Culture shock: Russian parents more likely to read children darker stories than Americans

RALEIGH, N.C. — No two cultures are the same, but new research is highlighting just how different growing up in the United States is in comparison to growing up in Russia. Researchers from North Carolina State University examined parenting decisions made by both Americans and Russians and analyzed children’s literature in both countries. Their study finds Russian parents are much more likely to read their kids stories that feature negative emotions like anger, fear, or sadness. American parents, on the other hand, tend to stick with more light-hearted stories that focus on the sunnier side of life.

“In the U.S., there’s an emphasis on the value of positive emotions – such as happiness or pride,” says study co-author Amy Halberstadt, an NC State professor of psychology, in a university release.

“In Russia, there’s more nuance,” adds corresponding study author Yulia Chentsova-Dutton, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University. “Russian culture seems to value all emotions – including negative emotions – and it is important to learn from these emotions. Because the stories we read and hear as children often inform which emotions we value, we wanted to see how those stories might differ across these two cultures.”

Fewer happy endings for Russians?

To start, the team recruited 322 parents with at least one child under the age of 10. Some parents (72) had been born in the United States and still lived there. Others (72) were born in Russia but lived in America and the rest (178) were born in Russia and lived there.

Each parent noted how often the books they read to their children touched on 10 distinct emotions, with study authors considering six of those emotions positive and four of them negative.

“There were no differences across groups when it came to the frequency of positive emotions – everybody likes a book with some positivity,” says Anita Adams, a graduate student at the University of Kentucky who worked on the project as an undergraduate at NC State. “However, Russian parents chose to read books with more negative emotions than U.S. parents. Russian-American parents were somewhere in between those two groups.”

Russian children’s stories prioritize — sadness?

Regarding sadness specifically, Russian parents prioritize teaching their kids about this emotion much more than Americans.

“That value seemed to be part of why they were willing to engage more with their children about negative emotions in general,” Prof. Halberstadt notes.

Next, the team analyzed 40 best-selling American fiction books intended for preschool-age children as well as 40 Russian books aimed at kids. That analysis led to the conclusion that Russian child literature tackles a much more diverse range of emotions than American books aimed at the same age groups. On a more detailed level, the Russian books touched on and depicted emotions including anger, fear, sadness, and even happiness much more regularly.

“Taken together, these studies highlight how Russian parents engage with their children about emotions differently than U.S. parents,” Prof. Halberstadt concludes. “Simply put, the study suggests Russian parents are more likely to support opportunities to engage with their young children about challenging emotions, such as anger and sadness. Future studies may want to explore what this might mean in terms of providing children more tools with which to navigate difficult emotions.”

The study is published in the journal Emotion.

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