Cultural clashes in motivation styles for kids and teens

Cultural clashes in motivation styles for kids and teens

Being an experienced teacher does not automatically mean that you can inspire motivation in kids independently of their cultural background(s).

Cultures clash fundamentally in stimulating motivation for performance.

The "Tiger mom" parenting style and its criticism

Amy Chua, a Yale university graduate, made headlines with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011). A bestseller on the New York Times list, as well in the UK, Germany, Poland, China, Israel and elsewhere. The strict Chinese parenting style, she claims, is what makes children excel.

Chua would allow TV, computer games or dating only if her two daughters would get no less than straight A’s. But her method entailed a major commitment from her side as well. She recalls sitting together for hours and hours with her seven-year-old daughter Lulu, until she could flawlessly play a difficult piano piece.

It didn’t always go down smoothly. Although resistance from Lulu’s side was pretty heavy, the long-term results were spectacular. Both daughters enjoy the highest professional status and, contrary to what a Western mind might expect, also still enjoy a close and intensive relationship with their mother.

Motivating or damaging children? The cultural controversy

This controlling parenting style she advocates is, however, heavily criticised. People in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) societies believe that this is the way to get exactly the opposite results: resentment of learning, alienation from parents, blocking of individuality and independence.

The role of culture in motivation has long been a hot and challenging subject. Chua’s headlines, however, spark interest in looking comparatively at contemporary global citizens. Is a controlling style still used? Can it be still effective?

No need for polarisation

Kim, Wang and colleagues (2013) followed 444 Asian-American (AA) families for eight years, starting when the children were 12-15 years old. They found that the most commonly used parental style, the supportive one, was characterised by persuasion efforts and caring behaviour.

This also leads to the best results in terms of developmental and academic achievement. Needless to say, it is not free of feelings of obligations towards the parents or of shame in case of failure. But of course, these feelings are much more dominant in the also observed "tiger" style.

Cross-cultural research: why pressure "motivates" Asian-Americans

Is this a question or a statement? It is part of the title of a scientific publication by Stanford researchers Alyssa Fu and Hazel Markus. In order to stimulate critical thought on the issue they re-direct attention to the question of "how the self relates to others."

The researchers asked students to a) freely describe their mothers and b) to evaluate whether and how strongly their mother supports them, exerts pressure on them and generates stress in them.

Whereas AAs tended to describe the kind of relationship they had with their mother, European-Americans (EAs) tended to report about her as a "separate" (from themselves) individual - i.e., they refer to characteristics of their mother’s personality or the kind of activities or hobbies she likes.

Interestingly enough, both groups feel support from their moms at similar levels. The fundamental difference was that, while AAs do not experience the pressure from mother in a negative way, EAs s experience it as a lack of support.

In fact, the more pressure EAs felt, the less they felt supported by their moms.

The role of "how the self relates to others"

The same authors wanted to cross-validate their first findings with a follow-up experiment. Students were asked to perform a task. After completing it, they were deliberately and misleadingly informed that they had failed, that their scores were below the average.

Then, in a seemingly unrelated task, students were asked to provide some information about their social lives. Some had to write about their mothers, but others, about themselves. Immediately after that, all had to solve a challenging academic task.

The outcome is again revealing: There were AAs who performed this latter task significantly better after thinking of their mothers, compared to thinking of themselves. In contrast, EAs performed better after describing themselves compared to describing their mothers.

So, the key difference lies in how cultures inform the "ideal" self in life. Is it intimately bound up with close relationships, or independent from them? To what extent the one or the other holds true may, obviously, vary per culture.

What about other cultures?

At the Univresity of Utrecht, we pose similar questions in the European context too. For example, we asked elementary school children how strongly, on a seven point Likert type scale, they agree with the following two statements:

I am doing my best at school because
 A) I myself want it
 B) My parents want it

Dutch children in the Netherlands believe significantly more strongly in "because I myself want it" than their counterparts in Greece. Also, the distance between the agreements with the two statements was bigger among the Dutch children.

In WEIRD cultures, where the dominant belief is that motivation should arise from "within" the child, there is less or no place for feelings of obligation.

Yet, in less-WEIRD societies, the more close relationships prevail, the less individuality, by itself, is sufficient to inspire motivation. Close-others play an important role as well.

Staying culturally aware

The plain truth, of course, is that all parents, whatever their culture, want their kids to be happy and motivated in life.

There are many "roads leading to Rome" and no single one is universally acceptable (nor does there have to be only one).

Yet, educators at schools should be willing to think outside their comfort zones. Fortunately, cross-cultural research has provided us with the theories and tools to identify the most appropriate way to fuel motivation in each individual child.

So, are there times you feel a bit puzzled by persuasion styles at school or at work? Just observe closely and recall the subtle but ever-so-important "invisible" role of culture behind the scenes.

Katerina Pouliasi


Katerina Pouliasi

My first "collisions' with Dutch culture, transformed into a strong curiosity about the nature of cultural differences, have led me to in depth research on "Culture, Self-understanding and the Bicultural...

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