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> topics > Psychology

Family education from cultural psychological perspective

YU DELIN et al. | 2021-07-08
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Parents help their son read a new textbook at No.7 Primary School in Neihuang County, Henan Province, on Sept.1, 2020. Photo: CFP


Family education plays a crucial role in child development. Culture influences parents’ attitudes toward children and their expectations, goals, approaches, strategies, and behaviors in parenting. At present, family education has become a social issue of great concern in China. 
 
Therefore, an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of Chinese family education from the perspective of cultural psychology is conducive to exploring the theory and practice of family education, in line with national and social development in China.
 
Cultural psychology argues that culture has two attributes. One is informative, meaning that an individual could obtain information from other social members through learning, and such information may in turn affect a person’s behavior. The other is communal in nature, which establishes that culture exists in a shared context. 
 
From this point of view, there are two carriers of culture: books and records about living habits left by predecessors; and people who live in the same region and share the same dining habits. 
 
In this way, each family as a unit can be considered a cultural carrier, given that each family contains cultural information, such as family traditions or instructions, and a shared environment, such as co-habitation and diet.
 
In family education, parents will consciously guide their children to carry out social activities through their own words, deeds, and life practices. Children’s knowledge, moral norms, and social behaviors are first acquired from their family, so are their social values and socialization goals. The impact of family on children is, in essence, an internalized social culture parents pass onto their children.
 
From the perspective of cultural psychology, we can see that the shared environment shapes parents’ habits and ideas, which then go to their children through their language and behavior. Culture provides an important reference for family education, and parents will conduct family education according to a certain cultural context.
 
Advantages of cultural education
At any given time, people strive to acquire a noble moral character. In the Chinese culture, such sages as Confucius and Sun Wu possess ideal personalities and abilities, which represent the utmost pursuit for the Chinese people’s ideal self.
 
In family education, Chinese parents draw on lessons from these luminaries to bring forth higher expectations and hopes for their children. For children, the ideal image can not only stimulate their motivation for achievement, but also provide a broad and diversified perspective for their career development. In traditional Chinese family education, self-cultivation is highly valued and it has been passed from generation to generation.
 
As the Book of Rites put it, self-cultivation is the starting point of several steps moving outward from the self, followed by managing family affairs, and finally governing the state. To this day, self-cultivation is still a pillar of family education.
 
The tendency of collectivism in family education helps to cultivate children’s sense of social responsibility and cooperation. The formation of a collectivist culture benefited China in crises and disasters, protected the nation and the peoples, and ensured its sustainable development. From the nursery song “Su Wu the Shepherd,” which tells the story of Diplomat Su Wu of the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) who was imprisoned for 19 years on his mission to the Xiongnu tribe as imperial envoy and his noble integrity in refusal to surrender, to famed Northern Song Dynasty (970–1127) poet Fan Zhongyan’s “I wish to be the first to worry about the nation’s woes and the last to share in its prosperity,” Chinese family education has always upheld patriotism. 
 
Chinese culture also has a strong tendency toward proactive behavior, which refers to self-initiated, future-oriented, and proactive actions that can have a positive impact on individuals and organizations. For example, in the Qian Hexagram chapter of the Zhou Book of Change, it says: “The superior man works tenaciously all the day and remains vigilant at night. There is danger but no harm.” 
 
In addition, forward-looking behavior was popularized in ancient Chinese folk culture. In the Songs of Bin chapter of the Book of Poetry, the poem “The Owl” says: “Before it’s rainy and dark,/ I’ll gather mulberry bark./ To mend my house in the yard./”From these lines, comes the Chinese idiom “save for a rainy day.”
 
For the Chinese nation, proactive behavior is not only a kind of methodological knowledge, but also a habit we inherit from our ancestors. Research shows that the Confucian culture can significantly increase the savings rate of residents, and such an influence is more obvious in rural areas. 
 
Parents with this prospective behavior tend to allocate special funds for their children to ensure a high-quality education, and make long-term plans for their children, so that family education is more purposeful and structured. Children who are raised in such an atmosphere know how to better avoid risks, improve their competitiveness, and promote their academic performance. On a group level, proactive behavior could help social members better cope with disasters.
 
What needs to be improved
However, Chinese family education does have its downsides. Many scholars point out that in the current family education model, there is a phenomenon which overemphasizes academic performance while neglecting the cultivation of moral character and creativity. 
 
Indeed, the Chinese culture has attached great importance to academic performance since ancient times. During the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, the imperial examination became a way for students from poor backgrounds to realize their values and ideals. Even today, it is still a widespread belief that education is the way to change one’s fate. To a large extent, this is the reason why family education has pivoted toward academic achievements. 
 
The National Family Education Survey Report (2018) released by Beijing Normal University identified several major problems in Chinese family education at present. These include an overemphasis on academic achievements, a lack of cultivation of children’s virtues, and a focus on physical health but not mental health. 
 
If parents prioritize academic achievements over the cultivation of a basic moral personality and life skills, children might end up caring only about grades and having little empathy. Ideas such as “nothing is more important than learning” may directly or indirectly affect children’s behavior and way of thinking, taking a toll on the formation of a sound personality.
 
According to traditional Confucian culture, there is an order or hierarchy of human relations and a code of conduct for people at different levels of the hierarchy, where senior has precedence over junior, which can easily lead to parental authority and children’s obedience. 
 
To a certain extent, the unequal parent-child relationship still has a negative impact on contemporary family education in China. Many families adopt an authoritarian parenting style, with an emphasis on the obedience of and respect from their children. 
 
In specific cases, parents will unilaterally shape their children, regardless of the child’s personality. They often seek their own image, and downplay the importance of interactions between children and adults, including the process and comprehensiveness of mutual influence, so that children are always trapped in a passive position. As a result, parents have more psychological control over their children. 
 
Parental psychological control is a negative parenting style, which uses guilt, a withdrawal of care, and other authoritarian means to parent. This is not good for children’s adaptive development, in particular for teenagers who are at a special development stage and yearn for independence. Parents’ psychological control over teenagers could lead to a series of internal and external problems, including aggressive behavior.
 
The tendency to pursue instant success and make social comparisons are also negative attributes of this traditional family education style. In traditional Chinese culture, personal interests are inseparable from family interests. The idea of “bringing glory to one’s family and ancestors” has always been in the heart of many Chinese people. In contemporary society, fewer children due to population policies build up parents’ expectations for their children, which sometimes leads parents to push their children too far, with little consideration of their personality characteristics and physical and mental development. 
 
Chinese psychologist Yang Zhongfang said that the Chinese self is a kind of “interdependent” self, because it often involves oneself, others, and relationships between one and others at the same time. In this cultural context, people seek self-identity by comparing themselves with others to understand their own situation, interpret the meanings behind others’ actions, as well as the relationship between oneself and others. Compared with individuals in Western culture, individuals in Chinese culture are more susceptible to social comparisons. 
 
Since many parents regard their children as an extension of self, social comparisons affect both parents and children. For some parents, comparing their children’s academic achievements will aggravate their anxieties and they will take on so many proactive behaviors, that it becomes harmful. This behavior includes signing their children up for excessive after-school classes, arranging an amount of homework that does not match their children’s school age and so on, which will increase their children’s academic burden. Social comparisons between children can damage self-esteem and lead to envy and jealousy, which harms interpersonal relationships and the physical and mental health of children.
 
Yu Delin, Yang Wenjia and Li Sha are from the School of Psychology at Fujian Normal University.
 
 
Edited by YANG XUE