Kids' Storybooks Stress Purpose in China, Self-Esteem in US and Mexico

In a new study, researchers set out to investigate how the lessons taught in Chinese storybooks might compare to those in the United States and Mexico, and how these lessons might relate to academic achievement in each region.

Although previous research has highlighted the vital role of parents in children’s scholastic achievement, few studies have considered the role of “cultural artifacts,” such as storybooks, said lead researcher Dr. Cecilia Cheung from the University of California, Riverside.

Her findings are published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Overall, the researchers found that Chinese storybooks tend to celebrate behaviors associated with learning and hard work. In contrast, they found that U.S. and Mexican storybooks had a shared emphasis on self-esteem and social competence.

“The values that are commonly conveyed in Chinese (vs. U.S.) storybooks include an orientation toward achievement, respect for others — particularly the elderly — humility, and the importance of enduring hardship,” said Cheung.

“In the U.S. storybooks, protagonists are often portrayed as having unique interest and strength in a certain domain, and the themes tend to be uplifting.”

For her research, Cheung chose 380 storybooks which were recommended by education ministries in the respective countries, for children aged 3 to 11. She investigated three core aspects of learning-related qualities: beliefs (views about the nature of intelligence), motivated cognitions (achievement, determination), and behaviors (effort, overcoming obstacles).

One representative Chinese storybook is “A Cat That Eats Letters.” In this story, a cat has an appetite for sloppy letters. Whenever children write a letter that is too large, too small, too slanted, or with missing strokes, the cat eats it. The only way to stop this letter-eating cat is to write carefully and practice every day.

In contrast, a typical U.S.-Mexico storybook formula is represented by “The Jar of Happiness,” in which a little girl attempts to make a potion of happiness in a jar, but then tragically loses the jar. The happy ending still comes, however, when the girl realizes that happiness doesn’t actually come from a jar, but rather from good friends — including those who will cheer her up when she believes she’s lost her happiness.

Cheung asserts that storybooks play a key role in establishing the values that can help determine scholastic success. Referencing past research, Cheung said it is “conceivable that exposure to reading materials that highlight the importance of learning-related qualities, such as effort and perseverance, may lead children to value such qualities to a greater extent.”

Source: University of California, Riverside