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Parenting in Vietnam Tatyana Mestechkina, Nguyen Duc Son, and Jin Y. Shin

Geography, History and Economics Vietnam is a country in Southeast Asia that borders Thailand, China, Laos, and Cambodia. Its area is 331,210 km2 and its population is about 91 million people. Vietnamese climate is tropical in the south and monsoonal in the north, with a hot and rainy season in May-September and a warm and dry season in October-March. There is a low and flat delta in the north and south, while it is hilly in the central highlands and mountainous in the far north and northwest. The country extends 1,650 km north to south but is only 50 km across at its narrowest point. Its natural resources include: phosphates, coal, manganese, rare earth elements, bauxite, chromate, offshore oil and gas deposits, timber and hydropower (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency 2012) (Fig. 1). Some scholars believe that the country was originally settled in 2000 B.C. Throughout their history, the Vietnamese people have been in contact with many cultures and nations, often in the form of invasions. The Chinese, the French, and the Indian people have had a large influence on Vietnamese culture. Despite this, the Vietnamese have still maintained many of the original traits of their culture such as a sense of community in the villages, local religions, the structure and responsibility between family members and a philosophy of education. As of 2011, Vietnam’s GDP per capita is estimated to be $3,300, with 20 % of its exports going to the United States. Vietnam is considered one of the fastest T. Mestechkina (*) Clinical Psychology, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, USA e-mail: [email protected] N.D. Son Department of Psychology and Education, Hanoi National University of Education, Hanoi, Vietnam J.Y. Shin Department of Psychology, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, USA H. Selin (ed.), Parenting Across Cultures: Childrearing, Motherhood and Fatherhood in Non-Western Cultures, Science Across Cultures: The History of Non-Western Science 7, DOI 10.1007/978-94-007-7503-9_5, © Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014



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100 km 50



100 ml


Fan Si Pan

Hong Gai

HANOI Haiphong




Hainan Dao (CHINA)

Gulf of Tonkin

Vinh Mo ko



Hue 16

Da Nang


Quy Nhon


Nha Trang Cam Ranh

Me Dao Phu Quoc

Gulf of Thailand

Ho Chi Minh City ko n

Long Xuyen Can Tho


Con Dao 104

Fig. 1 Map of Vietnam (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency 2012)

South China Sea 108


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emerging economies in Asia. However, it is still a relatively poor country and, and aside from the war with the U.S., it is less known to the West than China or Japan. The relatively new economic reforms, as well as the struggles of living in a poor country, contribute to some of the challenges that Vietnamese families face. There have also been trends towards more Western influence. Vietnam is getting more deeply integrated into the modern world. Many values of western culture have become accepted by the younger generation. Some examples include more independent living from parents, less attachment to the family, and less attachment to traditional values. This in turn affects the values and beliefs of the parents. Conflicting ideas develop, as parents want to educate their children about western culture, but also want to retain more traditional family values.

Parenting Dimensions that influence parenting include: the parents’ beliefs, values, goals and behaviors, the child’s characteristics such as temperament (Chen and Luster 2002), and the customs and psychological characteristics of the parents (Boushel 2000; Rosenthal and Roer-Strier 2001). In addition to this, the social system in which a child is raised, including such issues as war, the political climate and policies of multiculturalism and assimilation (Rosenthal 2000), can also influence parenting.

Family Structure and Roles In Vietnamese families, roles are hierarchical and clearly defined. Fathers tend to be the central figures (Hunt 2005) and are commonly revered. They are ultimately responsible for providing for their family and making family decisions. After the fathers and elderly relatives, the eldest male siblings generally assume the most authority. Fathers’ traditional roles differ from mothers’. They tend to play less of a direct role during infancy and young childhood and become more involved during the schooling and adolescent years (Locke et al. 2012). Fathers are also traditionally associated with discipline (Locke et al. 2012). They are the authority figures of the family and other members are expected to obey the requests they make. This is particularly evident in their relationships with their children. Fathers sometimes use physical punishment in order to encourage compliancy. The mothers are expected to engage in domestic work and childrearing. Mothers are the primary caregivers in Vietnamese families and spend more time with their children and interact more frequently with their children’s teachers than do fathers. Mothers are with their children during early infancy until they are at least 2 or 3 years old and again when they approach their teenage years (especially for girls) (Locke et al. 2012). Mothers monitor their children’s health, self-care and nutrition. They guide their children’s education and help them with their homework. There is


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a Vietnamese saying that suggests that if a child is misbehaving, it is the mistake of the mother. However, in more modernized families, both parents are beginning to share the responsibility of ensuring the proper education of their children. Vietnamese social norms emphasize that a mother should bear a son. In traditional Vietnamese culture, a man’s position in the family is higher than the woman’s and the son is expected to carry on the family line and the family name. Having more sons is associated with a higher status for the family. Research suggests that compared to Japan, which is another eastern country with collectivistic ideas, mothers in Vietnam were more likely to report feeling less confident in their parenting skills (Goto et al. 2010). Those who had less confidence reported more negative parenting outcomes than did confident mothers (Goto et al. 2010). A mothers’ psychosocial and mental health has been shown to influence the child’s growth, nutritional status, and emotional development (Barlow and Coren 2004; Harpham et al. 2005; Patel et al. 2004; Poobalan et al. 2007). In the West, the nuclear family is very common. In Vietnamese culture, the extended family plays a much more important role in individuals’ lives, and there is much more multigenerational interaction. A typical Vietnamese household may include parents, children, daughters-in-law, grandparents, grandchildren, and unmarried siblings. Also, the community plays a larger role in peoples’ lives, and often they are considered one large extended family. Kinship pronouns are sometimes used even among strangers greeting each other, demonstrating the view that the community is part of the way Vietnamese people conceptualize families (Hunt 2005). Grandparents play a big role in helping raise children in Vietnam (Locke et al. 2012). Elderly family members are highly valued and respected. Grandparents and other older relatives also play important decision-making roles. If the parents are deceased, the responsibility falls upon the eldest male to provide for the family. In addition to living elderly family members, there is also much respect for the deceased. Children are often responsible to care for and maintain ancestral tombs and all family members are expected to pay homage to ancestral spirits (Hunt 2005).

New Trends in Family Structure As a result of economic reforms and more access to western cultures, there have been major changes in Vietnamese family structures. In 1986, when Vietnam embarked on economic liberalization and a transition to market socialism, it had profound effects on the family structure. As a result, there has been migration to cities and industrialized zones for factory work. Many married men and women have been leaving their families in rural areas to go and work, leading to changes in the family structure among low income migrant workers (Summerfield 1997; Resurreccion and Khanh 2007). While this creates obstacles to family life, migrant mothers justify their absences because of the need to provide their children with their basic needs (Locke et al. 2012). As there are clear social norms about the roles of fathers, not being present may become a crisis of masculinity for these fathers

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who have to migrate for work (Locke et al. 2012). There are fewer extended families living together, and most of them are in rural areas. Young married people are growing more independent from their parents. The number of nuclear families is increasing.

Parenting Goals Parenting goals are objectives that adults have in mind when raising a child. Many parenting goals stem from traditional cultural beliefs. In addition, religion plays a significant role in Vietnamese society which in turn influences parenting values. In Vietnam, both Confucianism and Buddhism have heavily influenced its culture and parenting practices (Hunt 2005). Confucianism has mainly been influential in regard to the overall way of life in Vietnamese society as many life values have been derived from the religion, while Buddhism is the religion more commonly practiced (Hunt 2005). Confucian ideas guide the social roles of men and women in Vietnam (men should be responsible for their country, women should care about their families). Understanding religious practices helps us understand the culture and its effects on parenting styles. While some Western cultures may see life as linear, Buddhism sees life as cyclical. According to Buddhist beliefs, when people die, their soul is reincarnated and each life cycle begins with a new identity (human or animal). There is also a hierarchy of life forms, with insects at the lowest rung and humans at the highest. Living a life of sin can result in being reincarnated into a lower life form. Living virtuously can break the cycle and lead to reaching Nirvana, a state of ultimate happiness. Living a virtuous life includes living in a way that is honorable to your family and their values. If someone lives a life of evil, their descendants may also be punished by being reincarnated as lower life forms. A lot of corresponding values such as harmony, duty, honor, respect, education, and allegiance to the family are derived from Confucian ideas and are emphasized heavily in childrearing (Hunt 2005). Harmony is achieved by living according to one’s role within the family, creating harmony within oneself and one’s family (Hunt 2005). In Vietnam, children are asked what they plan to do to contribute to society when they grow up, and they are expected to stay with their immediate families, even when they marry (Hunt 2005). It is also customary for the wife to move in with the husband’s family. To maintain harmony, children are taught to communicate in a modest way through both their speech and their mannerisms and to think before speaking to avoid discord and animosity (Hunt 2005). Also, moderation is considered a component of harmony and individuals are encouraged to avoid extremes and practice harmony in verbal communication, daily life activities, consumption of food and drink and in social interaction (Hunt 2005). Respect is also a very crucial value in Vietnamese culture and is part of the foundation of Confucianism. Respect to individuals in the community, authority figures and the elderly is expected and there is particular emphasis on showing respect to


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the family, particularly to parents. Respect is expressed through both language and demeanor and is earned by leading a virtuous life, fulfilling one’s filial and social duties, accomplishing heroic deeds and attaining a high degree of education (Hunt 2005). In addition, in the past, Vietnamese children were taught to avoid direct eye contact with elders and authority figures as this does not convey respect and can mean that they are being challenging. This is not commonly practiced presently. However, when spoken to by an authority figure or elder, children are taught to be quiet, listen and to avoid asking questions as that can be perceived as also being challenging. The values of honor and duty to one’s family are taught at a young age (Hunt 2005). Familial roles are clearly defined and children are expected to behave in a way consistent with these roles and to make necessary sacrifices to honor these roles. Children are encouraged to protect the honor and dignity of the family and are expected to act in a way that avoids losing face or bringing shame to their family. When children act inappropriately, it is seen to reflect not just on them, but on their whole family. Children are taught that it is more important to fulfill their family roles, responsibilities and duties than to fulfill their own desires; they are taught to obey their parents and never to question their authority (Hunt 2005). In addition, there are certain duties that parents have. Besides providing their kids with the basic needs, parents must ensure that their children are educated and develop morals (Hunt 2005). When parents get old, then the duty to take care of them is transferred to the children. In Vietnam, education is something that has high value (even more so than wealth and success) and parents are expected to make sacrifices in order to provide their children with educational opportunities. Hard work is emphasized and Vietnam has almost a 90 % literacy rate (Hunt 2005). In Vietnam, getting an education comes along with social respect, prestige and the prospect of vertical mobility (Hunt 2005). Proper language use is also seen as a vital way to maintain harmony and show respect (Hunt 2005). However, as educational success is highly valued and parents set high expectations for their children’s academic accomplishments, this results in a very competitive environment. Parents can put significant pressure on their children and have a hard time accepting that their child is not living up to their standards.

Disciplinary Measures Disciplinary measures in Vietnam reflect attitudes held by parents about which disciplinary tools are appropriate in childrearing. In Vietnam, corporal punishment is a much more accepted disciplinary tool than in most western societies. Research has found that some parents from Southeast Asia actually viewed scolding and physical punishments as expressions of parental love, as they see this as a way to protect their children from dangerous activities (Xiong et al. 2001). However, more recently, Vietnamese parents, particularly younger ones, have begun to re-evaluate this type of punishment. There has been a lot more education and awareness in the

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media about the negative consequences of using corporal punishment as a parenting technique. Also, the Vietnamese government has modified their laws to restrict physical violence towards children. Despite these growing trends, some parents still use physical punishment such as spanking and thrashing.

Other Issues Adolescents and Communication About Sex Because of more social and geographic mobility and more access to electronic media, there has been a lot more exposure to western images and ideas, particularly among Vietnamese adolescents. This has had an effect on altering their sexual expectations and expressions (Gammeltoft 2002; Mensch et al. 2003; Ngo et al. 2008; Nguyen and Thomas 2004). There has also been an increased amount of sexual activity and as a result more unwanted pregnancy, abortions, and HIV/AIDS in this age group (Center for Population Studies and Information 2003; Ministry of Health et al. 2005). Despite these increasing risks, parents often avoid communicating with their children and adolescents about issues such as relationships, sexuality and associated health risks. Instead, parents commonly tell their adolescents not to have sex, as they often feel embarrassed about talking about these issues and believe that talking about topics such as contraceptives and pregnancy are not appropriate for adolescents and unmarried youth (Kaljee et al. 2011). Kaljee et al. (2011) have found this embarrassment on both sides. Longstanding beliefs held by parents that talking about sex would lead to sexual experimentation among adolescents, and parents’ lack of knowledge emerged as barriers that restricted parent–adolescent sexual communication. Also, because of the high emphasis on education, traditional parents may believe that young adults should not be engaging in sexual relationships until after they complete their education (Kaljee et al. 2008). This can be problematic, as research has found that better communication about sexual concerns between adolescents and parents can delay sexual initiation, reduce the number of sexual partners, and lead to more contraceptive use and fewer unwanted pregnancies (e.g. Casper 1990; Hacker et al. 2000).

Parenting Children with Developmental Delays When children have developmental delays, parents have increased stress from the care giving burden and from uncertainties about their children’s becoming independent adults. Parenting stress among parents of children with developmental delays has been well documented in Western culture, and both Vietnamese mothers and fathers of children with developmental delays also experience elevated stress (Shin and Viet


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Nhan 2009; Shin et al. 2006). Traditional gender roles are also reflected in the experience of Vietnamese parents (Shin et al. 2006). Mothers experience more stress than fathers due to the fact that they are usually the main caregivers and financially dependent on their husbands. Mothers were more affected by the child’s characteristics (e.g., lower intellectual functioning) and their husband’s health. Fathers with lower economic status and a smaller social support network were more stressed than other fathers, suggesting that fathers are more affected by concerns about the family’s connection to the wider world and by economic issues, as the main income earners. In traditional Vietnamese culture as in many other Asian cultures, such as those of Korea, Japan and China, there is a stigma attached to having children with disabilities. Often families hide the fact that their children have disabilities and feel ashamed of having such children (Hunt 2005). Studies show that Vietnamese families of these children are affected by stigma experiences (Ngo et al. 2012; Shin and McDonaugh 2008; D’Antonio and Shin 2009). The more severe the child’s intellectual delays are, the less social support parents experience, suggesting restricted interactions with neighbors and extended family members, which makes them experience social strain and exclusion. Often these parents do not receive adequate professional support, due to a shortage of systems and professionals in the field. The changing attitude of the society to include these children and their families as positive members of the society, along with the influence of Western values and the adoption of Western professional practices in the field, is enhancing positive perspectives of parenting among parents of children with developmental issues.

Immigration and Acculturation Issues Cultural beliefs and expectations play a significant role in child development and in the development of childrearing practices. Some factors influenced by relocation may be the child’s physical and social setting, such as the number of people living in a household, gender expectations, and the child care arrangements that parents make for their children, such as whether a child is looked after by a member of the child’s extended family or by an unrelated caretaker in a group care setting (Harkness and Super 1992, 1996; Segall et al. 1999). As in many cultures, immigration of Vietnamese parents to different countries has resulted in many acculturation issues. Wise and da Silva (2007) did a study evaluating differences in parenting among different cultures within Australia. They had found that children of Vietnamese parents who live in Australia (mothers on average of 10.7 years and fathers 15.1 years) valued independence less but compliance more than Anglo/Celtic (dominant culture group) parents in Australia. Vietnamese parents also had later expectations for language development than the Anglo/Celtic parents. Also, Vietnamese parents had earlier expectations for all other aspects of development (except motor development), and thought power assertion was effective more than Somali parents living in Australia. However, both level of education and years of experience in the early

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childhood field accounted for differences between Somali and Vietnamese caretakers. One third of Vietnamese mothers in Australia were un-partnered and Vietnamese children were more likely to have mothers under 34 years old than were Somali children. As some Vietnamese families have immigrated to America, there have been many issues in families that result from parents’ keeping their traditional Vietnamese parenting values, while their children might assimilate more into western culture. As Vietnamese-American children enter schools, develop peer relationships and spend time being exposed to American media, they adapt more western, individualistic ideals that might conflict with their families’ more traditional, collectivistic views. Adolescents tend to acculturate faster to western culture and retain less of their culture of origin (Kim et al. 2009). This divide has led to Vietnamese-American adolescents’ having poorer relationships with their parents (Dinh et al. 1994). The parent-child conflicts have been linked to delinquent behavior (Choi et al. 2008), poorer life satisfaction (Phinney and Ong 2002), and depressive symptomology (Ying and Han 2007) among Vietnamese-American adolescents. Language may also become a barrier and result in communication difficulties when as adolescents children might lose fluency in their native language while immigrant parents might have difficulties excelling in English (Hwang 2006; Zhou 2001). Southeast Asian adolescents perceived that their parents didn’t understand their thoughts and feelings and were overly critical, controlling, and protective, and rarely showed overt affection for them (Xiong and Detzner 2004). This research also found that these adolescents would prefer that their parents be warmer, more supportive, tell them that they loved them, and praise them when they had done something right. Other research suggests that parents that emigrated from Southeast Asia perceive that they show their children love mainly by meeting their physical and material needs (Xiong et al. 2001).

Conclusion Traditionally, Vietnamese family roles were very hierarchical and clearly defined, with major involvement from the extended family. The Confucius-derived concepts of harmony, duty, honor, respect, education, and allegiance to the family are prevalent in parenting goals. However, due to more recent economic reform and influence from western culture, we can see major shifts in parenting ideals and practices in Vietnam.

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