Culture and Brain

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 95–98 | Cite as

Culture and emotional development: introduction to the special issue

  • Qi WangEmail author
  • Yang YangEmail author

Emotion, although deeply rooted in biological and evolutionary origins and widely shared across species and cultures (Darwin 1965; Ekman and Friesen 1971), is culturally conditioned in its experience, expression, recognition, and regulation (Matsumoto and Hwang 2019; Yang and Wang 2019). Understanding the developmental origins of cultural influences on emotion is critical to shed light on the mechanisms via which cultural factors shape emotional processes and to further reveal the dynamic interplay between biological constrains and sociocultural affordances that contributes to cultural variability in the developmental outcomes of emotion and adjustment. In addition, developmental research on emotion embodies rich diversity in theories and methodological approaches that can bring unique insight into the pervasive and dynamic influences of culture on emotional processes and functions (Wang 2018).

Emotional development, mediated by early socialization practices, is deeply situated in a variety of cultural settings and experiences from which children learn to understand, experience, and regulate their emotions in ways favored by their culture (Cole and Tan 2007; Wang 2006; Yang and Wang 2019). This special issue of Culture and Brain brings together the scholarship of a group of leading cultural-developmental researchers to contribute to our understanding of the critical role of culture in emotion socialization and development. It consists of six papers that address developmental issues related to various emotional processes in diverse cultural communities, including European American, Israeli-Jewish, Turkish, and Romanian mothers and toddlers (Friedlmeier et al. 2019), Costa Rican and German families (Carmiol and Schröder 2019), Japanese families (Watanabe and Kobayashi 2019), European American and Chinese immigrant mothers and children (Song et al. 2019), Latinx children in the US (Doan et al. 2019), and the Mapuche community of Chile (Oertwig et al. 2019).

The six papers examined diverse aspects of emotional development and related socioemotional adjustment, with a shared perspective of situating the analysis within the family. In so doing, they highlight the role of parenting practices in transmitting to children cultural beliefs and expectations pertaining to emotion and in shaping developmental outcomes. Friedlmeier et al. (2019) focused on the dynamic interactions between mothers and their toddler children from European American, Israeli-Jewish, Turkish, and Romanian cultural backgrounds. They examined in a delay of gratification situation maternal regulatory responses in relation to children’s emotional reactions (sadness, anger), emotion regulation strategies, and task-compliance. Cultural differences were found in maternal response patterns, which further explained cultural differences in children’s emotional reactions. Most interestingly, maternal emphasis on distraction guided toddlers to use the strategies of distraction and self-soothing to regulate their emotions and lower their levels of anger and sadness. The person-centered approach employed in this study proves to be effective to unveil the dyadic dynamics in a common everyday situation and highlights the interactive process of emotion socialization and development situated in cultural context.

Focusing on mother–child conversational interactions, Carmiol and Schröder (2019) observed reminiscing and book-reading between mothers and their 4-year-old children in Costa Rican and German families, in relation to children’s developing socioemotional competence. Mothers and children were asked to discuss negative past events and read a storybook together. The researchers found that the conversations between Costa Rican mothers and children were more emotionally rich and socially oriented than the conversations between German mothers and children. Importantly, the amount of emotion talk was negatively associated with Costa Rican children’s social problem-solving skills. This finding suggests that, although emotion talk has been commonly considered beneficial for emotional development among Western children, its functional significance needs to be understood and evaluated in specific cultural settings (Wang 2006; Yang and Wang 2019).

Focusing on the role of the child in conversational interactions, Watanabe and Kobayashi (2019) asked Japanese 7-year-old children to tell stories to their parents from a picture book that depicted emotional scenes with no words. Children’s use of emotion words during the storytelling was tabulated, and parents reported on their children’s prosocial and aggressive behaviors. In line with the Japanese cultural emphasis on interdependence, social harmony, and concern for others, Japanese children discussed more frequently the story characters’ negative emotions than positive emotions and focused more on the characters’ harmonious relations with others than their subjective feelings. Furthermore, children’s commenting on the characters’ emotions and the number of characters they referred to in their stories were positively associated with their prosocial behavior, whereas children’s use of negative emotion words, their references to supporting characters, and the accuracy of their emotion interpretation were negatively associated with their aggressive behavior. These findings highlight the role of the macro-context of the culture and the micro-context of the family in shaping emotional development and related psychosocial outcomes.

Turning to the other side of the coin to focus on the role of parents, Song et al. (2019) examined a topic that has been generally neglected in research, namely, family socialization of positive emotions. Maternal reactions to their school-aged children’s positive emotions were assessed by self-report in European American and Chinese immigrant mothers, in relation to children’s emotion knowledge and psychological adjustment. Consistent with the Chinese cultural value of moderation in all matters of the heart and the cultural expectation for emotional control, Chinese immigrant mothers reported using emotion dampening reactions to children’s positive emotions more frequently than did European American mothers. More importantly, although maternal emotion dampening reactions had no impact on Chinese immigrant children’s emotion knowledge or well-being, they were negatively associated with European American children’s emotion knowledge. Maternal savoring reactions, on the other hand, were positively associated with adaptive adjustment in both cultural groups. These findings again indicate that the functional meaning of emotion socialization practices is defined in specific cultural contexts, which in turn determines the developmental outcomes.

Doan et al. (2019) examined among Latinx-American school children the interactive influence of child-perceived ethnic-racial discrimination and parent-reported family ethnic-racial socialization on the development of emotion knowledge and coping skills in a 1-year longitudinal study. The researchers found that the children’s perceived ethnic-racial discrimination was associated with lower levels of emotion knowledge and higher levels of maladaptive coping a year later, whereas family ethnic-racial socialization was associated with higher levels of positive coping. The particularly provocative finding was that family ethnic-racial socialization moderated the relation between perceived ethnic-racial discrimination and maladaptive coping. This finding suggests that family environment and parental practices interact with children’s adverse experiences outside home–ethnic-racial discrimination in this case, which then shapes developmental outcomes in children’s socioemotional adjustment.

Taking an ethnographic approach, Oertwig et al. (2019) examined socialization of children’s fear and respect in the Mapuche community, one of the native tribes in southern Chile, where people maintain strong ties with their land and traditional cultural values and place a great emphasis on the respect for nature. Adults in the community were interviewed for their beliefs about emotions in school and at home, the appropriate ways of feeling, expressing, and regulating emotions according to their cultural norms, and emotion socialization practices in Mapuche families today and in the past. Focusing their analysis on fear and respect, the researchers found that the main cause of fear in the Mapuche community was things in nature, such as lightning and thunder, the dark, and the noises of night animals, followed by the uncertainties associated with other people or social systems. The emotion of fear was devalued in this cultural context. The Mapuche people believed that to conquer fear, one needed to respect the land, sprits of nature, and other people and consequently fear would be transformed into respect. They also believed that talking through the fear with children and providing children with affection and comfort would help children achieve this transformation of fear. These findings reveal unique beliefs and practices regarding the socialization of fear and respect in the Mapuche community. They suggest that even a basic emotion like fear that is considered universal and fundamental for survival is indeed culturally conditioned.

Taken together, the six papers included in this special issue used diverse methods, studied diverse populations, and examined diverse processes related to emotional development and socialization. They produced important and original findings that raise new questions about the nature of emotion and the role of culture in emotion and emotional development. They further attest to the critical contribution of developmental research to the cultural study of emotion, and to the indispensable contribution of cultural research to our understanding of emotional development. It is our hope that the work presented here makes a significant addition to the growing field of cultural developmental science (Wang 2018) and inspires further research.



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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Human DevelopmentCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore

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