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From Kyôiku Mama to Monster Parent: Changing Images of Japanese Mothers and their Involvement in Children's Schooling

Recently, mothers who challenge school staff have been dubbed “monster parents” by Japanese academic scholars and the media. We argue that it is counterproductive to label parents with pejorative labels based on extreme examples. In our research we found that college-educated mothers who are confident in their child-rearing abilities often attempted to monitor their children’s teachers and find constructive ways to become involved at their children’s schooling. These findings suggest that most mothers’ efforts to intervene in their children’s schooling are well-intentioned, and could have a positive effect if school officials and parents are able to form effective partnerships.

parental involvement, parenting self-efficacy, “monster parents,” schools, family, Japan

During the 1980s, Western scholars depicted Japanese mothers as the powerhouse behind the extraordinary achievement of Japanese students. These "education-oriented mothers" (kyôiku mama) were described as providing faithful service to their hard-working children, poised to provide a word of encouragement or to prepare a nutritious snack to the son or daughter studying late into the night (White, 2003). They were portrayed as silent partners with the schools, never attempting to control what happened on school premises and always supportive of school goals and methods.

In subsequent years, the reputation of Japanese education has suffered inside Japan as well as in Western eyes. For one thing, children's achievement has declined relative to their peers in other countries. On one international assessment (Program for International Student Assessment), Japanese students dropped from first place in math in 2000 to 10th place in 2006. In reading, they dropped from 8th place in 2000 to 15th in 2006 (OECD Program for International Student Assessment website, 2008). Other educational problems have also proven worrisome, including the phenomenon of rebellious students, students who refuse to come to school or leave their homes, and students who seem to have lost their motivation to study hard and obtain professional degrees (Tsuneyoshi, 2004).

Some media observers and social critics have openly blamed mothers' selfishness for these problems, arguing that children are being neglected while their mothers pursue their own leisure activities or enjoy a stimulating life in the workplace. In contrast, others have criticized mothers for being overly diligent or for viewing their children's accomplishments as a vicarious form of personal achievement (Holloway, 2010).

Criticism of Mothers as "Monster Parents"

Most recently, mothers are being criticized in a new way. Those who challenge school staff or take what is perceived as an overly assertive role in monitoring their children's education have been dubbed "monster parents" by academic scholars and the media. Examples of "monster parent" behavior cited by these experts include mothers' demanding special treatment for their own children, entering the classroom to monitor teachers whose practices they do not approve of, confronting teachers suspected of poor performance to demand their resignation, and pressuring administrators to demand that unpopular teachers by sanctioned or fired.

Educational professionals and academics have reacted with alarm to this phenomenon. An article in the London Times quotes Professor Yoshihiko Morotomi, who has written a book on "monster parents" as saying: "The monsters are created in family restaurants and coffee shops ? places where the mothers meet each other to talk and relax...Simple chats spiral into 'emergency meetings'... the conversation becomes more emotional and radical and suddenly what began as a simple complaint becomes a monsterised army of parents" ("Japan's 'monster' parents take centre stage," 2008).

Our perspective is that it is counterproductive to label parents with a pejorative label such as "monster." We believe it is important not to use extreme examples to stigmatize all mothers. We also seek to examine the varied motivations that exist across the diverse population of Japanese mothers. Just as not all mothers in the past were kyôiku mamas, not all contemporary mothers are pathologically involved in their children's schooling.

To obtain some sense of the negative effect of attaching global, pejorative labels to certain groups of women, it is informative to review the way in which the term "parasite single" was used by some academics and members of the media to pathologize young working adults who lived with their parents prior to marriage. The "parasite single" argument was used particularly to criticize women seen as postponing marriage because they were "just too selfish to be induced into giving up their freedoms for motherhood" (Schoppa, 2006, p. 156). According to some analysts, including Schoppa, this argument persuaded Ministry of Health and Welfare officials to abandon policy changes needed to enable working mothers to stay in the workplace, including provision of maternity leave, affordable child care, and changes in gender role stereotypes. The reasoning, according to Schoppa, was that these policies would not be successful if the problem was located in the selfish nature of contemporary young women. It is, from our perspective, unfortunate when policy options for resolving a complex social problem are abandoned as the result of a simplistic explanation that rests upon the stigmatization of an entire group.

Our Research Approach

Over the past 10 years we have been conducting a research project that examines Japanese women's experiences and perceptions of being a mother. A central goal of our project is to study the diverse parenting beliefs and activities of mothers from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus, our focus is on a) eliciting and understanding their perspectives and b) examining the heterogeneity that exists even within a society that is often thought of as relatively homogeneous. This represents a departure from work that is primarily evaluative of mothers' parenting practices and conceptualizes mothers as an undifferentiated group with similar motivations and actions.

Our project started in the summer of 2000, when we interviewed and gave surveys to 116 Japanese women. We kept in contact over the next three years, and administered two additional surveys, one when their children were in first grade, and one when they were in second grade.

When we started the project, the average age of the women was 36 years old. All of them had at least one child in the last year of preschool (youchien). Half the mothers were living in Osaka, and half in Sapporo. The number of children in the household ranged from 1 to 4 (average = 2.2). About 60 percent of the mothers had pursued education after high school, such as a professional school (senmon gakkou), a junior college, or a university.

From these 116 women, we also selected 16 mothers in Osaka to participate in a series of in-depth interviews. Half of them had attended a four- or two-year college and half had completed high school or junior high school. In each educational group, we chose some women who demonstrated high parenting efficacy on the survey (i.e., who felt confident in teaching, disciplining and interacting with their children), and some who demonstrated low-efficacy beliefs. We conducted four in-depth interviews with each of the 16 mothers between 2000 and 2003.

Mothers' Self-Efficacy, Schooling Background, and Relationship with Teachers

In this article we focus on the relationships that mothers in our study formed with their children's teachers in preschool as well as the first two years of elementary school. Of particular interest is the comparison between the mothers who were generally more confident in their approach to child rearing and those who suffered from anxiety and were relentlessly self-critical about their performance as mothers. We were also interested in knowing whether the education background of the mothers affected their relationships with their children. Our goal was to investigate the varied perceptions that these mothers hold about their children's teachers and to elicit the reasons that mothers give for confronting their children's teachers or for refraining from doing so.

The reason that we have divided the mothers in two groups according to their child-rearing confidence is that confidence, or what psychologists call self-efficacy, is a crucial predictor of parenting effectiveness. According to psychologist Albert Bandura, who developed a theory of self-efficacy, individuals who lack self-efficacy tend to become so overwhelmed with these negative thoughts and feelings that they are less willing to exert effort when faced with difficult situations, and tend to give up rather than respond with resilience (Bandura, 1997; Coleman & Karraker, 1998). In contrast, those who have high self-efficacy are able to focus on challenging situations, develop strategies for moving forward, and persist in implementing the strategies even in the face of further obstacles.

Japanese mothers seem to lack a sense of parenting self-efficacy compared to their counterparts in other countries. For the last two decades, social scientists in Japan have noted the diffuse anxiety and stressful feelings experienced by many Japanese mothers, a condition the Japanese media calls "childrearing neurosis" (ikuji fuan) (Hirao, 2007). Indeed, some observers view mothers' lack of parenting confidence as one of the most serious problems facing families in contemporary Japan (Kazui, 1997).

In our survey data, when we compared the mothers who were relatively confident with those who lacked parenting self-efficacy, we found some important differences in how they interacted with their children. Higher self-efficacy mothers were more likely to read to their children on a regular basis (Yamamoto, Holloway, & Suzuki, 2006). When the children were in the first grade, higher efficacy mothers were less likely to sign their children up for supplementary lessons (juku) and more likely to provide them with cognitive stimulation at home, including reading to them, using the computer, playing cards or a board game, visiting the library or a bookstore, visiting the museum or zoo, or engaging in a favorite activity. Significantly, these more efficacious mothers did not have a more positive perception of their children's teachers than did the less efficacious mothers, as reflected in their responses to questions about how much they believed that their child's teacher understood and cared about their child or communicated with the parents (Holloway, Yamamoto, Suzuki, & Mindinch, 2008).

To obtain a more nuanced understanding of why more highly efficacious mothers were more oriented to stimulating their children's cognitive development yet were not more positive in their evaluation of their children's teachers, we conducted an analysis of our in-depth interviews. When we examined the ways in which the 16 mothers in our interview group interacted with their children's teachers, we found that those who expressed more confidence in themselves as parents were likely to feel comfortable advocating for their children, even if it meant challenging the authority of the teacher. In addition, mothers who had gone beyond high school also seemed to feel more comfortable interacting with their children's teachers (Yamamoto, 2006).

The Case of Miyuki

Miyuki is one example is of a college educated, highly confident mother. Her score on our parenting self-efficacy measure was among the highest in the group. A former preschool teacher, Miyuki tended to feel confident with respect to discipline, and reported that other mothers often asked her for support and advice:

There have been many friends who were very impressed by my stories. You know my experiences as a preschool teacher have greatly helped me. I am often asked for advice from other mothers because of that. They think I know more about childrearing, you know.

Miyuki felt comfortable monitoring and supporting her children's progress in school. She was sharply evaluative of teachers who did not appear to be attending carefully to her son. For example, she reported feeling frustrated that her son's preschool teacher did not offer her any specifics about her son's progress in his first year. She told us that she advised other mothers to be assertive in support of their children, even if it might result in "being marked as a nagging mother" by school staff.

The Case of Asako

Some less educated mothers were also willing to evaluate and challenge their children's teachers, often in a way that avoided direct confrontation. For example, one of our participants, Asako, told us that her son's second grade teacher was known to be a harsh disciplinarian and impatient with students who were slow at grasping the lessons. Asako viewed him as a dangerous and ineffective teacher, but did not want to confront him or complain about him to the administration least he take retribution on her son. She became a more active volunteer in the classroom so that she could monitor what was going on, and both she and her husband tried to develop a good relationship with the teacher in the hopes that it would predispose him to treat their son well.

The Case of Chihiro

A third mother, Chihiro, was highly educated and, although not particularly confident about child rearing, was very comfortable interacting with their teachers. Chihiro had a bachelor's degree, as well as a good deal of experience in leadership roles both as a school volunteer and in her professional life prior to having children. Chihiro's enthusiastic participation in the school's PTA and other committees gave her a great deal of knowledge about the school, which she drew on to engage in an informal monitoring of her own children's classes. At one point, having heard that bullying had become a problem in her son's class, she mentioned that she became even more involved:

I would go to the school many times at that time. I used to go to see the class and ask the teacher how he was doing or something like that....Even when there was no particular reason or thing for me to go, I would peek in as if I had just dropped by...I also secretly looked into the class at other times too.

The Case of Junko

In contrast to these mothers, the mothers who expressed little confidence in their ability to be a good parent and who themselves were not highly educated tended to support their children's teachers even in situations when the teacher's actions appeared to us to be problematic. For example, one of our participants, Junko, who had barely been able to finish high school, compared herself negatively to teachers at various points in our interviews. At one point, she spoke disparagingly of her ability to scold her children calmly and with reason, the way that preschool teachers do. When her son began first grade, she told us that she did not seek specific information about the school curriculum, activities, or policies. She tended to see the teachers as the experts, and was reluctant to join the parents at her son's school who were critical of one particular teacher who routinely used corporal punishment: "If my kids really did something bad, then it is right for the teacher to hit them on the head."

Conclusions and Suggestions for the Future

In summary, it appears to us as if many confident, conscientious, and competent mothers in Japan are searching to find a way to monitor their children's experiences in school. Most of them are aware that teachers are fallible. They realize that even well-intentioned teachers may have too many children to be able to attend to the needs of each individual, and they also realize that some teachers are poorly trained, burned out after many years of teaching, or temperamentally unsuited to their job. Not surprisingly, these mothers would like to find a way to improve their children's school experience. As we saw in the excerpts from our interviews, some mothers are aware that this is a delicate matter that should be undertaken carefully. Undoubtedly, some mothers are unable to find a constructive way to approach the teacher and may go too far in advocating for their children. But by focusing simply on "monster parents," social critics run the risk of obscuring the varied (and often effective) ways that parents are finding to challenge the unilateral authority of the teacher.

With respect to the question of parental involvement in children's schooling, the question then becomes how to help school administrators and teachers, as well as parents, learn to engage in dialogue that is respectful and constructive rather than unnecessarily confrontational on either side. As parents increasingly feel empowered to share their point of view and exert an influence over classroom practices and school policies, it is clear that both sides are going to have to learn new skills.

We do not mean to diminish the difficulty of this task. In the United States, sociologists have often written that optimistic narratives about parent-teacher "partnerships" ignore the fundamental reality that the parent has a particular goal of assisting or advocating for their child whereas the school official presumably has the goal of supporting the welfare of all students as well as the institution itself (e.g., Lareau, 2003). This mismatch of goals inevitably leads to tension, even when all actors are trying to develop a partnership.

One strategy that might prove useful in Japan would be to develop parenting programs at the school that explicitly acknowledge the knowledge, energy, and experience that mothers (and fathers) bring to the task of child rearing. If school officials continue to assume that only they are knowledgeable about how to educate children it will be difficult to work effectively in partnership with mothers, who are increasingly well educated and forceful in making their opinions known. To date, it appears that the leaders of many parenting groups seek to "teach mothers that they need to be instructed on how to behave as mothers" (Sasagawa, 2006, p. 143). As Sasagawa notes, this top-down approach to "the 'standard' way of raising children" may create a temporary feeling of security among some mothers who "no longer need to worry about how big their children's preschool bag should be" (p. 143). But in the long run, the cost of this expert-driven, standards-oriented approach could be high. An approach that validates women's own knowledge of and experiences with their children might be used to break down the novice vs. professional dichotomy, and move both sides towards a more satisfactory working relationship.

Changes in the nature and form of parental involvement are no doubt taking place at a rapid pace in Japan. By focusing on extreme examples and labeling parents as "monsters," scholars and media representatives may trivialize women's motivation for acting more assertively with respect to school officials. We hope that advocates for children in families and in schools will work towards finding a constructive resolution to the tensions that often arise between these two institutions.


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