In addition to the legal aspects of parental responsibility, parents will want to be aware of some social aspects of child care and parent-child relationships in the United States. Perhaps referring to parental behavior "in the United States" is too vague. There are regional and social-class variations in the ways American parents relate to their children, variations according to the situation (indoors vs. outdoors, private home vs. sidewalk, etc.) where parents and children are interacting, and, of course, variations from one family to another. Still, some generalizing seems possible.

Consider these questions, and compare what you see in the Golden area to what you might see at home:

How children are generally viewed?
What do parents want for their children?
Where do parents take their children?
How much noise are children permitted to make, and how much physical freedom (to run about, to touch things [in shops, public places, or other people's homes]) is allowed?
How much difference does it make whether a child is male or female?
What forms of punishment are acceptable?
What is the role of adults who are not a child's parents in instructing or disciplining that child?
How are children expected to treat adults? Other children? 

Parents of young children might want to buy or borrow a book on what Americans call "parenting" to get an idea about the prevailing notions concerning child rearing and health care, and to make them familiar with the vocabulary pediatricians and other parents will use.

The General View of Children

In some societies, children are very highly valued. Adults want to marry and to have many offspring. Some religious groups and some individuals in the United States have this idea, but many Americans have a more mixed or ambivalent opinion about children. They might consider children important, but might think it best to have no more than they can readily afford to raise. And, while children are important and valuable in some ways, they require work, inconvenience, and expense. The ideal is probably a planned family, with one or two children conceived deliberately, not accidentally. A couple might want at least one child of each sex. Some people choose not to have children at all, and that choice is socially acceptable.

The general objective of child-rearing for most American parents is to prepare their children to be independent, self-reliant individuals who will be able to manage their own lives by the time they reach 18, the age at which children are legally "on their own." Training for independence starts very early. Infants and young children are given choices to make, asked to express their opinions, and encouraged to do things for themselves as soon as they can. Parents will praise and encourage their children: "There, you see? You can do it yourself!"

What Do Parents Want for Their Children?

Although economic changes are making it more difficult to realize, most parents, probably still hold the idea that their children should have "better lives" than they themselves had. To give their children the best possible chance to have a good life, they will, if it is possible for them to do so, invest considerable time and money in a child's improvement and instruction, in such things as dental care (straight teeth seem especially important); medical care for any perceived defect; a pre-school (where in some cases very young children are encouraged to learn to read); lessons, classes, and practices for learning to draw, play a sport, dance, sing, or play a musical instrument; and perhaps counseling to help overcome emotional difficulties.

Parents want their children to be "happy and healthy." At a minimum this means they want their children to be free of significant health problems (physical and emotional), reasonably well educated, able to find employment suited to the children's interests and talents, and reasonably prosperous. Parents are concerned for their children's safety, and will try to protect them (by watching them closely, when they are on a playground, for example, and by using seatbelts when the children are in a car) from injuring themselves.

While they are concerned with their children's well-being, American parents have their own personal interest in having a meaningful and productive life. In many cases, that means both parents will be employed, and children will be left during working hours in some form of "childcare"--perhaps with a babysitter, or in a daycare center or nursery school.

Where Do Parents Take Their Children?

In a community, many parents will want to "expose" their children to as many aspects of life as possible, so they will take their children almost any place (sports and social events, performances) except to an expensive restaurant (which is usually expected to have a "quiet" atmosphere) and a live theater performance.

A formal invitation to another person's home does not normally include children unless it explicitly states that children are invited. If you have doubts about whether the people inviting you to their home expect you to bring your children, telephone in advance and ask them. (An infant who sleeps much of the time can be taken to another person's house even if children have not been specifically invited.)

Americans generally have the idea that parents "need some time away from the child(ren)." So parents often arrange for someone to "babysit" for the child(ren) so they themselves can go "out." The babysitter is not always a person who knows the children, although most parents think it is better to find a babysitter who does know them.

Noise and Physical Freedom

Young children are expected to be noisier and more physically active than adults. How active and noisy they may be depends upon the setting. In their homes, children can run around and play with relatively little restraint. The parents of young children will "childproof" the home, putting out of children's reach any heavy, sharp, or otherwise dangerous articles, and articles a child could damage. In this environment the child is given a great deal of freedom.

However, in enclosed public places, such as offices and stores, and in other people's homes, parents are expected to keep their children "under control," so they will not be touching or damaging anyone's property or unduly disturbing them. Parents need to be prepared to leave a public place if their children "misbehave," especially by making enough noise that they interfere with other people's enjoyment of the situation.

To try to give this vague statement more substance, it is probably safe to say that young Indian, Japanese, and Korean children are given more freedom to run about and make noise in public places than are American children of similar ages. Malay children, by contrast, are given less freedom for movement and making noise.

Note: It is illegal for children, as it is for adults, to urinate in an open, public place such as a park.

Male vs. Female Children

Americans will generally say that if they are going to have a child they will be happy no matter what the child's sex, as long as the child is healthy. If there is a general preference, it is for "one of each," a child of each sex. Educated Americans will usually try to avoid conveying the idea to their children that males are naturally more dominant, and females more submissive, and that certain social roles are only for males while others are only for females. Visitors from abroad will notice considerable debate and comment on the status of women in American society.

What Forms of Discipline Are Acceptable?

American "experts" on child development and child rearing continually debate about the best means of inducing a child to behave appropriately, or according to the parents' wishes. Many experts emphasize "positive guidance," which means giving the child positive reinforcement when she does things the parents like rather than punishing her when she does something the parents do not like. It also means listening patiently to the child and acknowledging how she feels while telling her what unacceptable behavior is. An example: "I see that you feel really angry at Tommy for taking your toy, but you may not hit him." Another form of this idea is "positive redirection." An example: "Here is some paper to write on. Walls are not for you to write on."

Instead of using physical punishment such as "spanking" the buttocks or slapping a child's hand, parents are encouraged to use "time out" or "renewal time." During "time out," children who are misbehaving are required to sit (often in another room) until they can behave properly again. Many experts consider physical punishment destructive, because it can teach children to hurt others who are not acting the way they want.

Parents should note that punishment that leaves a mark or causes a wound or injury is not only undesirable, but is also illegal. Parents who harm their children, even though the purpose is to discipline them, can be arrested for child abuse.

The Role of Adults Who Are Not a Child’s Parents

In some societies it is expected that adults who are not the child's parents--perhaps other relatives, or neighbors, or simply adults who happen to be present--can intervene to discourage a child from misbehaving. Americans do not generally have that expectation. A child's behavior is considered to be the business of the parents alone, or of the babysitter or other person left in charge of the child while the parents are away. Two exceptions: An unrelated adult might intervene when a child is doing something that seems dangerous (for example, playing with a sharp object, or getting to a place where a fall might result), and when one child is physically mistreating another. In these situations the unrelated adult would act to stop the threat of harm, but would not administer any punishment. Punishing is left to the parents.

Some Americans will act to stop what they consider misbehavior (for example, making too much noise or touching breakable objects) on the part of children visiting in their homes. Other Americans will tolerate the misbehavior--at least if the misbehaving child's parents are present.

How Children Are Expected to Treat Adults and Other Children

Children raised to be independent and self-reliant cannot be expected to be as respectful and obedient toward their elders. American children might argue with or otherwise challenge their parents and other adults. They may freely express their views, and they will not automatically accept instructions or comments from other people of any age. The typical behavior of independent, individualistic American young people seems inappropriate to visitors from some other countries. American parents try to teach their children to be polite to their elders (for example, by not interrupting them, not making too much noise in their presence, and refraining from negative or critical comments), but the children are not expected to defer to adults simply because the adults are older.

Older children are expected to treat younger children with consideration and perhaps even helpfulness, and are not supposed to injure them, force them to do things they do not wish to do, or otherwise "bully" them. Male children are expected to treat female children just as they treat other males, since there is no assumption that male children are superior. American parents, are likely to become disturbed if they see an older child "picking on" a younger one, or a male child mistreating a female child.

Concluding Comments

The preceding comments have not addressed the problems confronted by parents raising children in a foreign culture. Those problems are many and vexing. Children have their own adjustments to a new language and culture, and their parents need to keep that in mind, so they can be as helpful as possible. Young children usually master the local language much more quickly than their parents do, and they are subject to media influences and peer pressures they would not encounter at home. Parents may experience considerable frustration if they wish their children to continue to use their own language and to behave in ways that would be appropriate in the home country. Parents will want to talk with other parents from other countries who have been here longer to get ideas on maximizing the benefits and minimizing the difficulties of raising children in another country.

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Last Updated: 08/04/2017 08:23:15