Is Being Quiet a Virtue or a Problem? Implications of a Study on Chinese Immigrant Children in the U.S. - Papers & Essays



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Is Being Quiet a Virtue or a Problem? Implications of a Study on Chinese Immigrant Children in the U.S.


Expectations for verbal expression and silence greatly differ across societies. In Asia including Japan, being modest and being quiet by not asserting one’s desires or self tend to be considered as positive attitudes. Adults may view quiet children as being sensitive to others and tend to encourage children’s attentive listening. In the U.S., being expressive and asserting one’s desires and needs are considered to be positive. Quietness may be viewed as a lack of interest or intellectual and social competence. Thus, Asian immigrant children are likely to face a difficult adjustment at the time of transition from home to school in Western countries. The present study examined 166 4-year-olds, including low socioeconomic status (SES) Chinese immigrant, middle class Chinese immigrant, and European American children in the U.S. We collected surveys from teachers, and teachers evaluated children’s verbal expressions, school adjustment, peer relations, and learning engagement. Chinese immigrant children, regardless of their SES, were significantly quieter and less expressive than European American children, according to the teacher evaluations. Moreover, in American preschools, quiet Chinese immigrant children were likely to have more school problems, were less engaged in learning, and have more negative peer relations. On the other hand, in Asian-dominant preschools, quiet children were likely to have less school problems and were more engaged in learning. Implications of these findings for Japanese schools and children are discussed.

socio-emotional development, Chinese American, Immigrant, Asian, preschool, verbal communication, shy, education
Japanese Chinese

Mouth is a source of troubles (Kuchi wa wazawai no moto: Talking can cause troubles.)

A talented eagle hides his claws (Nou aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu: A capable or talented person does not show off or talk about their abilities.)

Evidence more than words (Ron yori shouko: It is important to show results or evidence rather than talking about it.)

Expectations for verbal expression and silence greatly differ across societies. In Japan, not asserting self or one's desires (jikoshuchou wo shinai) and being modest and quiet is, in general, considered to be positive. A variety of Japanese idioms suggest that silence or quietness is a virtue. Japanese people value ambiguity in social and public relationships and often encourage people to restrain verbal expression (Lebra, 1976). In a country where non-confrontational interpersonal relations are valued, intuitive communication can be critical. As demonstrated in a recent popular word, "KY" or kuuki yomenai (literally meaning not being able to read air), people who cannot read atmosphere or speaking out of context are viewed negatively. There also is a cultural belief in which truth lies in the heart (kokoro) and not in spoken words, and talking can inhibit people's work and productivity. Quietness is associated with sensitivity, honesty, modesty, competence, patience, and hard-work.

Thus, in the socialization processes of children, Japanese parents explicitly or implicitly encourage their children to develop such attributes. Previous studies have found that Japanese mothers vocalize less to their children and request fewer descriptions and elaborations in children's speech than European American mothers (Caudill & Weinstein, 1969; Minami, 1994). Japanese children are expected to improve their skills in reading and interpreting others' feelings and desires without directly asking questions. Learning to listen attentively before they speak is also critical. Although Japanese children are encouraged to express their feelings and thoughts to family members (Holloway, 2010), they learn how to speak appropriately within the context of the situation and quietness is an appropriate or desired social practice on many occasions.

However, expectations about self-expression and silence vary widely across societies. In a globalizing world where people from various cultural backgrounds interact and communicate, expressing one's needs and desires and presenting one's abilities verbally become important skills. Different expectations toward self-expressions can cause misunderstandings about people's intentions and abilities. Miscommunications and misunderstandings between Japanese and Western people have been frequently reported.

But how are young children's communicative skills related to their school experiences? In this paper, we report our findings in a research project about Chinese immigrant children in the U.S., and address how quietness is negatively regarded in Western schools. In so doing, we suggest what these findings imply to Japanese children's developmental processes as well as school contexts in Japan.*1)

Verbal Expressions in Western Countries

As expressed in an idiom, "the squeaky wheel gets the oil," asserting one's needs and desires is expected and valued in Western societies. Eloquence and self-assertion, not being quiet, has a positive connotation in the U.S. and Europe. American people regard the expressive and assertive person as intellectual and having leadership skills. In a society where people view individuals as independent and different, verbal communication is a tool for people to understand each other. Silence or quietness is often viewed negatively, especially in social relationships and public settings such as school (Ishii & Bruneau, 1994).

Thus, nurturing self-assertion is an important socialization goal for children in Western countries. Children have the right to express their opinions and are asked by adults about their wishes and desires. Lareau's ethnographic study (2003) highlights that self-expression, negotiation skills, and verbal communications are important "cultural capital" which bring advantages in children's school and social lives in the U.S. Her study demonstrates that middle-class adults expect children to utter their messages verbally and elaborate them rather than restraining or simplifying them. From young age, American children learn to express their desires, exhibit their opinions, make requests, show their judgments, and debate with adults through the use of reason. As Lareau argues, these skills prepare children "to participate effectively in social interactions, particularly those involving adults" (p.132) in American society.

Asian and Chinese Immigrant Children in the United States

However, not all children in the U.S. are socialized to develop such verbal skills. Asian American children and students are, in general, viewed as "silent," "quiet," "passive," "non-assertive," and "poor communicators" in Western schools (Kim, 2002; Liu, 2002). Asians have become the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. for the last decade. In 2010, Asian Americans numbered approximately 14.7 million. The number of Asian American children has doubled to represent 4.2% of the total student population in the U.S. While Asian American children have acquired the reputation of being "a model minority" in Western countries due to their high academic performance and positive attitudes toward education, studies show that teachers view Asian immigrant children as quiet or passive learners in Western classrooms.

Among Asian immigrants, Chinese immigrants are the fastest growing ethnic group, making up 25% of Asian immigrant population. In the US Census, Chinese immigrants are defined as people who came from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other regions of East and Southeast Asia. While some theories highlight ambiguous and indirect communication styles as unique to Japanese culture, silence or quietness is also viewed as a virtue in Chinese culture, especially in school settings. In China, quietness is believed to reflect students' attentive listening, active thinking, and ability to solve problems independently. Asking questions in the middle of class is believed to be inappropriate and disturbing. Students are not expected to present different opinions to teachers in classrooms. However, students are expected to ask questions after class or express their responses clearly when teachers initiate questions (Liu, 2002). Chinese immigrant parents, who internalized Chinese cultural values, tend to socialize their children based on their cultural models. Thus, Chinese immigrant children are likely to face a difficult adjustment at the time of transition from home to school in Western countries because school cultures represent Western norms.

Western teachers may view silent behavior among Chinese immigrant students as a lack of interest or knowledge because they tend to view verbal communication skills as representative of an active mind, engaged learning, and academic competence. Western teachers expect students to demonstrate their ideas and speak up in classrooms (McCroskey & Daly, 1976). We examined how American teachers view Chinese immigrant children's verbal expression at an early stage, during preschool years.

How do teachers view Chinese immigrant children in the U.S.? How is children's quietness associated with children's school experiences in American schools? In order to examine whether quietness is related to positive or negative school outcomes, depending on school contexts which reflect different values on silence, we examined two types of preschools: European American preschools and Asian-dominant preschools in the U.S.

Research Methods

We derived data from a longitudinal research project at Brown University, "European American and Chinese Immigrant Children's Learning Beliefs and Related Socialization at Home (LBP)." For this study, we examined 166 4-year-olds. Among 166 children, 59 were low socioeconomic status (SES) Chinese immigrants, 49 were middle-class Chinese immigrants, and 58 were middle-class White Americans. These children consisted of 82 boys and 84 girls. Families and children were recruited through daycares and preschools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The majority of parents of Chinese immigrant children migrated from mainland China, and lived in the U.S. for 9.7 years on average. All but 9 Chinese children were born in the U.S. All White parents and children were born and grew up in the U.S.


Teachers View Chinese Immigrant Children as Quieter and Less Expressive than European American Children

We first examined how teachers viewed verbal expression of Chinese immigrant children compared to European American children. We collected surveys from teachers. Teachers rated each child's quietness and self-expression/assertiveness (hereafter self-expression) on a scale of 1 to 5. For self-expression, we asked teachers to rate if the child expresses their feelings or verbally asserts their own needs and desires. Preschool teachers, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, rated Chinese immigrant children as being significantly less expressive/assertive and quieter than European American children (see Figure 1). Both middle-class and low-SES Chinese immigrant children are quieter and less expressive than their American peers, or perceived to be so by teachers.

Figure 1. Teachers' views about Chinese immigrant children and White children for their verbal expression

Note: Higher ratings for quietness mean being quieter. Higher ratings for self-expression mean being more expressive/assertive.

Being Quiet Can Be Negative in American Schools
Do quiet children have positive or negative school experiences in the U.S.? Next, we examined what consequences quietness can bring to children's overall school experiences, such as school adjustment, learning experiences, and peer relations. We collected data related to children's school experiences from the same teachers. Teachers rated children's school adjustment problems including emotional and behavioral problems, learning engagement (how much children are engaged in learning), and peer relations on a scale of 1 to 5.

Chinese immigrant children attending American preschools
First, we examined Chinese immigrant children who attended an American preschool where most children and teachers were White or European American. Most of these preschools were located in a suburb, and most children (75%) attending this type of preschool had middle-class backgrounds. As shown in Figure 2, being quiet had negative results for Chinese immigrant children in preschools of this type. We divided children into two groups: Quiet children who were rated as usually or always quiet and not quiet children who were rated as rarely or sometimes quiet. Then we examined the means of school experience outcomes for each group. Compared to not quiet children, quiet children had more school adjustment problems, more negative learning attitudes and negative relationships with their friends according to teacher ratings. Overall, quiet children exhibited more negative school experiences than not quiet children according to teachers' ratings.

Figure 2. Quiet and Not Quiet Chinese Immigrant Children in American Schools and Their School Problems, Learning Engagement, and Peer Relations.

Note: Higher ratings for school problems mean having more problems in adjusting in school. Higher ratings for learning attitudes mean positive learning attitudes. Higher ratings for peer relations mean positive relationships with their friends.

Quietness is Viewed Differently in Asian-Dominant Preschools
It is possible that children's quietness is evaluated differently depending on the types of preschools children attend even in the same country? The U.S. is highly diverse racially and ethnically and this diversity is reflected in many areas, including preschools and daycares. Thus, we examined preschools which are likely to value Asian cultural beliefs. We looked at Chinese immigrant children who attended a preschool in which most children and teachers were Asians. These preschools and daycares were owned or run by Asian people, and were located in Chinatown or cities where many Asian people lived. Most children (82%) who attended this type of preschool had low socioeconomic backgrounds. As Figure 3 shows, being quiet had relatively positive results in this type of preschool. In fact, patterns related to quiet and not quiet children were exactly opposite to those found for the American preschools for two of the three categories. Quiet children demonstrated less school problems and better learning attitudes. Being quiet or not being quiet did not matter for their relationships with their friends in this type of preschool.

Figure 3. Quiet and Not Quiet Chinese Immigrant Children in Asian-Dominant Schools and Their Peer Relations, School Problems, and Learning Engagement


Discussions and Implications

In Japan, shy and quiet children (hazukashigariya) may be viewed cute and sensitive. Moreover, Japanese teachers may consider that being shy and quiet is a natural developmental stage for younger children and may provide extra attention and care. But this view or attitude related to quietness is not universal across societies. Cross-cultural studies have shown that teachers and friends in China are warm and supportive to shy and quiet children, but quiet children may be less liked or ignored by their friends in Western schools (Chen, Chen, Li, & Wang, 2009).

Our findings demonstrate that Chinese immigrant children are quiet and less expressive compared to White children, or perceived to be so by teachers in the U.S. Even though their parents live in the U.S. for about 10 years on average, Chinese immigrant children do not assert or express their feelings or needs as much as Western children do. More importantly, children's quietness is associated with difficulties in American schools in the areas of school adjustment, learning attitudes, and peer relations. When children attend a preschool in which most children and teachers are Asian, quietness does not lead to difficulties. This is probably because teachers and other Asian children view quiet children as natural or positive such as being nice, sensitive and not arrogant. Thus quiet children are likely to have better relationships with other friends and have better school adjustment. However, quietness is not positively regarded in the U.S. American teachers and peers may view quiet children as passive and inhibited communicators. These views may lead to reduced attention from and interactions with American teachers and peers.

Implications for Japan

What implications do these findings have for the development of Japanese children or children in Japan? We do not know how Western teachers view Japanese children who attend schools in the U.S. or Europe. Media images and stereotypes of Asian people suggest that Japanese are also viewed as quiet, reserved, or less expressive. Even though Japanese themselves may believe that they have become more expressive and assertive over the last few decades, foreign scholars point out that ambiguous and indirect communication styles are still salient and commonly practiced in Japanese society. An American sociologist who gave a talk to Japanese college and graduate students was surprised because no students asked her a question (Yamagishi & Brinton, 2010). Not presenting their opinions or needs may be considered as a lack of knowledge or desires in Western contexts.

Significant numbers of Japanese children attend schools in Western countries due to their parents' work. It would be helpful for Japanese parents living abroad to be aware of distinct communication styles across the cultures, and to help their children elaborate and express their thoughts at home. With increasing globalization, Japan has also experienced a diversifying population of students in its public schools. Because schools have included more students from various cultural backgrounds, it is important for teachers and other adults to be aware of diverse types of communicative styles. For example, "kikokushijyo," Japanese children who attend a school in a foreign country and come back to Japan, tend to be viewed as selfish, aggressive or uncooperative due to their assertiveness and expression of individual desires which was internalized in Western countries (Nukaga & Tsuneyoshi, 2010). Children's assertive and expressive communication styles may cause difficult school experiences and peer relations in Japanese schools. It is critical for Japanese teachers to be aware of different communication styles and their subconscious or unconscious negative or positive images related to quietness and assertiveness.

Finally, today's children are expected to use eloquent verbal expressions and effective communicative and presentation skills in the future in order to successfully communicate with people from various countries. In 2011, English education was included as part of elementary school curricula in the MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology) guidelines. In addition to teaching English language, teaching children about different communication styles and ways to effectively express their thoughts and opinions may help them build their international communication skills in the future.

*1) More detailed findings related to this study can be found in Yamamoto, Y., & Li, J. (in press). Quiet in the eye of the beholder: Teacher perceptions of Asian immigrant children. In C. Garcia Coll (Ed.), Contributions to human development: The impact of immigration on children's development. Karger.


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