Western Child Rearing Practices and Negative Emotions

In our discussion on Tuesday about Prozac and depression we talked about how one potential cause for the high instances of people seeking medication for depression in our society could be the way “negative” emotions are typically seen in the U.S. This immediately made me think of Joseph Zornado’s book “Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology, and the Story of Childhood”. In his book, Zornado argues that Western child rearing techniques create a vicious cycle of violence and emotional dysfunction. Zornado argues that the way Westerners have been physically punishing their children for emotional outbursts causes a disconnect between the child’s thoughts and emotions, creating a fragmented self. As a result, children no longer trust their own emotions or intuitions. Their parents have essentially taught them that emotions other than calm contentment will be met with anger and violence and are, therefore, bad. Zornado takes his argument even farther throughout the book by analyzing how these core concepts are exhibited in popular children’s media such as Grimms’ fairy tales, the works of Lewis Carroll, and Disney movies. It seems that even the stories we share with our children at bedtime encourage emotional detachment and violence.

Growing up when I did, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, I have seen evidence of the behaviors Zornado talks about. Children were expected to behave, period. Tantrums were solved with time-out or other forms of punishment instead of talking through the issue at hand. Personally, I think Western child rearing techniques may have played a large role in the increase in antidepressant prescriptions as depression became more widely diagnosed. However, from my experiences working in classrooms in the present, I find hope in how teachers have changed classroom policies. More and more I feel like teachers are encouraging their young students to talk about their feelings when they are having a tough time. I have worked in classrooms where they designate “safe spaces” where children can go when they recognize they are experiencing a strong emotion that they need to deal with. I think new trends in childhood education and parenting are moving in the right direction to counteract the cycle of emotional detachment that Zornado talks about.

I’d highly recommend reading the book if you’re interested!

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3 thoughts on “Western Child Rearing Practices and Negative Emotions

  1. The varying ways children are raised in different cultures is an interesting topic. I feel as if the American culture is moving toward increased emotional detachment. Therefore, it is concerning that western children are taught that the only form of emotion acceptable is calm contentment. Although I agree that children should be encouraged to talk about their feelings when they are having a hard time, I have not seen this trend in schools that I mentor at. In both George J. Mitchell school and Winslow Elementary School, I have seen teachers and the administration repeatedly scold children for no apparent reason. The children are harshly reprimanded for speaking too loudly in the cafeteria or in the hallways. Yet, they are scolded without any explanation. Is there a disparity between the public school system and the private school system that will yield different developmental results in emotion regulation later in life? I am also interested in further understanding whether non-Western child rearing practices are also contributing to negative emotionality and an increase in depression. As there are many pathological disorders that are supposedly over diagnosed in the U.S., could depression be one of these? In China, I believe the way they rear children is a lot more harsh and uncompromising than in the U.S. Yet, depressed individuals are rare and almost non-existent. Could over diagnosis or under diagnosis cause this disparity between the cultures?

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  2. This is a fascinating way to think about depression. It does make sense, especially in the advent of a seemingly higher (I don’t have any statistics on hand) proportion of the adolescent and young adult population seeking treatment and medication for depression. As Monica mentioned above, our schooling culture certainly ignores the emotional expression of children after, say, kindergarten. Kids who are too loud because they are excited are told to be quiet; crying is thought of as “embarrassing” in front of peers, and working quietly rather than developing relationships with peers is too often emphasized.

    Perhaps some of the issue lies in the mental health system, too. It seems that doctors and psychiatrists are prescribing more and more young adults with depression medication. Since we don’t really know the effects of depression medication on the developing brain (there have been several instances of where it has actually made it worse, though!) this seems dangerous, but medication is unfortunately the go-to, cure-all for depressive symptoms these days.

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