Family Culture

Key Findings: Family culture refers to the family-related attitudes and norms a country’s citizens express. Data suggest that adults take a range of progressive and conservative positions on family issues.

  • Attitudes toward voluntary single motherhood differ from one region to another, with adults in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania leaning more toward acceptance (with a high acceptance rate of 80 percent in Spain), and those in Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa leaning more toward rejection (as evidenced by an acceptance rate of only 2 percent in Egypt and Jordan).
  • About half of adults agree that one parent can raise a child as well as two parents, with support ranging from 24 percent in China to 69 percent in South Africa.
  • In all of the countries featured in this study with available data, most adults—from 52 percent in Chile to 84 percent in Taiwan—believe that working mothers can establish relationships with their children that are just as good as those of stay-at-home mothers.
  • Most adults worldwide report that they completely trust their families; however, levels of trust vary by region and country, with 63 percent of adults reporting they completely trust their families in the Netherlands, and 99 percent reporting this to be the case in Egypt. It should be noted that the willingness of adults to affirm the term “completely” (regardless of the topic) varies across countries.

To shed light on adults’ attitudes toward family life around the world, we relied on data from the World Values Survey (WVS), collected between 2000 and 2013, and the 2012 edition of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) surveys on four cultural indicators in 32 countries: 1) approval of single motherhood, 2) agreement that one parent can bring up a child as well as two parents, 3) approval of working mothers, and 4) presence of family trust.71 Given that respondents in different countries may interpret the questions and response categories somewhat differently, and that population representation of the surveys varies from country to country, the WVS and ISSP do not allow us to draw a perfect comparison between countries.

Attitudes Toward Voluntary Single Motherhood

Adult attitudes toward voluntary single motherhood vary greatly by region, as seen in Figure 13. The WVS asked adults if they approved of a woman seeking to “have a child as a single parent” without a “stable relationship with a man.” In Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, little public support exists for this type of single motherhood. Specifically, in Asia and the Middle East, support for this view ranges from a high of 20 percent (Taiwan) to a low of 2 percent (Egypt and Jordan). Support is also comparatively low in sub-Saharan Africa, where only 19 percent of adults in Uganda and 29 percent of adults in South Africa express approval of voluntary single motherhood.

WFM-Figure13_2015-01

Sources: www.worldfamilymap.org/2015/e-ppendix/figure13

Support for voluntary single motherhood is markedly higher in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania. Forty percent or more of adults living in Oceanic or American countries surveyed in the WVS accept it. For example, 52 percent of adults in the United States, 46 percent in Canada, 40 percent in Australia, and 74 percent in Chile indicate that they approve of unmarried women having children on their own. Views are more heterogeneous in Europe. Just 32 percent of adults in Poland express support for voluntary single motherhood, compared with 80 percent of adults in Spain. Overall, slightly less than half of the adults in most other European countries register their approval of voluntary single motherhood. In general, adults in countries with more affluence, lower levels of religiosity, and/or high levels of single parenthood prove to be more supportive of women having children without a husband or male partner. By contrast, countries with strong religious or collectivist orientations are less supportive of women who choose to be single mothers.72

Attitudes About Whether Children Need Two Parents

Despite the considerable regional variation in attitudes toward voluntary single motherhood, there is relatively little variation among countries in attitudes about the value of a two-parent home. In most of the world, about one-half of adults believe that “one parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together,” as Figure 14 illustrates.73

WFM-Figure14_2015-01

Sources: www.worldfamilymap.org/2015/e-ppendix/figure14

Adults in Asia show the widest range of beliefs on this indicator. In China, less than one-quarter of adults believe that one parent can raise a child as well as two parents, whereas in India, the Philippines, and Taiwan, over one-half of adults think that one parent can. Data are very limited for sub-Saharan Africa, and South America, but where they are available, adults tend to believe that one parent can raise a child as well as two: in South Africa, 69 percent of adults affirm that, and in South America, as represented by Argentina and Chile, about 60 percent do.

Adults in North America and Oceania are more skeptical of single-parent families, with just under half of adults believing that one parent can raise a child as well as two parents in Canada, Australia, and United States. In both Western and Eastern Europe, about half of adults believe that one parent can raise a child as well as two parents, with agreement ranging from 39 percent to 60 percent.

For the countries with available data, attitudes about whether children need two parents generally align with behaviors. In South Africa, adults have the world’s highest level of endorsement for one-parent families, and more than half of children grow up living with a single parent. Single parenthood is less widespread in areas with lower levels of endorsement for single parents’ abilities to raise children alone. For example, in North America and Oceania, where less than one-half of adults believe that one parent can raise a child as well as two, over three-quarters of children live with two parents (with the exception of the United States).

Support for Working Mothers

The 2014 edition of the World Family Map cautioned against drawing conclusions about support for working mothers because the most recent data available were from the turn of the millennium. Fortunately, the ISSP included this question in their most recent round of survey data collection around 2012. The countries for which data are available are not identical to those covered in the 2014 edition, and again it is important to be cautious in comparing this year’s reported data to those in last year’s report due to the different data sources.

Across the world, one-half of women aged 15 and older participate in the labor force.74 In line with this trend, as Table 4 indicates, a majority of adults in all countries surveyed around the globe believe that a “working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.”

WFM-Table4_2015-01

Sources: www.worldfamilymap.org/2015/e-ppendix/table4

This view seems to be particularly prevalent in Western Europe and North America, where more than two-thirds of adults in the surveyed countries agree that working mothers perform just as well as mothers who do not work outside the home. For instance, 72 percent of adults in the United States, 78 percent of adults in Sweden, and 81 percent of adults in France express the belief that working mothers can establish as good a relationship with their children as can stay-at-home mothers.

The available evidence in sub-Saharan Africa comes from South Africa, where 75 percent of adults agree that working mothers do as well as mothers who do not work outside the home.

Support for working mothers is more moderate in other regions of the world. In parts of Asia (including China, India, and South Korea) and Eastern Europe, about 65 percent of adults agree that working mothers can establish strong relationships with their children. Support is higher in the Philippines and Taiwan, though, at 72 percent and 84 percent, respectively. In Australia, 68 percent of adults hold similar views. Adults in South America express less support for working mothers than those in other regions. In Chile, 52 percent of adults believe that working mothers develop relationships with their children that are as secure as those of non-working mothers. In Argentina, 61 percent of adults feel the same way. Unfortunately, no Middle Eastern countries were included in this data source, but older findings for this region were reported in the 2014 World Family Map report.

In general, then, this somewhat limited global survey of attitudes towards working mothers suggests that in most regions, public support for working mothers is high. Despite the conventional wisdom that children do best when their mothers are caring for them full-time in the home, at least 50 percent of adults believe that working mothers can establish relationships with their children which are as strong and secure as those of non-working mothers in every surveyed country. In fact, recent research has found little relationship between the quantity of time that children or adolescents spend with their mothers and their educational and behavioral outcomes.75

Family Trust

The family is an important social institution around the world. Most societies see the family as a fundamental source of socialization, the place that meets some of humankind’s deepest needs for belonging, and the wellspring of the emotional and social support needed to flourish. What, then, does the global public believe about the presence of trust in their own families? The World Values Survey asked respondents if they trust their families, and the results suggest that trust remains high in most families around the world (see Table 5). Here the World Family Map records the percentage of respondents affirming that they “completely” trust their families,76 the highest answer they could select, because there is a tendency for respondents to pick the top category in reporting on such a socially desirable indicator. However, differences across cultures exist in the degree to which survey respondents will affirm the category “completely.” Evidence suggests that in the Netherlands and in Latin America, specifically, and perhaps in other countries, respondents often avoid choosing the highest categories on survey questions because these response options are not culturally acceptable.77

WFM-Table5_2015-01

Sources: www.worldfamilymap.org/2015/e-ppendix/table5

With these caveats, we find that family trust is almost universal among adults in the Asian, Oceanic, and especially Middle Eastern countries studied. In the Middle East, 91 percent of Qatari adults indicate that they completely trust their families, as do 94 percent of Turkish adults and a remarkable 97 percent of adults in Jordan and 99 percent of adults in Egypt. Likewise, 90 percent of adults in China express complete trust in their families, as do 82 to 86 percent of adults in other Asian countries, and 82 percent of Australians. India appears as an exception to the high rates of family trust in Asia, with just 65 percent of adults saying they completely trust their families.

Levels of family trust are more mixed in Europe and the Americas. In Europe, the proportion of adults who report completely trusting their families ranges from 63 percent in the Netherlands to 94 percent in Spain. Notably, the percentage of adults who completely trust their families decreased by five percentage points in Germany between 2006 and 2013, to 76 percent.

In the Americas, the proportion of adults who affirm that they completely trust their families ranges from 71 percent in Brazil to 92 percent in Argentina, with North American percentages falling between 70 and 83 percent. In sub-Saharan Africa, 67 percent of adults completely trust their families in Ghana, while 76 percent express this trust in South Africa and 88 percent do in Nigeria.

Given the heterogeneous character of countries that register high levels of family trust—with at least nine in 10 adults completely trusting their families in Argentina, China, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Spain, and Turkey—we cannot be sure of the role factors like affluence, public policy, religion, and familism (the elevation of the family over individual issues) play in fostering high levels of family solidarity. Nevertheless, the varied character of nations scoring highly on the attitudinal measure of family trust suggests that different factors foster strong family solidarity in different regional contexts.

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While research consistently demonstrates that families exert a strong influence on child outcomes, our ability to monitor families and understand how to strengthen them, and thus improve child outcomes in many regions of the world, is hampered by a lack of data. For example, in many countries, even basic data—such as the relationship between a child’s parents, information on extended family members and non-residential parents, and the education level and employment status of both parents—are unavailable. Though improved, the need for data on additional countries for the indicators in the family process and culture sections is obvious, and the areas of family structure and socioeconomics would be strengthened if there existed more data allowing for comparisons across regions and countries of the world. To further understand the family dynamics underlying child well-being, we need comparable data for additional indicators of family well-being.

Specific surveys sometimes allow for analyses of these dynamics. The following section presents an essay that uses survey data to look at the distribution of household labor and whether it is related to happiness among parents.


71 World Values Survey Association, “World Values Survey 1981-2008 Official Aggregate V.20090901,” www.worldvaluessurvey.org (Aggregate File Producer: ASEP/JDS, Madrid, 2009); World Values Survey Association, “World Values Survey Wave 6 2010-2014 Official Aggregate V.20150418” (Aggregate File Producer: Asep/JDS, Madrid, 2015); ISSP Research Group, “International Social Survey Programme: Family and Changing Gender Roles-Issp 2012” (Cologne: GESIS Data Archive, 2014); Hampden-Thompson et al., “A Cross-National Analysis of Parental Involvement and Student Literacy.”
72 R. Inglehart and P. Norris, The Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change around the World (New York: Cambridge, 2003).
73 In previous editions of the World Family Map, this indicator was whether a child “needs a home with both a mother and a father to grow up happily.” This year, this indicator has been replaced with a non-gendered version, for which more recent data are available.
74 World Bank, “World Development Indicators: Labor Force Structure Table 2.2.”
75 M. A. Milkie, K. M. Nomaguchi, and K. E. Denny, “Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend with Children or Adolescents Matter?” Journal of Marriage and Family 77, no. 2 (2015).
76 Respondents could indicate that they trust their family “completely” or “somewhat,” or that they “do not trust [their family] very much” or “do not trust [them] at all.”
77 World Family Map partner research institutions in the Netherlands and South America, email message to authors, October 2012.

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