Parenting and child mental health: a cross-cultural perspective



In its most general instrumental sense, parenting consists of care of the young in preparing them to manage the tasks of life. Parents provide childhood experiences and populate the environments that guide children's development and so contribute to child mental health. Parenting is expressed in cognitions and practices. However, parents do not parent, and children do not grow up, in isolation, but in multiple contexts, and one notable context of parenting and child mental health is culture. Every culture is characterized, and distinguished from other cultures, by deep-rooted and widely acknowledged ideas about how one needs to feel, think, and act as an adequately functioning member of the culture. Insofar as parents subscribe to particular conventions of a culture, they likely follow prevailing “cultural scripts” in childrearing. Broadening our definition, it is therefore the continuing task of parents also to enculturate children by preparing them for the physical, psychosocial, and educational situations that are characteristic of their specific culture. Cross-cultural comparisons show that virtually all aspects of parenting children are informed by culture: culture influences when and how parents care for children, what parents expect of children, and which behaviors parents appreciate, emphasize and reward or discourage and punish. Thus, cultural norms become manifest in the mental health of children through parenting. Furthermore, variations in what is normative in different cultures challenge our assumptions about what is universal and inform our understanding of how parent-child relationships unfold in ways both culturally universal and specific. This essay concerns the contributions of culture to parenting and child mental health. No study of a single society can address this broad issue. It is possible, however, to learn lessons about parenting and child mental health from the study of different societies.