Wishes for Children: Cultural Divergence in an Imagined Future Good Life

Many years ago, when our children were young, some other mothers and I would occasionally discuss the hopes we held regarding our little ones, who were usually racing around us as we spoke. In addition to some general, fuzzier hopes, I had one specific dream, which was that my daughters would become truly bicultural, a wish I remember swelling up in me when, as tiny babies, they got passports for both Japan and the U.S. My future global citizens, I thought proudly.

I saw nothing sinister or overbearing in this, but two of my friends pushed back strongly against voicing or even thinking such aspirations, feeling a strong distaste for anything that smacked of pressing their personal aspirations onto their offspring. Nevertheless, they, too, certainly wished their children would be healthy and happy, while assiduously avoiding imagining any specific scenario that would bring about these outcomes.

Probably all parents hold aspirations of some sort for their children. We want our children to have good lives, but what we mean by a “good life” naturally may vary, for an array of reasons. Developmental psychologists Kazuko Behrens and Tomo Umemura set out to assess how culture might affect the aspirations of mothers regarding their children’s future lives. They interviewed 48 Japanese mothers from Sapporo ranging in age from 29 to 46 and 66 American mothers from Texas ranging in age from 20 to 40. Participants in both groups had an annual income of around $45,000. They asked them, “If you have three wishes for your child 20 years from now, what would they be?” Interestingly, some of the Japanese mothers did not come up with three wishes, although all of the American mothers did.

The responses were classified into categories. Four of the categories ended up the same for both groups: well-being, relationship, personal fulfillment, achievement. A fifth category for the Japanese group was peace-making/fitting in, and a fifth category for the American group was religion. For these fifth categories, there were no responses from the other group that corresponded to them.

Wishes that were related to health or happiness were slotted into the well-being category. This type of wish was the most frequent for the American mothers, mentioned by a quarter of them, more than twice as many as the 10% of the Japanese mothers who described a wish of this type. The most common wish among the Japanese mothers was related to relationships: falling in love/marrying a kind person, which was brought up by 39% of them. Substantially fewer, 22% of the American mothers, alluded to this future hope for their children.

The frequency of the category of personal fulfillment was pretty comparable between the two groups, with 22% of the Japanese and 19% of the Americans saying they hoped their child would be able to do as they liked or follow their dream. The achievement category also garnered about the same percentages from the two groups: 21% of the Japanese mothers and 24% of the American mothers. Mothers in both groups who expressed a wish along these lines referred to wanting their children to achieve independence, but only some of the Japanese mothers discussed a desire for their child to be international, while only some of the American mothers talked about their child making a decent amount of money. For all of the four categories the two groups shared in common, the American mothers had about the same frequencies, but the Japanese mothers’ frequency in mentioning relationships was almost four times their reference to well-being.

The fifth categories were not high in terms of frequency but represented culture-specific wishes. Ten percent of the mothers in the U.S. brought up religion, touching on hopes that their child would live a life pleasing to God, but no religious aspirations were raised by the Japanese mothers. Conversely, 8% of the Japanese mothers, but none of their American counterparts, wanted their child to have an average, carefree life or to be no bother to others.

Behrens and Umemura additionally assigned scores to responses in the different categories according to whether they were emotion-oriented or instrumental. Wishes associated with well-being and relationships were considered emotion-oriented and received a score of 3, whereas those related to achievement were deemed instrumental, garnering a score of 1. They viewed the categories of personal fulfillment, peace-making/fitting in and religion as falling in the middle as they are more focused on the child finding their own way in life with a more laissez-faire attitude on the part of the mother. These wishes received a score of 2. The results suggested the Japanese mothers were slightly more instrumental in their wishes than their American counterparts.

The researchers note that many of the mothers apparently based their wishes for their children closely on their own lives, particularly regarding the relationship category, but in varying ways. For example, one Japanese woman wished her daughter to marry someone like her husband, while another Japanese woman hoped her daughter would marry someone unlike her own spouse. An American woman hoped her daughter would remain unmarried, and another wished her daughter would have children, but not at 17 years of age.

I myself would not have necessarily had a specific image of my children as global citizens if I had not been living in Japan. My experience of applying for my children’s passports was certainly part of it, but it was interesting to see the global angle in the wishes of some of the Japanese mother’s achievement category responses. I may have picked up on Japan’s zeitgeist in addition to my particular circumstances driving my wishes. My wish for my daughters coincided neatly with that of some of the Japanese mothers’ achievement wishes, but who knows what I’d have wished for if I hadn’t been living in Japan with my two dual-national cutie pies? Ah, the enigma of cultural influence!

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.