting provides a sound environment for moral education, and few recognise that within India also there are many styles of parenting because we are culturally very diverse, economically too.

So, when you are parenting, you are doing it within a context. Culture is a big part of that context. Why is it important to understand this?Because Parenting is the easiest thing to have an opinion about. You feel one way is better than the other. Or that one is right and one is wrong. Which is a feeling you get because you dont see things within this wider context.


This becomes a serious problem when you migrate to another country or a place with a completely different culture.  What is normal in your way of things, might get taken to be harsh or thought to be bad for the child. It is important to understand that people come from their own traditions, customs and history!  It might seem horrible to you, but it just works in the environment where they come from. There is no one right way of being a parent. It is putting together a series of things that work best for you and your child in the context of your lifestyle and value systems.

Another reason to observe this influence is that thanks to technology, we get to read a lot of tips and hacks about parenting from people worldwide. There is a lot written about how to breastfeed a child (did you know that traditionally indians followed clusterfeeds, the scheduled feeding routine (we were told to feed once every two hours) that you may have heard of from your docs is actually a cultural import); child nutrition and meals, growth charts, milestone charts,  early learning and general baby care. What might seem age appropriate for some need not be age appropriate for your child.

We must learn to see these tips in the cultural context. What works for one set of people might not work for you, simply because you are culturally wired differently.  But It is important to also scan the background of the content you consume online particularly about parenting.

Today, if you look around you can see that your parenting practices are the result of a mix of inluence. Some are from your culture and some are from other cultures. As the world is shrinking, many thoughts and amenties have been shared across borders. So, in a way, globalisation and the Internet have set the stage for modern day parenting.

To conclude, culture has a profound influence on your parenting. Understanding this impact is important and we will leave you with two action points here:

  1. Don’t judge one community’s parenting traditions and methods keeping your own way as a benchmark. Be more embracing of the diversity in raising children across the globe.
  2. Understand these influences when you read about parenting online, what they say is as important as where they come from.