In the global village, how does family culture impact an individual child’s self-esteem? A recent University of Sussex study finds self-regard may be linked exclusively to the behavior of the most powerful parent within a given household. If the weaker parent displays more negative parenting skills, such as detachment, this will have little impact on a child whose stronger parent upholds solid nurturing behavior, the researchers say.

“Self-esteem is defined as the extent to which an individual perceives himself or herself as capable, successful, significant, and worthy,” wrote Dr. Alison Pike, University of Sussex, and Dr. Naama Atzaba-Poria, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In practice, self-esteem is the psychological dimension many parents focus on most when raising their children. After all, those who possess too little self-regard may fall short of their potential or tolerate abusive situations and relationships, as Psychology Today suggests. Yet, a balance must be struck, since too much self-love may result in an inability to learn from failures and an ugly sense of entitlement. No decent parent would want either end of the self-esteem spectrum for a child.

Considering self-regard, Pike and Atzaba-Poria focused on the ways in which culture might influence this trait. Because families possess “gender-based power structures” rooted in cultural differences, these two psychologists theorized, lower child self-esteem would be related to maternal negativity in English families, while in Indian families, the link would be to paternal negativity. To explore this hypothesis, they designed a study.

Cultural Differences

In Indian culture, the researchers explained, mothers have inferior positions to fathers within a household as well as in the greater society. The head of the family is the father, who wields the lion’s share of power and discipline, even in families that have emigrated to Britain. On the other hand, English and most Western families place mothers in a more central role than father within the home. Though the family unit may appear somewhat patriarchal, the woman is responsible for routine care and discipline and generally holds more sway within her home.

For the study, Pike and Atzaba-Poria visited 125 English and Indian families living in West London: 59 were English, 66 Indian. The children of these families ranged in age from 7 to almost 10. Answering a series of questions, the children revealed their self-esteem, while the parents completed the Parental Negativity Scale in which they indicated on a 7-point scale, the veracity of 24 statements referring to their behaviors in relation to their child. Negative parenting traits included intrusiveness, a detached manner, lax enforcement of discipline, controlling through anxiety, controlling through guilt, and controlling through hostility.

Collecting and analyzing the data, the researchers discovered support for their hypothesis. Interestingly, while Indian and English mothers did not differ in their reports of maternal negativity, Indian fathers reported higher levels of negativity than English fathers. Higher levels of paternal negativity were related to lower self-esteem for the Indian children, while for the English children, higher levels of maternal negativity were related to lower self-esteem.

"Our results suggest that children from different cultures may not only be affected differently by specific parenting strategies, but that they may be affected differently depending on whether the parental behavior is performed by mothers or fathers," concluded the researchers.

“Parenting literature is still dominated by mothering, reflecting Western norms,” Pike said in a press release. “With 7.5 million foreign-born residents in the UK, we need to spend more time considering parenting practice through a cultural lens.”

Google “mothering” and 5.1 million responses appear, yet “fathering” yields not even half that amount — 612,000 total responses. Certainly Pike is correct in believing parenting literature is dominated by advice for mothers, however that may not be a reflection of Western norms so much as a reflection of women’s lack of confidence … or perceived lack of ability. After all, fear is commonly encouraged and exploited by the media.

Source: Pike A, Atzaba-Poria N. Through a Cultural Lens: Links Between Maternal and Paternal Negativity and Children’s Self-Esteem. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 2015.