Culture and family environment influence children's facial expressivity and create differences among children of the same ethnicity, results from a study of four groups of young Chinese and American girls suggest.
The study, in the February issue of Emotion (Vol. 6, No. 1), compared facial expressivity among Chinese girls adopted by European-American families with the facial expressivity of mainland Chinese girls, Chinese-American girls and European-American girls who were not adopted.
During the study, lead researcher Linda A. Camras, PhD, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago, and her colleagues videotaped 3-year-old girls' facial expressions as they viewed mildly negative images, such as a puppy in a dirty cage, or happy ones, such as a bunny wearing Groucho Marx glasses. Overall, the study found European-American girls were more expressive then Chinese-American and mainland Chinese girls. In general, adopted Chinese girls were more expressive then Chinese-American and mainland Chinese girls.
The researchers also asked the children's mothers to rate their own emotional expressiveness, their parenting strictness and levels of aggravation they experience as a parent.
They found that a mother's strictness, including her attitude toward the appropriateness of children's emotional expressiveness versus restraint, strongly predicted her daughter's expressiveness, leading them to conclude that family life is a stronger influence than ethnicity on a child's expressiveness.
"There's a difference in expressivity between the different groups," says Camras, "but the mother's attitude is more of a factor."
Overall, social scientists agree that emotional-expression customs differ greatly across cultures, but there is less agreement on why those differences exist, says Camras.
While some researchers propose that innate differences in how infants of different ethnic groups react to distress underlie subsequent differences in emotional expressivity, Camras's work lends support to other researchers' theories that the cultural and family environment influence a child's expressiveness. Camras plans next to examine emotional expressivity of adopted children at older ages and people from different generations of Chinese-American families.
- C. Munsey