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  Look to the East - Gain A New Perspective
Understand Cultural Differences, Appreciate Cultural Diversity

By Nancy K. Freeman, PhD
Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education and Research
Director of the Children's Center
University of South Carolina

dancing kids I treasure my memories from a visit to three of China's most modern cities. I'll never forget the sights or smells of the bustling city markets, or the tableau of stylish ballroom dancers waltzing, without music, in a park in central Beijing. Even more fascinating than these exotic images, however, are the cross-cultural insights I gained during my observations in three memorable classrooms. The most important souvenir I brought home was an appreciation for how culturally-determined beliefs, values, and goals are reflected in individuals' definitions of childhood, parenting, and teaching. This article examines some differences that become apparent when we compare child-rearing practices in modern America with modern mainland China. Like Janet Gonzalez-Mena (1993), I am learning to "broaden my own perspective of what's normal - to quit applying a single standard for adaptive, healthy, and competent behaviors" (p. 2). My hope is that this glimpse of interesting, far-away classrooms and this commentary on the ways these settings reflect teachers' and parents' most fundamental beliefs about independence, cooperation, and originality, will enable readers to better appreciate the links between culture, child care and schooling. These vignettes and observations might well inspire those who work with young children and their families to adopt a culturally pluralistic perspective, to celebrate rather than ignore their students' diverse cultural heritages.

Child Plays Violin Childhood in Modern China: The Impact of the One Child Policy

Those who want to understand childhood and parenting in modern China need to appreciate the profound effect of the official "one child policy." The generation that is now having children grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s. During that era Chairman Mao was encouraging large families because he believed a growing population would supply the work force necessary to make the country's drive toward modernization a success.

Today's parents probably have many siblings. Growing up, their homes were likely to have been crowded, busy places. As children they were most likely looked after, and in turn took care of, several brothers and sisters. Interacting with siblings, cousins and other relatives was an important part of family life.

By the mid-1970s it was becoming increasingly apparent that Mao's policy makers had overlooked the fact that with each pair of hands to do the work came an additional hungry mouth to feed. Food shortages and crowding overextended China's sagging infrastructure, and officials began efforts to curb the exploding population. In 1979 the one-child policy, which exerts severe social and economic penalties on large families, was enacted into law. In urban areas, where the one-child policy is strictly enforced, a second child may be denied medical and educational services, parents are likely to face a fine equivalent to ten years' wages, and may even lose their jobs (Strom, Strom, & Xie, 1995). Enforcement is likely to be more lax in agricultural areas where extra hands are still needed to ensure an efficient planting season and a successful harvest, but the overall effect of these efforts is impressive. By 1996 the birthrate had stabilized at about 1.7 (CIA Factbook), and it appears that the era of out-of-control population growth has come to an end.

The one-child policy is creating far reaching cultural changes as it forces compliance with government mandates that run counter to traditional values. Polls show that 75% of the urban couples who responded to the survey would prefer to have two children rather than the state-mandated single child (Strom, Strom, & Xie, 1995). Parents seem to feel they are sacrificing their personal happiness for the common good as they create families very different from those of their youth. They commonly express their concerns that their only children are lonely and are missing out on valuable opportunities for social interaction (Deane, 1992; Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989; Tung, 1997). These concerns appear to be well founded, for observers decry the "4-2-1 syndrome" - four doting grandparents, two overindulgent parents, all investing their hopes and ambitions on "an emerging generation of spoiled, lazy, selfish, self-centered and overweight children" (Deane, 1992, p. 216).

Media leaders as well as educators have reacted to concerns about children's social competence by concentrating their efforts on enhancing children's social development. Producers adapting Sesame Street for Chinese audiences have noted the changed make-up of modern Chinese families and have created special segments that coach children in the skills they need to enter social groups, cooperate, and get along with playmates (Tung, 1997). Teachers who feel pressure to counteract the "spoiling" effects of indulgent parents and grandparents build opportunities for successful social interactions and experiences caring for others into children's school routines and activities. These efforts were evident at the June 1st Kindergarten in Beijing. There we saw a classroom for 4-year-olds were close-to-thirty very young children were expected to share limited supplies and resources and to care for themselves and their classmates during toileting, washing, and other personal care routines. These are interesting examples of how cultural values and practices are reflected in China's popular culture and schools for young children.

Residential Childcare in China

child on bike In the large, bright classroom for four-year-olds there was a reading corner, tables for craft projects, plenty of open space for active play, and a cupboard where each child returned his or her white enamel cup after the mid-morning snack. Just beyond the adjoining lavatory was a bunk room with 32 little beds, each with an identical comforter neatly folded at its foot. That image became a common one: sleeping rooms close to or adjoining children's classrooms; thirty or more identical child-size beds; and classroom schedules that showed around-the-clock routines, including a 2am wake-up to use the toilet.

A striking characteristic of China's child care system is the popularity of residential programs for 2-to-6 year-olds. It is a given that able-bodied adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s work full-time. That means that all families need to find reliable child care for their toddlers and preschoolers. One option is for children to spend their days with their grandmothers, who face mandatory retirement in their early-to-mid-fifties. But progressive modern parents much prefer to enroll their children in residential boarding schools where they won't be spoiled and will learn the social skills they need to succeed in China's community-focused culture (Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989).

This practice dismayed our group of American early childhood professionals. They expressed opinions similar to those of Goldman (1977) who questioned the advisability of enrolling children in boarding school during their preschool years, when week-long separations may have a detrimental affect on important mother-child and family bonds.

At first it was a shock to visit dormitories full of thirty or forty little beds in neat, tight rows. We had to stop saying, "Oh, those poor little children, away from their mothers and fathers all day and all night." If we were to make the most of these experiences it was important that we consider how parenting practices reflect cultural norms, values, and expectations. Visits to boarding schools in Beijing and Shanghai showed us Chinese teachers doing an excellent job caring for and caring about young children day in and day out. Those children's experiences are dramatically different from those of typical 20th century American children. It is important to remember that both Chinese and American approaches to child care accurately reflect mainstream cultural values and expectations about the best way to provide child care for the children of working parents.

Classroom Interactions

In a small classroom for three-year-olds we saw brightly painted open shelves that held a two small baskets of plastic interlocking blocks, a small red car, a couple of puzzles, and a well-loved baby doll. The supplies were meager, but the children were sharing and negotiating effectively, practicing skills that are highly prized in their densely populated part of the world. Each of the thirty-or-so 5 and 6 year olds was working at their own desk, cutting, folding, and pasting to create a three-dimensional poster-board birthday cake that was the morning's assignment. For some children putting all the little tabs into the correct slots was not difficult, for others the task seemed challenging and somewhat frustrating. But each child worked with determination until they had a finished product, and many children offered their morning's work, and a smile, as souvenirs for the visiting Americans.

Whereas Eastern cultures emphasize community, cooperation and interrelatedness, Western ones are apt to foster individualism, competition, and the importance of personal possessions (Gonzalez-Mena, 1993). These differences are highlighted by the ways we interact with children and how we make decisions about classroom environments. The sparsely equipped toy shelves we saw in China indicated teachers' expectations that children would share toys and materials. Instead of providing duplicates of the most popular materials, as American preschool teachers are likely to do, these teachers intentionally limited children's choices. Youngsters have to share, wait their turn, and negotiate with their peers during play. What's more, instead of adding additional materials as the school year progressed, we were told that teachers periodically removed toys so that there was even more pressure to share and cooperate. This approach to equipping classrooms presents a striking contrast when compared with American teachers' efforts to provide children with a frequently-modified selection of developmentally appropriate materials.

In addition to classrooms with intentionally-limited resources, we also saw a number of classrooms where everyone was doing the same thing at the same time. Each child was expected to work on the same paper folding, clay modeling, or drawing project. Closer to home we would expect to see a classroom that invites children to choose what they want to do, and to work individually in centers, using materials in individualistic and creative ways. Here we saw evidence that teachers expected conformity and a willingness to work toward the completion of a task the chosen by the teacher rather than the child. These contrasting instructional styles highlight an important difference between the Eastern culture that expects citizens to adapt to their environment and Western ones where the social system stresses freedom, self-expression, and self determination.

These examples of classroom furnishings and organization also highlight culturally determined ways that adults understand their roles and responsibilities in the classroom. Teachers who favor direct instruction assume a position of power, authority, and leadership. Those who embrace constructivist practices, on the other hand, are more likely to see themselves as a facilitators and partners in learning (Gonzalez-Mena, 1993). Teachers who embrace an authentic multicultural perspective appreciate the contrasting beliefs parents are likely to have about what it means to teach well. They show a willingness to initiate conversations that explore these differences and are willing to consider making adaptations to make their classrooms reflect their students' as well as their own cultural values and expectations.

Teaching the Arts

In a well-equipped art room for 5 and 6-year-olds, children were standing at large, low tables, painting on thin rice paper with black calligraphy ink, cakes of colorful tempera, graceful calligraphy brushes, and large buckets of water. They did not wear smocks, but instead worked confidently and neatly without tearing the thin paper, spilling the water, or dripping the paints. They were drawing mostly fish, tigers, and human figures which they had first outlined with black calligraphy ink, and were now filling using a variety of artful brushstrokes and patterns.

Two round-cheeked 6-year-olds were using one large piece of rice paper; Li-Ching's version of grass, flowers and trees was complemented by Ging-Ging's birds, butterflies and clouds. Li-Ching's flowers were even and symmetrical, she seemed pleased with the effect. The teacher was coaching Ging-Ging so she could accurately draw feet on the bird she was adding to the sky. The result of this timely instruction appeared to satisfy both the teacher and her young student. After observing this art lesson we were not surprised to learn that the children had been taught classic painting techniques. We had been impressed with the children's mastery of the materials and artistic techniques. This experience gave us valuable insights into how the Chinese view creativity and artistry. Typically, teachers who come from an Eastern tradition believe that the time to demonstrate creativity is after the young artist has perfected prescribed and approved performances (Gardner, 1989). That is why we saw various renditions of the same pictures; children were perfecting the figures they were expected to draw well. This approach to the arts differs from the modern Western view of creativity where developing artists are likely to create a bold and innovative style, and then move toward traditional compositions like those of the masters. Gardner calls this the contrast between the Eastern "evolutionary" view of creativity and the Western "revolutionary" one (Gardner, 1989, p. 55). In China we saw young artists perfecting the forms they would be expected to draw well if they were going to proceed from mastery to creativity in the Eastern tradition.

One image from this art lesson stands out as an exemplar of the Chinese view of education. It clearly illustrates differences not just in the art room but between the American and Chinese educational philosophies. This picture is one in a series that shows a 5-or-6-year-old, wearing a bright red dress, who is painting an orange tiger in the middle of a large sheet of paper. She's working on using the side of her brush to make the tiger's stripes broad and even. We see the child's concentration in her eyes, in the purposefulness of her work, and in that sign of intensity well known to early childhood educators, the tip of her tongue is peeking out between her lips. We also see her teacher's well-timed helping hand guiding the child's careful brushstrokes. She is giving her young student just the help she needs to make this drawing one she can be proud of. Gardner (1989) would probably observe that we are seeing teaching in the best Chinese tradition, this teacher was ba zhe shou jiao - "teaching by holding her hand." She was demonstrating the Chinese belief that "learning should take place by continual careful shaping and molding" (Gardner, 1989, p. 55). I left that classroom reevaluating the free-choice, hands-off, explore-on-your-own art activities that we so often offer young children. It made me wonder how to balance our current emphasis on the process of children's art with the satisfaction I sensed these children gained from a disciplined and schooled approach that we are unlikely to see used with most young children.


As we headed home, it was interesting for our group of early child educators to reflect about how what we had seen in China was similar, and how it was different, from the familiar programs we Americans know so well. We shared insights into why some families' child rearing practices were unfamiliar. We reflected on our increased appreciation for the importance of being non-judgmental when we saw teaching that was very different from how we describe "best practice." We learned that inclusive classrooms are responsive to family's culturally determined expectations, assumptions, and aspirations for their young children. I suspect that others came away, as I did, with more than the snapshots, slide shows, and mementos we carried in our luggage. The lasting legacy of that journey has been a better understanding of culturally diverse ways of thinking about family, school, teaching, and parenting. These insights challenge teachers to demonstrate an appreciation and respect for the cultural diversity they are likely to encounter as they work with America's increasingly pluralistic population of young children.


CIA (1996). The world factbook page on China, (Visited December 27, 1997).

Dean, D. (1992, July 26). The little emperors. Los Angeles Times Magazine, pp. 17-22.

Gardner, H. (1989). Learning Chinese-style. Psychology Today, pp. 54-56.

Goldman, R. J. (1977). Early childhood education in the People's Republic of China. The Educational Forum, 41(4), 455-463.

Gonzalez-Mena, J. (1993). Multicultural issues in child care. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Strom, R. D., Strom, S. K., & Xie, Q. (1995). The small family in China. International Journal of Early Childhood, 27(2), 37-45.

Tobin, J. J., Wu, D. Y. H., & Davidson, D. H. (1989). Preschool in three cultures. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Tung, L. (1997, August 20). How to get to (China's) Sesame Street. The Wall Street Journal, p. A12.

Document Use/Copyright

Reprinted with permission from the author and the Early Childhood Education Journal.
1998 Early Childhood Education Journal.

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