A new five-year study has investigated the behavior of babies from 23 countries around the world to gain a better understanding of how parents’ values and expectations influence the development of their toddlers’ behavior and overall temperament.
The findings of four of these countries — the United States, Chile, South Korea, and Poland — are published in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology.
The research was co-authored by Dr. Maria (Masha) Gartstein, professor of psychology at Washington State University, and developmental psychologist Dr. Sam Putnam of Bowdoin University.
A greater understanding of parental values and their impact on temperament development may help psychologists develop new approaches to prevent infant temperament issues from becoming behavioral problems later in life.
“The influence temperament has on developing behavioral problems likely varies from one country to another,” said Gartstein.
“While cross-cultural infant temperament research is a new field, our eventual goal is to determine how infant temperament is influenced by different cultural practices and whether or not these differences translate into greater risk for significant clinical problems like attention deficit disorder and others.”
The findings show that U.S. babies tend to be more social and impulsive and more likely to enjoy highly stimulating activities than infants from the other three countries in this study. U.S. mothers also reported that their offspring were not as likely to display negative emotions and were relatively easy to soothe when upset.
Chilean babies were the most active and the most likely to struggle with concentrating on one task for long periods of time. South Korean babies had the longest attention spans, and they liked to cuddle the most but were the least active. Polish babies were more likely to display sadness, and they were the hardest to soothe when upset.
In many ways, the study results reflect the unique cultural values of parents from each country, Gartstein said. For example, prior research suggests that American culture promotes an atmosphere of intolerance for negativity, which, Gartstein said, may lead parents to actively discourage their children from expressing negative emotions.
Meanwhile, South American cultures have been known to engage in a high degree of animated interaction with their babies, which could account for their children’s’ energetic disposition and trouble focusing on specific tasks for long periods of time.
Finally, Southeast Asian cultures, such as South Korea’s, tend to value a high level of behavioral and attentional control in their offspring. Polish culture is often characterized by a readiness to talk about emotions and feelings, which might lead their infants to be more comfortable displaying sadness, Gartstein said.
“If we are aiming to prevent behavioral problems which are a known precursor for more serious psychological problems, we need to know more about the values and expectations parents bring to the child-rearing table,” she said.
The research is based on data voluntarily submitted by mothers in each country through the Infant Behavioral Questionnaire-Revised. The questionnaire asks mothers to record the frequency of 191 different behaviors their children display at six and 12 months after birth.
The researchers used statistical analysis to rate infants in 14 different personality categories that range from cuddliness to vocal reactivity.
“Our questionnaire focuses on concrete behaviors in specific contexts rather than relying on global ratings of the child’s traits,” Gartstein said. “It gives us a powerful lens to examine the developmental interplay between persons and their environments in different cultures.
“What happens cross-culturally can give us tremendous information about what parents can do to support their child’s ability to regulate themselves in culturally appropriate ways.”