Jennifer Lansford, a developmental psychologist and professor at Duke University, is in her seventh year of a 10-year research project funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, looking at the ways parents express love for their children around the world.
The data -- gathered by studying parent-child relationships in the U.S., China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Philippines, Thailand and Sweden -- reveal insightful differences in the unique ways love is expressed.
In Sweden, the research shows that parent-child relationships are egalitarian; parents and children have equal rights within the family, and parents show love by treating children as equals in terms of voicing opinions and sharing in family decisions.
Parental love in the Philippines is in large part reflected by a deep sense of gratitude and respect that children feel toward their parents. Parents show love by teaching their children to honor them by carrying out family obligations.
In Kenya, loving parents demonstrate their love by being more controlling of their children's behavior, the research shows.
Meanwhile, China has been undergoing a period of tremendous economic and social change that is reflected by corresponding changes in families and in the ways that parents express love to children. For example, fathers have become increasingly nurturing and affectionate toward children as traditional gender role distinctions have diminished.
In parent-child relationships in Colombia, and to a large extent with Hispanic families in the United States, love is shown through placing the family's needs before one's own individual needs, synchronized interpersonal relationships to avoid family conflicts, and adherence to authority within the family.
Italian mothers and fathers show love by being highly involved with their children and through demonstrating a great deal of emotion in their interactions.
Parents in Jordan show love by adjusting their behavior, becoming stricter or more lenient, for example, as the situation requires to promote children's physical, mental, social and spiritual health.
Loving parents in Thailand often emphasize respect toward others and nonaggression compatible with Buddhist teachings.
In the United States, parents often demonstrate love by promoting their children's individual interests and giving them freedom to make their own choices (although there is a great deal of variability in parenting within the United States), according to the research.
Research that has greatly influenced Lansford's insights and the direction of her work has come from Ronald Rohner, the director of the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut. He has been working for more than 50 years on the ways parents around the world express their love, or lack of love, for their children.
He recalls an experience he had during the 1980s, when he was working in a peasant village in Bengal, India, interviewing a high caste mother in her home. During the interview, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a young mother sitting on a veranda near him. She was very carefully peeling an orange for her 8-year-old daughter. As the peeling progressed, the child became increasingly happy and excited. The mother divided the orange into individual segments, removed the seeds, and fed her daughter each segment one at a time. The message from the child's perspective: If my mother takes the time to do that, she must really love me.
"It was clear something very special was going on," Rohner says, who later learned from his interpreter that the act of hand feeding segments of an orange is a cultural symbol of great love and affection that every child in Bengali culture understands.
He recollects another unique expression of parent-child love when he was working in a poor county in Georgia, interviewing an African-American grandfather in his home. "The cabin only had one lightbulb and hardly any furniture, but there was so much love," Rohner recollects. Near the end of the interview, the man sent his grandson to bed. Rohner noticed that as the boy stood beside his grandfather on his way to bed he touched the top of his grandfather's head with great affection. African-American parents there often touch the top of their children's heads as cultural displays of affection, and children soon learn to mirror that act, according to Rohner.
His research shows that everywhere on the planet, children understand themselves to be loved or not loved in four specific ways, even though the ways of expressing affection in one society may not be understood the same way in another.
Ways that Children Perceive Parental Love
Warmth and affection. The most obvious way parents express love is with warmth and affection, says Rohner. How warm and affectionate do children perceive a parent to be, or how cold and unaffectionate do they perceive them to be?
Hostility and aggression. This includes spanking, scolding, yelling, sarcasm and other such behaviors. Some parents in the U.S. substitute yelling at children for corporal punishment, Rohner says. But both yelling and physical punishment can have negative effects on children.
Indifference and neglect. This relates to how present the parent is for the child to recognize their physical and emotional needs. Children who experience neglect might feel their parents forget things that are important to them. They might think, My mother and father pay no attention to me, My father is too busy to answer my questions or My mother pays no attention to me as long as I do nothing to bother her.
Symbolic rejection. With this expression of rejection, there are no obvious, objective indicators that parents are cold, aggressive or neglecting, but children feel a lack of love and care. An example of this would be a parent telling a child "I won't love you if you do this." With symbolic rejection, children can feel parents don't care about them. My mother sees me as a big nuisance, or My mother makes me feel not loved anymore if I misbehave are examples of this perception.
No family is perfect, so there will always be some degree of these four traits. But in loving families there is a noticeable absence of them, researchers say.
What's clear from Lansford's seven years of research on the topic is that love expressed by parents toward their children may be shown indirectly around the world and comes in countless forms. "The end result for the child may be the same even though the process of child rearing is different," she says. The takeaway, she adds: it's important for parents to make children feel loved and accepted within the context of their culture.