Parental emotion socialization plays a vital role in the quality of children’s early emotional competence (Brown and Dunn 1996; Eisenberg et al. 1998; Saarni 1999). In middle childhood, parents continue to shape the development of children’s emotional skills, although peers become more influential agents in the socialization process (Underwood and Hurley 1999). Parents’ emotion socialization practices are the ways in which they handle emotional experience, teach and talk to their children about emotional events, and initiate them in cultural expectations concerning emotions (Chan et al. 2009; Chang et al. 2003; Denham and Kochanoff 2002; Denham et al. 2002; Eisenberg et al. 1998; Fabes et al. 2002). Factors that help a cultural group to adjust to its environment are thus transmitted from generation to generation via socialization. These practices are thought to significantly affect children’s emotional development in areas such as their coping strategies (Eisenberg et al. 1998), emotion understanding (Bornstein et al. 2008; De Stasio et al. 2014; Eisenberg et al. 1998) and social adjustment (Eisenberg and Fabes 1994; Zeman et al. 2002). Eisenberg et al. (1998) proposed grouping parental emotion-related socialization practices into three types: (a) non-supportive vs supportive reactions to children’s experience and expression of emotion; (b) discussion of emotion; (c) parental expressiveness (Eisenberg et al. 1998). In this model, non-supportive reactions to emotion include parental practices such as punitive, dismissing and distressed reactions (Tao et al. 2010), whereas supportive reactions are those that validate children’s feelings. Discussion of emotions is viewed as positive when it provides a means of enhancing reflective problem-solving about emotions (Chan et al. 2009). Finally, parents’ own nonverbal and verbal expression of emotion may serve as a model for their children (Halberstadt et al. 1995). Halberstadt et al. (1995) distinguished between positive forms of expressiveness, characterized by warmth, openness and sensitivity, and negative ones, marked by anger and fear. With regard to parents’ contingent responses to their children’s emotions, these convey messages about cultural values surrounding the expression and regulation of emotion (Chan et al. 2009; Wu et al. 2002).
In recent years, an increasing number of comparative studies have examined emotion socialization practices across different cultural groups with a view to identifying shared vs different patterns (see Bornstein et al. 2008). Accordingly, the current study was designed to explore similarities and differences in Italian and Hong-Kong mothers’ responses to their children’s expression of emotions. To our knowledge, emotion socialization practices in these two cultural contexts have not yet been compared using a single validated scale and following recommended ethnological procedures.
Cultural issues in emotion socialization practices
A vast literature documents the influence of cultural factors on emotional experience, the expression of emotion and related behaviours, throughout child development (Bornstein et al. 2008; Cole et al. 2006; Eisenberg et al. 1998; Saarni 1999). It follows that any account of how children’s emotions are socialized will be incomplete if it does not examine the role of cultural environment.
Numerous authors have proposed that cultural emotion socialization practices differ between collectivist and individualistic cultures (e.g., Eid and Diener 2001; Kitayama et al. 2000; Li et al. 2004; Markus and Kitayama 1991; Mesquita and Karasawa 2004; Schimmack et al. 2002; van Hemert et al. 2007). In collectivist cultures, typical of Oriental societies, the leading values are interdependence among individuals and group identity. Parents’ emotion socialization practices thus promote emotional self-regulation, limited expression of negative emotions and a high level of self-control on the part of their children, in the interest of maintaining social harmony and respecting the emotions of other group members (Mesquita and Frijda 1992).
Conversely, the educational priorities of parents in the individualist cultures associated with Western societies are to foster individual independence, personal assertion, and the achievement of personal goals (Hofstede 2001). Consequently, emotional expressiveness is encouraged, and intra-personal and subjective experience significantly contribute to defining individual feelings.
In line with this distinction, cultural ideals of emotion differ greatly between East Asian and Western culture. East Asians such as the Chinese tend to moderate emotional experience and expression (e.g., Markus and Kitayama 1991; Wu 1985). In Western culture on the other hand, emotion is often viewed as a spontaneous manifestation of personal experience rather than as related to the experience of others (Markus and Kitayama 1991). Furthermore, expressing oneself in Western culture is often viewed as beneficial for one’s mental and physical health (Butler et al. 2007; Gross and John 2003; John and Gross 2004).
According to Halberstadt and Lozada (2011), restraint in expressing positive affect seems more likely to occur in collectivist than in individualistic societies. More specifically, Chinese parents have been found to score higher on measures of “restrictive”, “controlling”, and “authoritarian” parenting than Western parents (Chao 2001; Kelley and Tseng 1992; Szeto et al. 2009). They also tend to emphasize the social environment rather than hereditary factors in explaining individual differences among children (Ho and Kang 1984). Therefore, Chinese parents tend to be very involved in their children’s upbringing. The main role attributed them is that of the teacher (Kelley and Tseng 1992) and they see discipline as a key parental child-rearing tool (Chen and Luster 2002; Miller et al. 2002).
In Italian culture on the other hand, parents encourage emotional expressiveness in interpersonal interaction, promote social competence during early childhood, and consider expressions of inhibition, caution, or withdrawal as indicative of poor social skills (Chen et al. 2000; Edwards et al. 1996). The importance attributed to social intelligence and emotional experience underpins a cultural model centred on the infant’s ability to build significant relationships from the earliest months of life. To this end, the developing infant is expected to display emotional closeness, involving expressiveness, liveliness and closeness to other people (the “sociable” child), as well as emotional security. Overall, a composite picture emerges in which socio-emotional closeness and emotional security form a core developmental goal for Italian children.
Norms regarding emotion vary with culture, as do the elicitation, regulation and manifestation of emotion (Eid and Diener 2001; Markus and Kitayama 1991), while the ability to produce culturally appropriate expressions of emotion is a key component of social competence (e.g., Eisenberg et al. 1996; Halberstadt and Lozada 2011; Saarni 1999).
Nevertheless, previous research also found significant differences in emotion socialization practices within the broad cultural groups we have discussed up to now (cfr., Hofstede 2001). In reality, the degree to which Western and Eastern parents believe that children can be in charge of their own emotional lives and that parents need to guide their children and teach them about emotions, vary as a function of class and ethnicity (Craig et al. 2010). For example, in relation to the power distance theory (Hofstede 2001; Halberstadt and Lozada 2011), Italian mothers seem more emotionally sensitive than American mothers when interacting with their infants. Furthermore, comparisons of American and Italian mothers, and Japanese and American mothers, belonging to collectivist and individualist societies respectively, have shown greater similarities between American and Japanese parenting practices, than similarities between parents from societies within the same broad cultural group. Specifically, American and Japanese mothers expect earlier emotional competence from their children than their counterparts from other countries (Goodnow et al. 1984).
Up to now, however, cross-cultural studies comparing East and West, have not analysed parental practices in Italy and Hong Kong. Given that cultural comparisons are an excellent means of determining which aspects of development are universal and which vary as a function of culture, the current study aimed to contribute cross-cultural evidence from a previously unexplored perspective.
The present study
Based on the literature reviewed above, we assumed that the mothers in the Hong Kong and Italian cultural groups would display different patterns of response to their children’s emotions on the basis that certain aspects of parenting may be valued differently, attributed with different meanings, or enacted differently in the two contexts. The main goal of the study was to compare Hong Kong-Chinese and Italian mothers’ responses to their children’s emotional expression using an invariant (comparable) measure of parental emotion socialization practices. First, we analysed the psychometric properties of the Italian version of the maternal responses to children’s emotion scale (MRCES) which had previously been tested with a Chinese-Honk Kong sample. We used exploratory and confirmatory factorial analysis to verify whether Chinese and Italian groups’ responses to the MRCES shared the same factor structure. A previous study using the MRCES with a sample of Hong Kong mothers had found a two-factor solution with robust goodness of fit to the data (Chan et al. 2009). The questionnaire’s eight items loaded on the two factors as follows: Factor 1 was labelled the coaching-emotion encouraging approach and was composed of items assessing: emotion-focused, problem-focused, reflection-enhancing, training, and expression-encouraging responses; Factor 2 was termed the emotion dismissing approach and comprised items evaluating: punitive, minimizing and distressed responses to children’s expression of emotions. We expected to find a similar structural-factor solution in the two cultural settings investigated in the current research.
Second, we explored whether specific cultural emphases would be identified by analysing differences in the mean MRCES responses provided by Hong Kong and Italian mothers of school-age children. Because there has been no other comparison of emotion socialization practices in Italian and Hong-Kong cultures and due to the heterogeneous findings on parental practices within and between Western and East societies we did not formulate any a priori hypotheses about cultural similarities or differences in the mean level of mothers’ coaching/emotion encouraging or emotion dismissing responses to their children’s emotional expression.