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Posted 08.04.04

Effects of Maternal Control Over Child's Play Vary by Culture

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Much research has focused on the effects of maternal warmth and control on the relationships between mothers and their children. Conventional American wisdom holds that the more intrusive a mother is in her child's play, the more the child's creative freedom suffers as well as the mother-child relationship. However, University of Missouri-Columbia researchers discovered this assertion doesn't necessarily hold true in other cultures.

Intrusiveness is illustrated when a mother directs or stops her child's play, imposing her agenda without letting the child shape the focus or pace of the activity. Most past research has indicated that intrusiveness harms the mother-child relationship and leads to poor social skills in children, said Jean Ispa, MU professor of human development and family studies.

"However, a few studies conducted in other countries have indicated no ill effects of maternal intrusiveness," Ispa said. "We therefore wondered if there might be ethnic differences in the consequences of maternal intrusiveness within the U.S. We also wondered if the degree of maternal warmth makes a difference in how intrusiveness is experienced by children."

To examine the effects of maternal intrusiveness and warmth among different cultures, Ispa and her colleagues sampled 579 European-American, 412 African-American, and 241 Mexican-American mothers. Mexican-American families were classified by the degree to which they were  acculturated, or adapted to mainstream U.S. culture, based on the language they used most and how many generations their families had been in the U.S. Researchers observed videotapes of mothers and children engaging in play sessions when the children were about 15 months old and again when they were about 25 months old.

The observations indicated that in European-American families, maternal intrusiveness at 15 months was related to higher child negativity at 25 months and lower child engagement with mothers as well as with lower dyadic mutuality, or shared feelings between mother and child. In more acculturated Mexican-American families, regardless of the degree of maternal warmth, intrusiveness predicted higher child negativity and lower dyadic mutuality but not lower child engagement. In less acculturated Mexican-American families, regardless of the degree of maternal warmth, intrusiveness was related only to higher child negativity. In African-American families, only higher child negativity was related to maternal intrusiveness, and then, only if mothers were not warm.

"Our results show that we should not assume that maternal behavior that seems to have negative consequences in one culture has similar consequences in other cultures," Ispa said. "Intrusiveness, as an example, may have different meanings for mothers and children in different cultures."

Ispa conducted the study along with Mark Fine, MU professor of human development and family studies in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, MU graduate students Linda Halgunseth and Scott Harper, JoAnn Robinson of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Lisa Boyce of Utah State University, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Christy Brady-Smith of Columbia University. The study will appear in the November/December, 2004 (Vol. 75, issue 6) issue of Child Development.


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