What Sets Families in Asia Apart

BlogMar 4 2013

Trend Lines is hosting a series of posts reporting regional findings from our World Family Map:  Mapping Family Change and Child Well-being OutcomesThe report summarizes key indicators of family well-being that are related to child outcomes, including indicators of family structure, economics, processes, and culture in 45 low-, middle-, and high-income countries.  We also address whether the strong link between family structure and important educational outcomes that we find in the U.S. holds globally.  We found an advantage for children living in two-parent families in most middle- and high-income countries. In many low-income countries, we found no such advantage to living with two parents, and in some cases, it was even a disadvantage.

This blog focuses on Asia, where traditional two-parent families are common, yet the link between family structure and educational outcomes is weaker than in the West.

Among the nine Asian countries included in the report, (China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), children are most often raised by two-married parents often assisted by extended family members. Some key findings:

  • At least 80 percent of children are raised by two-parent families;
  • At least 40 percent are living with extended family members;
  • About half to three-quarters of adults in Asia are married;
  • Cohabitation is rare, as is non-marital childbearing;
  • Fertility is falling across the region, hitting below replacement levels in East Asia.

There is a wide range in the socioeconomic indicators. For example, absolute poverty ranges from zero percent in Malaysia to 42 percent in India, and parental secondary education attainment ranges from 12 percent in Malaysia and China to 42 percent in the Philippines. Despite this variation, parental employment levels in Asia are consistently the highest in the world.

Asian family members express modest levels of family satisfaction, low levels of disagreement about household tasks, a high incidence of regularly eating meals together, but low levels of political and social discussions. Aligned with their actual behaviors, Asian adults voice low levels of support for voluntary single motherhood and believe that children are happiest when raised by both a mother and father. However, a majority of adults do support working mothers.

We also found that 15-year-olds from single-parent families performed as well as those from two-parent families on tests of everyday reading literacy in about half of the Asian countries studied. This is after accounting for socioeconomic differences between the two groups. Similarly, among lower-income Asian countries, children with one or no parents were not always disadvantaged compared with those from two-parent families in enrolling in school or being behind in grade for their age.  In fact, in India, students with one parent were actually less likely to repeat a grade than those with two parents.

Perhaps the low incidence of single parent families, and the support that they receive from extended family members, as well as positive family processes such as communication and eating together, are related to the lack of disadvantage for children with single parents.  David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, summarizing the research of Jin Li, wrote that “Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally.”  So, the internal motivation of Asian students may help ease the difficulties faced when growing up in a single-parent family.