Saturday, March 31st, 2012

Common Disagreements in Multicultural Families

incultureparent/ istockphoto: © Paul Hakimata

Raising children in a multicultural setting can be challenging, especially when two cultures say the exact opposite about caring for your child. In my case, American and Chinese cultures disagree on everything from sleep to independence and temperature. Here are some examples of the differences I have encountered in our family.
Americans have very different ideas about sleep and the sleeping environment than the Chinese. Americans don’t make an effort to avoid talking loudly or dimming the lights when the baby is asleep. The theory is that the baby will “get used” to sleeping anywhere. If our daughter is sleeping when my parents come over, they will happily wake her up to play. Sleep is not a priority. Americans also try to “wear out the baby” all day, so she will sleep well at night. American parents are also discouraged from co-sleeping by doctors.
The Chinese see sleeping as a top concern. When Skyping with my in-laws, if the baby seems even a little tired they insist, “Let her sleep, we’ll hang up now” (讓她睡吧,讓她睡吧!我們先扣死了). They will automatically start whispering and instruct us to turn the lights off and take her into another room. Traditionally, Chinese parents also co-sleep.
Americans find stimulation necessary from a very young age. This includes making loud noises, running around or dancing with the baby to upbeat music and being silly. The theory is that such stimulation will make kids more creative, smart and interested in trying new things.
Chinese adults are much more reserved when caring for children. Silliness is minimized and quiet time is valued. When a child is crying, distracting them by turning on loud music or making noise would be outrageous.
Americans like children to play by themselves and encourage independence from infancy. They often leave infants alone in playpens, cribs or a variety of swings and seats, and allow babies to crawl all over on their own. They let children get messy and play with their food from a very young age as well. Americans also push infants to sleep in a crib, usually in their own room.
Chinese parents are eager to do everything for their children. They hold them constantly, feed them and are in no rush for their children to establish independence.  Infants are also swaddled for most of the day during the first several months and children sleep with their parents. Protection is valued over exploration.
American pediatricians recommend feeding an infant solids starting at around six months. I was in no rush to introduce solids. Nursing tends to be on demand rather than at specific time intervals.
My Chinese in-laws felt that three months was an ideal time to introduce solids. They encouraged us to scrape an apple with a spoon and feed it to our daughter. They also believed that we should feed her at specific times (every four hours), with water in between feedings.
Americans don’t frequently associate temperature with health, often because they are in indoor controlled climates. For instance, I have no problem taking my daughter on an outing without socks in the middle of winter, simply because we go from the heated house to the heated car to the heated store. My mom also has wanted to give our daughter ice water with her dinner in the winter.
Chinese parents will make sure the child is fully bundled up, even just to walk a few yards outside. Our friend wrapped up her baby in a snowsuit with a blanket on top, simply to walk from the front door to the car in 40-degree Fahrenheit weather. They insist they will catch a cold easily. My in-laws are also constantly concerned that the carpet is too cold for our daughter to crawl on and insist we should give her hot water, not room temperature water. (What would they say if they knew she walked barefoot on the tile and almost drank ice water in the winter?)
Toilet Training
Americans assume that a child is incapable of using the toilet before 18 months to two years old. Any toilet training would be simply training the parent.
The Chinese assume that infants are aware of their bodily functions. They can be potty trained to use the toilet on demand at the same time every day or at specific intervals, starting from one to six months old. They also believe that small babies might give signals to indicate that they need to use the toilet, such as touching their ear or wiggling their torso.
Our solution is to take the ideas that work for us and forget the others. For example, we let our daughter explore but still co-sleep. We encourage her to feed herself but potty trained from a young age. Don’t worry if you are not doing it right. There are a million ways to raise a child and most of them are fine. Every culture has good points to offer to find a way that suits both of you. Do what works for you and your family.

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Allison Riccardi resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her Chinese-born husband, Daniel, and their daughter Annamaria Lan-Lan. She currently teaches Spanish at the University of Michigan and enjoys cooking, reading and blogging. In her blog, Bella Mamma (, she discusses her personal journey through motherhood. She is also interested in sustainable food, bilingualism, personal well-being and minimalism.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsChristine M of Hartlyn Kids   |  Saturday, 31 March 2012 at 2:10 pm

    It’s very interesting to see the similarities between the Chinese and even my Jamaican family. Jamaicans typically believe in co-sleeping and are really fussy about keeping the baby warm at all times. I’m one of those parents who are always overdressing their child, out of fear of the child getting sick.

  2. CommentsAnnabelle   |  Tuesday, 03 April 2012 at 9:29 am

    I have discovered that Germans also have this approach to dressing up and warmth. Yesterday it was 16 degrees celsius here, my daughter was wearing a light jacket. German kids were wearing winter hats!

  3. CommentsTim   |  Wednesday, 04 April 2012 at 9:24 am

    Funny. Most of this is the opposite for me and my Chinese side of the family.

  4. CommentsTaylor   |  Thursday, 12 April 2012 at 7:09 am

    As an American mom, I’m not sure the “American side” of parenting in this article is all that representative of American culture as a whole – likely just the author’s family and maybe others in her area. I have never met an American parent who thought it was okay to wake a sleeping baby or wear them out all day so that they sleep well at night. I’ve never experienced the American parenting style in this article in a lot of other ways as well.

  5. CommentsAmanda Miss Panda   |  Thursday, 26 April 2012 at 12:02 pm

    It is always interesting to see the similarities and differences of cultures. Every family has its own culture so it can be very unique. Chinese Grandma in our family is more traditional about the sleep and dressing the kids warm just like being said in this article. American Grandma thinks some of the Chinese practice makes sense. On the other hand, Chinese Grandpa is open to the western ideas on parenting. We choose what works for the children and our family from both cultures.

  6. Commentsnicole in paris   |  Thursday, 21 June 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Having lived amongst the Chinese in Taiwan years ago, I read this article with lots of amusement. Thanks for bringing back all the memories! Of course, there are some exceptions, but culturally speaking, this article is dead on! Now I live in France and find the temperature causing sickness argument pervasive.

  7. CommentsKaren   |  Monday, 23 March 2015 at 9:49 pm

    I live in Taiwan currently and often see children overdressed and it drives me crazy! I am a teacher and will see a child walk into the classroom when it is 80 degrees outside with four sweaters on. The parent says they have a cold so have to keep the sweaters on. You see sweat dripping down their face and their backs are sopping wet……you try telling the parents that it really isn’t good for a cold to be sweating all the time and they get offended. The kid never gets better and the parents end up blaming the teachers. Ugh!!!

  8. CommentsWhen East Meets West - My Challenges and Aspirations of Multicultural Parenting as Immigrant Parents with America-born Child | PenguinSmart   |  Wednesday, 10 June 2015 at 3:18 pm

    […] common disagreements in multicultural parenting are better explained in this blog from InCultureParents. Aside from parenting, there are often other issues  related to being a minority multicultural […]

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