Child Discipline in Japan: an Important Part of Parenting Where Parents Pass on Their Values to Their Children - Papers & Essays



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Child Discipline in Japan: an Important Part of Parenting Where Parents Pass on Their Values to Their Children


In this report, I discuss the characteristics of child discipline in Japan: first, the meaning and purpose of child discipline; second, the importance of supportive discipline that enhances child development; and last, the differences of child discipline in Japan, South Korea and China.
Japanese Chinese

Keywords: child discipline, literacy, China, early childhood, Nobuko Uchida, attitude toward child-rearing, Japan, early education, vocabulary, South Korea


1. Meaning and Purpose of Child Discipline

Disciplining a child is often considered as a pivotal role that parents play in a child's development. However, when viewing it not only from the standpoint of parents but from children, discipline could be simply a burden on the child, given his/her developmental level and circumstances.

Some parents ask too much of a child, expecting their child to learn and conform to the rules of the society, not to act in an embarrassing way or cause trouble for others. It is natural for parents to wish for their child to become a socially well-adjusted person; however, if they care so much about what others think, this will affect their attitudes towards discipline, being too strict or too permissive with the child. Therefore, I will discuss here the meaning and purpose of the mother's discipline of the child from the standpoint of child development.

When you look up the word "shitsuke (meaning discipline in Japanese)" in the Koujien dictionary, you will find four definitions: (1) to set up something intentionally or in advance, (2) to plant seedlings in straight lines, (3) to develop good manners and courtesy through instruction and practice, and (4) to baste; sew loosely with large running stitches so as to temporarily hold layers of fabric together. As you see, the underlying nature of all these definitions is something like "to prepare in advance in order to prevent something from being bent."

Perhaps most Japanese people mean the third definition when they talk about "shitsuke"; nevertheless, I always assume that the meaning of the word might be originally derived from the fourth definition "to baste." The basting thread is used as a trimming for clothing and removed after the real stitching is completed. What is my point here? It is that the basting thread used for temporarily holding the layers of fabric in place will become unnecessary and will be ultimately removed.       

Child discipline is just the same. Parents provide children with close supervision and instruction, guiding their development in order to establish routines and patterns of behavior. It is desirable, however, that the parents' "basting thread" gradually becomes less necessary as children become capable of managing behavioral patterns and routines on their own.

In this respect, the purpose of child discipline should be considered as assistance by adults to encourage children to advance from a "heteronomous" stage, where they follow rules given by the others rather than by the self, towards an "autonomous" stage. For this development to take place, each family has own policies as to what is most important: placing a high priority on teaching socially-accepted manners to avoid causing trouble for others, or developing the child's compassion and humanity towards others, or bringing up the child not to be belittled, scorned or criticized by others.

The purpose of discipline will change according to the age of children as well as the values of the parents and family. Whatever it is, the most important thing is that parents try to support children to develop independent thought, decision-making and action as they grow up, but eventually parents need to decrease their support step by step until the day arrives when their children are able to stand alone.

Many parents tend to think that the most important thing for children to learn is how to adopt the rules of their society and behave without being criticized by others. However, this is just an adult-centered view of discipline. Parents should not focus merely on whether or not their child is growing up to be a socially-adjusted person.


2. Supportive child discipline

Next, I will talk about the importance of supportive child discipline.

After passing the babyhood stage that requires children being taken care of in every aspect of their lives by their mother, children around two years old start to establish basic daily routines. With the help of their mother, they begin, for example, putting on or taking off their clothes, eating, self-toileting, and tooth-brushing. Children at this age often show interest in doing these tasks by themselves, and on such occasions, should be encouraged to complete them alone. When completed successfully, praise them for their efforts, saying "You did that all by yourself, well done!" Try not to scold them if they are not successful, get upset or throw a temper tantrum.  Avoid saying "You see? You're too little to do that!", instead, give them a hand and encourage them to go ahead.

Some children may have difficulty fastening buttons, zipping up and down their jackets, and so on until they develop control over fine motor movements. Try to help and encourage them constantly, but be careful not to push too hard, always consider the pace of development of children.

By the age of three and four years old, children have established daily routines such as eating at the table, self-toileting, tooth brushing and face washing, and sleeping the whole night in their own bed. Of course these ideas are just a rough outline, as each child is different and has a different pace of development; so don't worry if your child lags behind a little. Furthermore, children are gradually becoming emotionally independent from their mother through new relationships with friends and adults other than family members such as childcare workers. Now they can spend daytime hours in a daycare center or kindergarten being apart from their mother, and visit their friends alone. Children can even help their mother around her house, so encourage them to do some household duties as much as they can, for example, helping their mother prepare a meal or afternoon snack. Being involved in basic housekeeping routines such as preparing meals, tidying up toys and clothes in the room is a good experience for children.

At the age of around five, children can take care of younger brothers and sisters and run a few errands for their mother. It is a great pleasure for mothers to see their child has grown to the point of taking a certain role in the family. Children at this age have acquired skills to think and make decisions on their own according to certain situations and to adjust themselves to the environment surrounding them, which previously was controlled by adults when they were toddlers. Children have also acquired the ability to understand "display rules" (i.e., controlling emotional outbursts and being able to appreciate the impact their behaviour would have on another child); therefore at this age, they are becoming more sensitive to the feelings of other children while playing together, and are more capable of curbing selfish behaviour, willingly lending their toys to friends.

Above all, it is important for parents to understand that the aim of child discipline is to support autonomy in children and to teach an ideal way of living for the child's sake. While children steadily grow and expand their social world, many parents cannot but expect their child to go further, imposing their own values and hopes onto the child. However, authoritarian modes of discipline could be a burden on a child, impairing the development of the child's autonomy and the ability to think and make decisions independently. It is recommended, therefore, to think carefully about how to achieve childhood development in terms of applying discipline in order for the child to achieve autonomy, confidence and independence as they progress to adulthood.


3. Child discipline in Japan; a comparison study with South Korea and China

Do differences in the living conditions of children affect their academic performance?

Children live in different family environments where there will be variations in such things as the parents' household income, the amount of money invested in early education, styles of discipline, and the number of books in the household. Therefore, I have conducted a comparative research study on how such living conditions affect children's reading and writing skills, vocabulary, and academic performance in elementary school in Japan, South Korea and China*.

The results of the study indicate that, for the children surveyed in the three countries, the influence of household income on children's literacy skills is diminished by the time they reach five years old; whereas, parents' disciplinary methods and the number of books in the household continue to affect their development of vocabulary. With respect to the effect of different methods of discipline, children in Japan and South Korea, for example, who receive a mode of "sharing-activities" discipline (valuing close parent-child communication and positively spending time together sharing and enjoying activities) acquire a richer vocabulary than those who do not. In contrast, in China, children receiving a mixed mode of "sharing-activities" and "authoritarian" disciplines (forcing obedience on children with frequent instructions) show a higher vocabulary level in comparison to other children.

In addition, I compared the results of a literacy achievement test delivered to children in the third term of the first grade of elementary school in Japan, South Korea and China. The test includes reading comprehension, reasoning by syllogism, composition by justifying a conclusion, transcription, and dictation of Chinese characters. Among the children in Japan and South Korea, I found no relationship between their test scores and financial conditions of parents (e.g., household income, amount of money invested in early education, and attendance at supplementary tutorial schools).

Contrary to the financial conditions, children's vocabulary level and the mode of discipline they received at home have a significant relationship on their test scores. More precisely, children who received "sharing-activities" discipline and had acquired a rich vocabulary showed higher test scores in literacy while those who received "authoritarian" discipline and had poor vocabulary showed lower test scores.

This gives us an idea of the importance of methods of discipline, in particular in Japan and South Korea. By carefully selecting a mode of discipline, parents will be able to minimize or overcome the effect of their financial condition (household income and investment in early education, etc.) on their child's development. In other words, mothers cannot change the educational background and income of their husband, but they can choose the way of communicating with their child and the way they view and value discipline may change the life of their child.

Parents, who love reading and willingly read stories to their child in early childhood, enjoying conversations together and creating a happy circle of family, can, regardless of income and how much they invest in early education, sufficiently develop the child's vocabulary skills and independent thinking. In particular, parents' attitude towards their child treating him/her as a total person will foster the child's autonomy.

For all of these reasons, I would like to suggest three things for parents who are involved in child rearing. Firstly, literacy does not merely mean the ability to read and write, but goes beyond this to include the critical and effective use of language; therefore, it is necessary for parents to help their child in early childhood develop creative thinking and imaginative power. Secondly, vocabulary is an important part of a strong academic foundation, and this can be nurtured through parents' "sharing-activities" discipline with close parent-child communication. Lastly, the effect of economic disparity on early childhood education can be minimized depending on parents' discipline policy. It is recommended that parents respect their child's personality and autonomy as a total person, paying close attention to their interests and thoughts, talking with the child constantly, and creating a close family atmosphere.


Overall Discussion (PDF)
Hamano Takashi, Uchida Nobuko, Lee Ki Sook, Zhou Nianli, Dinh Hong Thai Jamastrandori Batdelgel & Goto Noriko (2012). Effects of Socio-cultural Factors on Early Literacy Acquisition: A comparative Study of Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, and Mongolia.


*This survey was conducted as part of Ochanomizu University Global COE Program.


Nobuko Uchida & Yuuri Ishida (2011). What counts the most for early literacy acquisition ?: Japanese data from the cross-cultural literacy survey of GCOE Project. PROCEEDINGS; Science of Human Development for Restructuring the "Gap Widening Society". 2011.3.6, 11-26.

Nobuko Uchida, Executive Auditor, University of Tsukuba

Visiting professor and professor emeritus, Ochanomizu University, Ph.D.
-Specialized area: developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and childcare psychology
-Recent publications:
"Easy infant psychology"(written and edited, Minerva Shobo, 2008)
"It is never too late for child-rearing"(Seibido publishing, 2008)
"Introduction to infant psychology: creating a children's world"(Saiensu-sha, 2008)
"Overcoming abuse: the power to cut off negative chains"(Shinyosha, 2010)
"Safety and security of your child's life: life education"(Kanekoshobo, 2010)
-Professor Uchida also supervises Benesse's educational materials "Kids Challenge", designs NHK TV program "Play with mummy" and serves as a commentator for TV programs for children.