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The Cultural Milieu of Child Care
Response to Miya: Japanese mothers and American child care?

Sarah L. Friedman, Ph.D.

In 1987 52% of Japanese women were supportive of the idea that women should quit the workforce when they start a family and that these women should go back to work when their children grew up and needed less care. Only 16% thought that women should stay in the workforce when they start a family (Iwao, 1993). While I could not obtain the comparable figures for the year 2000, my conversations with Miya and with others suggest to me that more women today would like to keep their job or continue to pursue their career even when their children are very young. But these women are still in the minority since the Japanese society has not changed its concepts about what are the optimal conditions for raising young children. Most Japanese expect child rearing of infants and young children to be the exclusive responsibility of the mother. In the public mind, the role of father is primarily that of the earner of the family's income, so fathers are not expected to share with their wives the responsibility of taking care of their infants and young children. In the urban settings where mothers wish to stay in the workforce, grandparents are frequently not around to help with child rearing. Many in Japan still voice the concern that mothers of young children who choose to work away from home are placing their children at risk for less than optimal development. Moreover, when children's development goes awry, people speculate that this would not happen if mothers did not go out to work. So, while more and more Japanese women are in the workforce, they join the work force on a full time basis before marriage, quit once they have a child and return to part time work when the youngest of their children is in school, usually in fourth grade (Iwao, 1993).

Japanese women and women elsewhere are living in a time of transition. They grew up learning certain ways of being wives and mothers. Through observing their own mothers and other women, they have learned scripts of family life and child rearing that were well tried over generations. But times are changing. There are various factors that have contributed to the increase in the number of women in the Japanese workforce. These include the labor shortage in Japan, the fact that technology reduces the amount of housework, the rise in the number of girls with at least a high school education, the new scripts for women's roles that are conveyed by the media and, in a small proportion of the population, the economic circumstances of the woman's family. In addition, one needs to remember that the opportunity not to be dependent on men for all their income or even for part of their income is very attractive to many young women, in Japan and elsewhere. Moreover, many women in the U.S., and probably also in Japan, find the workplace a supportive and rewarding environment in which they and their accomplishments are valued (Hochschild, 1997). Some women delight in the fact that they serve as role models to other women and to their children.

A young woman needs to be courageous to break away from tradition and she needs to have some level of confidence that things will work out just fine. This is especially true when breaking away from tradition may touch on the well being of her infant, toddler or older children. Luckily, scientists, especially in the U.S. but also in Canada, Britain and Europe have addressed the questions that are on the mind of all working mothers, regardless of nationality. Their research findings provide insight into the consequences that maternal employment has for the development of very young children. These findings should help Japanese mothers of infants and toddlers who contemplate combining work outside the home and raising their young children.

Historical and a cross-cultural analyses of child rearing and child development make it very clear that children grow up to be well adjusted when raised in societies that vary greatly in child rearing values and practices. For example, cultures vary in the extent to which they rear children to be individualistic or cooperative. "Although all cultures must find a balance between individual autonomy and shared interests, there is considerable variation in each society's location along the continuum. Those that place greater emphasis on the former socialize their children in a way that promotes a greater sense of independence and a strong orientation toward individual achievement and self-fulfillment. Those that place greater emphasis on the latter socialize their children to focus on the importance of their responsibilities to others and the value of viewing personal achievement in terms of their contribution to collective goals" (Shonkoff and Phillips (eds.), 2000). Parents tend to choose one set of child rearing practices over another because they believe in the superiority of their approach. And indeed, their approach may be the best in the context of the child development goals that they have for their children. But when the values and goals of the parents or of the society change so can child rearing practices, without interfering with the psychological well being of the children.

A major fear of parents is that if mother works and non family members are paid to take care of the infants and toddlers, the family will not influence the development of these very young children as it would if the children were reared in the family context without the help of child care providers. The findings that I presented in Tokyo in July of this year addressed this concern. In a nutshell, I told the audience of the CRN symposium that the investigators of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care found that family characteristics and maternal behaviors are very important predictors of children's language, cognitive and social developmental outcome in children who attend child care in the first three years of life. The quality of the family environment is linked to children's development more than the quality of the child care environment. Moreover, the prediction from family characteristics to developmental outcomes is similar for children who are in no more than 10 hours of child care per week and children who are in child care for 30 or more hours per week.

The scientists conducting the NICHD study of Early child Care also found that child care quality makes a difference for how well young children develop. Higher quality of child care is associated with better language, cognitive and social outcomes in the first three years of life. Lower quality is associated with poorer developmental outcomes.

While the scientific findings are encouraging, the question remains whether or not they are helpful for Japanese women. The life circumstances in Japan and the social climate are different from what they are in countries where most of the scientific work has been conducted (Iwao, 1993). Ecologists who study the natural environment know that all forms of vegetation and of life are interconnected and interdependent so that as one aspect of the natural environment changes, other aspects accommodate for better or for worse. Similarly, the development of children is influenced not only by their immediate experiences with their mothers, but by direct and indirect influences of social institutions and practices existing at different levels of proximity to the child (Bronfenbrenner and Crouter, 1983).

In Japan and elsewhere, many believe that if mother goes to work and the child goes to child care, all child rearing goals and family practices should stay the same. The working mother should remain the one that takes care of all child rearing and household responsibilities (such as enriching the child's emotional, intellectual and cultural life, taking the child to the doctor, shopping for food, cooking, and doing the laundry)(Iwao, 1993). If the working mother cannot fully meet societal expectations regarding her role as mother and housewife in parallel to working away from home, then she is considered selfish and advised to quit her job. Such expectations for working mothers are unrealistic, cause unnecessary stress and are likely to negatively affect the children of working mothers. The family and the society of which it is a part need to accommodate to maternal employment by critically evaluating child-rearing practices as well as the roles of women in the home, while they are at home. Some traditional practices may really be essential for optimal child development and healthy family life. Other practices may not be essential and could be replaced by other practices. For example, research about child care and about care by fathers has demonstrated that while the mother is absent, others who take care of her children on a regular and consistent basis can successfully attend to the children's safety, physical comfort, need for affect, and for engaging and intellectually stimulating social environment. In addition to accepting this fact, society needs to come up with solutions that would allow the working mother to spend more pleasant time with her child when she is not at work. Certainly, an overworked mother cannot spend much leisure time with her children. So, the societal/cultural approval for the emergence and use of support systems and paid services in areas of housekeeping and child rearing could greatly help working mothers. I was pleased to learn from Iwao (1993) that in the area of housekeeping there is a lot of convenient support available for pay in the form of services and prepared food that can be delivered to the home or purchased in shops that are open for long hours. I was less pleased to learn that there is shortage of day care for newborns and children in the first year of life and that in home care by paid providers is almost non-existent. There are, however, child care facilities for children over one year of age but these are not fully utilized. This underutilization may be partly due to the fact that the facilities are open between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. This means that mothers who need to commute long distance between the workplace and the place of the child care facility cannot pick up their child in time. While some employers provide child care close to the work place, most women are employed by small companies that do not provide such social benefit for their employees.

Cultures learn from one another. Exposure to different ways of life stimulates experimenting with new practices and it often leads to change. So, there is a lot to be said for the Japanese borrowing from the U.S. culture and vise versa. At the same time, it seems to me that before one can propose changes in the social milieu of Japanese women so as to facilitate their ability to have a family and to hold a job, one needs to have objective information about the women and about their milieu. While Japanese and American women share the wish to have a family and to work for pay they vary in their ideas about the woman's role in the family and even more so in terms of their ideas about what they want from work (Iwao, 1993). Consequently, they may also vary in what and how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to play the dual roles of mother and paid worker. Likewise, Japanese and American mothers of infants and toddlers probably vary in terms of the moral and practical support that they receive from members of their family and from the society at large. In addition to the differences already highlighted, in Japan, the home is considered a refuge, where children are allowed to express negative emotions including anger or frustrations and where they are not expected to meet the same high standards of civilized behavior that must be followed out of the home, even in preschool. In the U.S. and in European countries the expectations for behavior in the home setting and out of home are rather similar (Peak, 1991).

I believe that carefully designed descriptive research to compare the child rearing beliefs, the practices and the social support of mothers of young children in Japan and in other cultures would help Japanese women judge the relevance of scientific findings from the U.S. to life in Japan. In addition, I believe that much of the anxiety of Japanese women about maternal employment is due to the fact that they don't have data about the effects of child care for infants and toddlers on the development of Japanese children. I think that Japanese women are aware of the points I made above and therefore they hesitate about relying on findings that come from another culture.

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