This study explores cultural differences between European American (n = 26) and Asian American (n = 17) parents' attributional ratings of children with Down syndrome. Links were examined among parents' attributions, reactions, and behaviors regarding their child's jigsaw-puzzle performance. Although the children's puzzle abilities did not differ, compared with European American parents, Asian American parents judged their child as less successful and had lower expectations for future success. Asian American parents also attributed the child's performance to lower ability and lower effort. Affectively, they indicated less sympathy and more anger and blame toward the child. Despite striking ethnic differences, parents in both groups judged their older children as more successful and reported offering them less encouragement and help. Implications of these findings are discussed.
How do parents of different cultural backgrounds understand the task behaviors of their children with disabilities? This issue is at the heart of parental behaviors as well as intervention techniques and programs. Indeed, one might argue that how parents attribute their children's behaviors constitutes an important variable in whether, and how hard, parents work in interventions with their children. Furthermore, parents' expectations have been positively associated with future outcomes of children with disabilities (Ivey, 2004; Mutua, 2001).
One way to understand how parents explain the causes of their child's behavior has been put forth by Weiner's (1986) attribution theory. Within achievement contexts, parents may attribute their child's success or failure to luck, task characteristics, the child's ability, or the child's effort. Parents, however, are more likely to search for causal explanations following a negative outcome, with ability and effort being the predominant perceived causes for a child's failure (Graham, 1990). Ability describes how much a person can do, whereas effort specifies how hard one tries. These two causes are conceptually distinct because they are uniquely related to a distinct set of emotional reactions, which in turn can guide particular behaviors (Graham, 1984). Thus, Weiner's framework allows professionals and educators to infer particular reactions and behaviors from these causal explanations and to understand why parents may interact in a certain way with their child during parent–child interactions or intervention sessions. For example, when parents attribute their child's failure to low ability, one can expect parents to be sympathetic and subsequently to offer help. In contrast, an attribution of low effort may evoke anger, with help often withheld.
The distinctions between ability and effort are also important due to cultural variations in these attributional beliefs. Consistent with Asian cultural beliefs of one's ability as malleable as well as the intrinsic value of effort and hard work (Holloway, 1988), Asian parents generally emphasize the importance of the child's effort (Dandy & Nettlebeck, 2002; Holloway, Kashiwagi, Hess, & Azuma, 1986; Kinlaw, Kurtz-Costes, & Goldman-Fraser, 2001; Phillipson, 2006; Stevenson et al., 1990). Compared to their European American counterparts, Asian American parents tend to place more emphasis on the role of effort. In particular, Asian mothers often believe that academic success is due to effort and thus spend more time helping children with their homework. These parents are also more likely to encourage their child to participate in activities that require high effort (Stevenson et al., 1990). The distinctions between ability and effort, then, may also have important implications for intervention and educational efforts of professionals working with children with disabilities from diverse backgrounds.
Children with Down syndrome present an interesting case example of failures that stem partly from lack of ability and partly from lack of effort. Like all children with intellectual disabilities, children with Down syndrome show lowered mental ages (and language ages; Miller, 1988) relative to their chronological ages. Some children with Down syndrome, when faced with difficult tasks, may show less task persistence (Kasari & Freeman, 2001), resort to social and distracting behaviors (Pitcairn & Wishart, 1994), or engage in social coping strategies with fewer goal-directed behaviors (Jahromi, Gulsrud, & Kasari, 2007). Children with Down syndrome, then, seem to use their social skills in a manner that is disadvantageous to learning.
These social behaviors may also have contributed to the stereotypical view by parents (Ly & Hodapp, 2002) and other adults (Kasari, Mundy, Yirmiya, & Sigman, 1990) of children with Down syndrome as being sociable and displaying more or less a “Down syndrome” personality. As with all children, levels of sociability are expected to vary from one child to another. In the case of children with Down syndrome, parents may view these social behaviors as a result of the child's low ability or leading to the child's low effort.
In addition to the cultural emphasis on the role of effort, parents from Asian backgrounds may also have more difficulty interacting with their child with Down syndrome because of high parental expectations. Compared with their European American counterparts, Asian American parents of typically developing children have higher educational expectations (Goyette & Xie, 1999; Louie, 2001; Okagaki & Frensch, 1998). Such expectations remain unexamined in the case of parents of children with Down syndrome. Thus, compared with European American parents, do Asian American parents of children with Down syndrome have similar educational expectations and beliefs? And if their child does not meet these expectations, do parents make attributions of low ability or of low effort? Do parents also respond— affectively and behaviorally—according to the links described previously? Indeed, with the exception of studies of the attributions of European American parents of children with Prader-Willi and Williams syndromes on one discrete task (Ly & Hodapp, 2005a, 2005b), we do not know the degree to which parental attributions of effort and ability—as well as their reactions of anger and sympathy or their desire to help their children—all go together among parents of children with Down syndrome. Nevertheless, Asian American parents may be differently acculturated to American culture, which then may affect parental reactions and behaviors.
This study combined child characteristics, parental attributions, and culturally related expectations. Asian American and European American parents of a child with Down syndrome were asked to complete a jigsaw puzzle. Parents then evaluated their child's performance and reported their attributions, emotions, and behaviors. The study had two main goals. The first goal examined cultural differences in parents' ratings regarding their expectations, attributions, behaviors, and reactions. Due to the important role of effort and high parental expectations in Asian cultures, I hypothesized that Asian American parents would rate their child's performance less favorably, attribute the performance to lower effort, and react with less sympathy than would European American parents. The second goal explored the links of parental attributions to parental reactions and behaviors as well as intercorrelations of the child and parental variables. I hypothesized that when parents make an attribution of low ability, they would also report feeling sympathetic and offering more help.
Participants included two groups of children with Down syndrome, ages 6 to 18 years, and their parents. Given that the child's chronological age correlated with several outcome variables, except where noted, age was used as a covariate in all subsequent analyses.
There were 26 children in the European American group and 17 children in the Asian American group. Participants were recruited from various sources, such as the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles, regional centers, and parent support groups. Within the Asian American group, there were 8 Chinese Americans, 3 Japanese Americans, 3 Korean Americans, 1 Cambodian, 1 unspecified Southeast Asian, and 1 unspecified Asian. All but 1 parent in the European American group consisted of mothers. The father was not different from mothers in any of the relevant variables. As shown in Table 1, European American and Asian American groups did not differ on any of the relevant child, parent, and family characteristics. There were not any gender differences on any of the relevant variables, except for family income. All girls except one came from families with an annual income of $50,000 or more, χ2(1, 41) = 4.58, p < .05. However, there were approximately equal numbers of girls in the European American group (n = 10) and Asian American group (n = 9).
After agreeing to participate, participants were tested in their homes. To establish an objective baseline of the child's puzzle abilities, children were individually tested and given a puzzle to complete by themselves in 5 min. While their child was being tested in another room, parents provided demographic information (e.g., child's age and parent education) and predicted their child's performance. Asian American parents also completed a questionnaire about their historical background and cultural identity. Parents then interacted with their child in completing another puzzle for 5 min, with the instructions “to interact as you normally would do at home with your child.” After the interaction task, parents again evaluated their child's performance. Children were videotaped completing the puzzle by themselves and while interacting with their parent.
Instruments and Materials
Two different jigsaw puzzles were used to assess the child's objective puzzle abilities and to observe mothers' interactive behaviors. Both puzzles were made of sturdy cardboard, consisting of 24 pieces, depicting pictures of SpongeBob Squarepants and Winnie the Pooh and his friends, with the latter puzzle always being used during the interaction task. Similar jigsaw puzzles have been used with children with different genetic disorders such as Williams syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome (Ly & Hodapp, 2005a, 2005b).
Both puzzles were administered in the same manner. Specifically, participants were shown the picture of the puzzle, which was kept in front of them at all times. The experimenter arranged the 24 pieces in random order, making sure that all pieces were facing upward. Participants were told to put the pieces together as quickly as they could within a 5-min period. The total number of completed pieces in the presence of the experimenter (who gave no help) served as a measure of puzzle ability.
Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test
The Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test (KBIT; Kaufman & Kaufman 1990) was used to assess each child's cognitive functioning. The KBIT is a motor-free screening measure of intelligence that yields verbal, nonverbal, and composite IQ estimates. The KBIT has been used frequently with children with different genetic disabilities (e.g., Ly & Hodapp, 2005a), including children with Down syndrome (e.g., Ly & Hodapp, 2002). Standard scores were used to determine the children's cognitive functioning.
Suinn-Lew Asian Self-Identity Acculturation Scale (SL-ASIA; Suinn, Rickard-Figueroa, Lew, & Vigil, 1987). Given that there is much heterogeneity within the Asian American culture, Asian American parents were given this questionnaire to measure their acculturation status and ethnic identity. The SL-ASIA consists of 21 multiple-choice questions concerning participants' historical background, ethnic identity, and involvement in Asian-related activities. The SL-ASIA has been used extensively in previous research, comparing the effects of acculturation status of Asian groups on various outcome measures (e.g., Cachelin, Weiss, & Garbanati, 2003; Suzuki & Greenfield, 2002). The SL-ASIA yields a total average score, indicating the level of acculturation to Western culture (1 = low acculturation to 5 = high acculturation).
The Asian American parents had a mean score of 2.22 (SD = 0.49). The average total scores ranged from 1.81 to 3.62. Only 2 parents had scores above 2.5. Parents with scores of 1–2 were considered “Asian identified” and scores of 4–5 as “Western identified” (Suzuki & Greenfield, 2002). Scores near 3 are interpreted as bicultural. Thus, Asian American parents in this study were considered to have relatively low acculturation to the Western culture. Furthermore, the level of acculturation did not correlate with any of the outcome measures.
Parents' knowledge of their child's abilities
Before interacting with their child, parents completed a questionnaire assessing the degree to which they were informed about their child's puzzle abilities. Parents rated how often their child played with jigsaw puzzles (1 = rarely; 4 = very often). Parents also rated the degree to which their child found jigsaw puzzles to be easy (1) or difficult (4). t tests revealed no ethnic group differences in parents' ratings of how often their child played with puzzles, t(41) = −0.58, ns, or the degree of difficulty of the puzzles, t(40) = −0.50, ns.
Personality rating questionnaire
This questionnaire was used to assess parents' perceptions of their child's sociability and to determine if the child's sociability related to his or her ability and effort. The questionnaire, developed by Wishart and Johnston (1990), consists of 23 personality characteristics that appear most often in literature describing individuals with Down syndrome. Parents rated the personality traits on a 5-point bipolar rating scale (e.g., outgoing/ withdrawn, temperamental and easily upset/easygoing, or dislike attention/enjoy attention), with the Down syndrome and non–Down syndrome aspects of personality randomly placed on the left or right side of the rating scale. This questionnaire has been used with parents of children with Down syndrome (Hodapp, Ly, Fidler, & Ricci, 2001; Hodapp, Ricci, Ly, & Fidler, 2003). After reverse scoring half of the personality traits, ratings ranged from 1 (least descriptive) to 5 (most descriptive) along the hypothesized Down syndrome characteristics. Thus, total scores ranged from 23 (all 1s) to 115 (all 5s). Higher scores indicated that parents thought their child to be more outgoing, sociable, and cheerful.
Parents' ratings of their child's sociability did not differ between the two ethnic groups, t(41) = 1.28, ns. Correlational analyses revealed that parents' perceptions of their child's sociability did not relate to attributional ratings of ability or effort. Therefore, from the parent's perspective, the child's sociability did not appear to be a result of the child's low ability or to lead to low effort.
Parents rated on a 5-point Likert scale a series of questions after the interaction task. Specifically, they evaluated their child's performance by rating the degree to which their child failed (1) or succeeded ( 5) on the puzzle task, as well as their expectation for future success (1 = very unlikely to 5 = very likely). Parents also rated the degree to which their child's performance was due to ability (1 = low; 5 = high) and effort (1 = low; 5 = high), as well as the importance of ability and effort to their child's performance (1 = low; 5 = high). Parents then rated the degree to which they showed particular emotional and behavioral responses (1 = not at all; 5 = very much so), such as the degree to which they were sympathetic or angry toward their child's performance or blamed their child for the performance. They also indicated the degree to which they provided help and encouragement to their child. This questionnaire has been used with parents of children with different genetic disorders such as Prader-Willi and Williams syndromes (Ly & Hodapp, 2005a, 2005b).
It was also important to measure if parents had similar attributional beliefs concerning a typically developing child of the same age as they did their own child with Down syndrome. Thus, parents completed two additional attributional questionnaires responding to scenarios of a hypothetical, typically developing child who succeeded and failed on a jigsaw puzzle. All of the attributional questionnaires were similar in format and content.
Group Differences in Parents' Attributional Ratings
Four repeated measures analyses of covariance (ANCOVAs) were conducted, with ethnic group as a between-subjects factor, parental ratings as the within-subject factors, and the child's age as the covariate. Specifically, the analyses involved parents' ratings of (a) the child's current and future performance, (b) attributions of ability and effort, (c) behaviors of encouragement and help, and (d) reactions of sympathy, anger, and blame. Higher scores indicate a positive evaluation of the child's performance; thus, ratings of anger and blame were reverse scored. Descriptive statistics for the parents' ratings are presented in Table 2. Overall, there were no interaction effects, with only main effects for ethnic group emerging.
Analyses of parents' evaluation of their child's performance and expectation of future success revealed group differences. Even though children in the two groups did not differ significantly in the number of puzzle pieces completed during the interaction task, t(41) = 1.08, ns, parents in the Asian American group rated their child's performance as less successful (Cohen's d = .67) and had lower expectations for future success (Cohen's d = .68), F(1, 40) = 13.90, p < .001 (see Figure 1). There was also a main effect for parents' evaluations such that parents in both groups were more optimistic about their child's future performance than current performance, F(1, 40) = 3.15, p < .01. In other words, parents expected their child to do better on future jigsaw puzzles.
The second analysis involving attributional ratings revealed that parents did not distinguish between ability and effort, F(1, 40) = 0.44, ns. Figure 1 shows, however, relative to European American parents, Asian American parents attributed their child's performance to lower ability (Cohen's d = .76) and lower effort (Cohen's d = .90), F(1, 40) = 13.76, p < .001. With regard to the third analysis of behavioral ratings, no main effects or interaction effects occurred. Specifically, parents in the two groups did not differ in reporting how much help or encouragement they offered to their child, F(1, 40) = 0.44, ns.
The last analysis concerning affective ratings illustrated striking group differences, F(1, 36) = 13.43, p < .001. Compared to European American parents, Asian American parents reported more anger (Cohen's d = .92) and felt their child was to blame for the performance (Cohen's d = .80). As Table 3 indicates, only 4% of the European American parents showed any anger compared to 41% of the Asian American parents, χ2(1, 43) = 9.46, p < .01. Similar to ratings on anger, only 4% of parents in the European American group placed any blame on the child, whereas 53% of the Asian American parents did, χ2(1, 43) = 13.88, p < .001. Asian American parents also indicated feeling less sympathy (Cohen's d = .74). Specifically, almost all of the European American parents (92%) showed high levels of sympathy (ratings of 4 or 5) compared with only 62% of the Asian American parents, χ2(1, 38) = 5.28, p < .05 (see Table 3).
The effect sizes observed for parents' evaluations of and reactions toward their child's performance ranged from medium to large (Cohen, 1992). These effect sizes indicated that not only were Asian American parents statistically but also clinically different from European American parents on certain aspects of parents' attributional ratings.
To determine if there was a cultural emphasis on effort, a repeated measures ANCOVA was conducted, with the child's age as the covariate and parents' perceived importance of ability and effort attributions as the dependent variables. No main effects or interaction effects emerged. Thus, parents in both groups judged their child's ability and effort as equally important to the performance.
When asked to assess the performance of a typically developing child who succeeded and failed on a jigsaw-puzzle task, parents in the two groups also differed. For the success scenario, a repeated measures ANCOVA, with the child's age as the covariate and parents' attributions of ability and effort as the dependent variables, was conducted. There was only an interaction effect such that parents in both groups had similar ratings of effort attributions, but relative to European American parents (M = 4.42, SD = 0.78), Asian American parents (M = 3.87, SD = 0.92) rated the typically developing child as having lower ability, F(1, 36) = 4.45, p < .05.
For the failure scenario, two repeated measures ANCOVAs were conducted, with ability versus effort attributions and affective reactions as separate dependent variables. Parents' ratings of anger and blame were again reverse scored, with higher scores indicating less anger and less blame. Parents in both groups did not differ on ratings of effort and ability attributions. Similar to the ratings for their child with Down syndrome, Asian American parents differed in their ratings involving sympathy, anger, and blame. Compared with European American parents, Asian American parents indicated less sympathy (Ms = 3.83 vs. 3.13, SDs = 0.96 and 1.02, respectively) and more blame (Ms = 4.17 vs. 3.56, SDs = 0.96 and 1.09, respectively) and more anger (Ms = 4.54 vs. 3.81, SDs = 0.72 and 0.93, respectively) toward a typically developing child who failed on a jigsaw puzzle, F(1, 37) = 8.84, p < .01.
Intracorrelations of Parents' Attributional Ratings
According to Weiner's attribution theory, parents' attributions of effort and ability, reactions of anger and sympathy, and behaviors of help and encouragement are all tied together. Thus, if parents make an attribution of low ability, they are more likely to feel sympathetic and to offer encouragement and help. Conversely, an attribution of low effort would elicit more anger and blame, with parents offering less help. As shown on Table 4, for both European American and Asian American parents, there were no relations between attributions and reactions. In particular, ability attributions did not relate positively with sympathy, nor did effort attributions with anger. Whereas parents who attributed their child's performance to high ability also attributed it to high effort, they nevertheless reported offering more help when the child had low ability. Therefore, for parents of both groups, ability attributions related to helping behaviors. It appears, then, that the hypothesized attribution–reaction– behavior links may not be as clear-cut for parents of children with Down syndrome. Essentially, the only links meaningful to parents in both groups involved ability attributions and helping behaviors.
Within-group differences, however, revealed interesting relations. Among Asian American parents, ratings of encouragement correlated positively with ratings of help. Likewise, ratings of blame related positively with anger. In addition, Asian American parents offered less help when they attributed their child's performance to higher effort. European American parents, in contrast, did not display any of these correlational patterns. In other words, among European American parents, there were no relations between encouragement and help, blame and anger, or help and effort. In contrast to their European American counterparts, Asian American parents were more consistent in their reactions and behaviors (i.e., help with encouragement and anger with blame; see Table 4).
Intercorrelations of Parents' Ratings to Child and Family Variables
To what degree are the links involving attributions, reactions, and behaviors due to cultural differences, as opposed to differences in child or family background variables? Although the child's overall IQ, perceived sociability, and educational level did not relate to parents' attributional ratings, the child's age seemed to play an important role. As expected, older children in both groups were more likely to complete more puzzle pieces by themselves (rs = .44 and .70, ps = .05 and .01, respectively) and with their parents (rs = .37 and .78, ps = .07 and .001, respectively). Likewise, in both groups, parents judged the performance of their older children more favorably and provided them with less help and encouragement.
Among European American parents, the performance of older children was rated as more successful, r(26) = .51, p < .01. European American parents were also more likely to attribute future success toward older children, r(26) = .38, p = .06. Conversely, they offered these older children less encouragement and help, rs(26) = −.47 and −.53, ps < .05 and .01, respectively. Within the European American group, the child's age did not relate to parents' attributions of ability r(26) = .06, ns, or of effort r(26) = .18, ns.
Age correlations were more striking within the Asian American parents. Specifically, Asian American parents rated their older child as being more successful, r(17) = .70, p < .01, and more likely to succeed in the future, r(17) = .51, p < .05. Asian American parents also perceived older children to have higher ability and effort, rs(17) = .55 and .52, ps < .05, respectively): In contrast, with older children, Asian American parents offered less encouragement, r(17) = −.55, p < .05, and less help, r(17) = −.82, p < .001.
Family background variables (e.g., income level, parents' education, and parents' age) also revealed different patterns for the two groups. For example, within the European American group, mothers' education was associated positively with effort, r(26) = .48, p < .01. Similarly, within the European American group, when fathers had higher education, the child's performance was rated as more successful, r(26) = .41, p < .05, with less encouragement offered, r(26) = −.41, p < .05. Parents' educational level within the Asian American group did not relate with any of the attributional ratings. Older mothers within the Asian American group, however, rated their child's performance more favorably, r(17) = .59, p < .01, and indicated less help, encouragement, and anger, rs(17) = −.56, −.52, and .60, ps < .05 and .01, respectively. Last, among those with higher income, European American parents indicated less anger, r(26) = .48, p < .01, whereas Asian American parents reported less sympathy, r(17) = −.61, p < .05.
This study was one of the first to examine the effects of child characteristics and culturally related expectations on parents' attributions of children with Down syndrome. As such, this study went beyond prior findings examining either the effects of disability-related characteristics (e.g., Ly & Hodapp, 2005a) or of cross-cultural attributions involving typically developing children (e.g., Hess, Azuma, Kashiwagi, Holloway, & Wenegrat, 1987; Phillipson, 2006).
This study had two main findings. With medium to large effect sizes, the first finding illustrated striking group differences relating to expectations, attributions, and reactions. Specifically, Asian American parents evaluated their child's performance less favorably and made attributions of low ability and of low effort. These parents also indicated placing more blame on their child and feeling more anger. Interestingly, Asian American parents held similar attributional beliefs toward the performance of a typically developing child.
The other main finding concerned the applicability of attributional links involving attributions, emotions, and behaviors to parents whose child had Down syndrome. Essentially, when faced with attributing causality to children with Down syndrome, parents' attributions were not straightforward and differed by ethnicity. Whereas parents in both groups indicated offering more help when they attributed their child's performance to low ability, Asian American parents also provided more help to children perceived to be low in effort. In addition, positive correlations of encouragement with help and blame with anger were significant in the Asian American group but not in the European American group.
Taken together, when examining parental attributions of their children's performance, these results highlight the importance of looking at ethnic differences. Despite the lack of cultural emphasis on effort, group differences indicated interesting attributional patterns. Essentially, Asian American parents attributed their child's performance to lower ability and lower effort. According to Weiner's (1986) attributional links, these parents would then be expected to exhibit more sympathy but also more anger, respectively. Consistent with the attributional links involving low effort, Asian American parents did not report feeling more sympathetic. Rather, they indicated feeling more anger and placing more blame on the child. These negative affective and behavioral responses are similar to those shown by Chinese parents of typically developing children in the People's Republic of China (Hess, Chang, & McDevitt, 1987). In response to their child's failure, Chinese parents, relative to Chinese American and Caucasian American parents, showed more anger and issued more punishment (Hess et al., 1987).
In response to a child's failure, parents' display of anger or disapproval is not necessarily considered negative. According to Graham (1991), anger and disapproval may serve as attributional cues of low effort. In other words, affective communications of sympathy or anger can be used respectively to infer low ability or low effort (Barker & Graham, 1987; Graham, 1984, 1990; Graham & Weiner, 1991; Stipek, Weiner, & Li, 1989). According to Graham (1991), in response to failure, attributions of low effort (as opposed low ability) may be more adaptive for the child because effort is often controllable. That is, the child has control over how hard he or she tries next time.
Perceived lack of control over one's outcomes may lead to learned helplessness. Children with developmental disabilities, such as those with Down syndrome, have been found to exhibit learned helpless behaviors (Weisz, 1979). Children who show such behaviors do not persist at tasks, lose their motivation to engage in new situations, and are pessimistic about their ability to complete tasks (Dweck, 1989; Elliott & Dweck, 1988). In the case of children with Down syndrome, then, parents, educators, and professionals need to be wary of frustrating or failure situations that may put children at risk for such behaviors.
Research findings pertaining to the positive effects of showing anger and making effort attributions in response to a child's failure also have important implications for professionals working with families of children with disabilities from diverse backgrounds. Intervention programs and psychoeducational services may yield more positive child and family outcomes if they require and assess the child's effort rather than ability. Therefore, children can be encouraged to exert more effort. In the case of children with Down syndrome, intervention efforts may focus on increasing the child's persistence on difficult tasks. Likewise, if parents place importance on effort, they may be more likely to participate in intervention and work harder with their child (Georgiou, 1999; Stevenson et al., 1990).
Another practical implication concerns awareness of cultural expectations, beliefs, and values. Professionals and educators working with children with disabilities need to be aware that ethnic minority families may differ in their expectations of the child. Likewise, they may have different beliefs about parenting styles and educational goals concerning special education and intervention programs (Harry & Kalyanpur, 1994). Families from diverse backgrounds may also have different notions of disabilities and handicapping conditions (Anderson, 1989). Families from Asian cultures, for example, may view disabilities as punishment for previous sins or attribute learning or behavioral difficulties to poor parenting (Chan, 1986). Last, cultural awareness of the pragmatics of communication is also important. Communication styles of Asian Americans are different from those of Eurocentric cultures in that Asian Americans communicate in high-context style where receivers must rely on nonverbal cues and other contextual cues (Leong & Lee, 2006). Therefore, professionals must apply a cultural lens when evaluating the quality and style of parent–child interactions. The traditional modesty or humility seen in some Asian cultures, then, may explain why the Asian American parents in the study rated their child's performance (as well as that of a hypothetical typically developing child) less favorably and reacted in a more disapproving manner. Unawareness of these cultural nuances may create dissonance between direct service providers and families (Harry & Kalyanpur, 1994).
The effects of showing disapproval in response to a child's failure have not been examined among parents of atypically developing children. It is not clear if children, such as those with Down syndrome, have the cognitive capacity to pick up the attributional cues of ability versus effort attributions. Thus, although professionals who work with families from diverse backgrounds cannot deem parental anger and blame in response to a child's failure as negative, more research is needed to generalize to intervention and educational services.
Although there were significant ethnic group differences, similarities between groups highlighted the important role of the child's age on parental ratings. Specifically, when controlling for age, parents in both groups did not differ in their emphasis on effort over ability. The child's age also influenced parents' evaluation of their child's performance and expectations for future success. Because of the effects of the child's age on parents' attributions of ability and effort, the child's age also influenced parents' behavioral ratings of encouragement and help. Thus, in contrast to previous findings (Hess et al., 1987; Stevenson et al., 1990), the relative emphasis on effort is not a cultural-specific finding but one that depends on the child's age.
Despite the importance of understanding ethnic differences in parents' attributional patterns, there are very few studies combining disability and culture. One possible reason pertains to cultural modes of handling disability. Some Asian American families may be unwilling to accept their child's diagnosis and are thus reluctant to use health and social services for their child with disabilities (Ryan & Smith, 1989). Locating Asian American families of children with developmental disabilities can be difficult and may not generalize to the Asian American population. Indeed, as was the case for Ryan and Smith (1989), the hardest part of this study was obtaining a sample of Asian American families of children with Down syndrome.
In conducting ethnic minority (Okazaki & Sue, 2003) and disability research, then, there are several limitations to this study. First, the small sample size limited the ability to systematically examine within-group patterns and differences. It is important to recognize the diversity of Asian American parents in particular and of parents of children with Down syndrome in general. Second, it is not clear if and how the parents who agreed to participate were different from those who declined. Third, participants in this study had to be functionally English speaking to complete the questionnaires. Last, income may play a role in parents' ratings, as a majority of the families in the study had an income of $50,000 or more. Future studies may need to systematically examine the interaction between ethnicity and family income level. Parent variables such as age and educational level also merit further exploration.
Despite these limitations, this study highlights the importance of merging culture and disability. In essence, Asian American parents differed from European American parents on several aspects of their attributional ratings. In particular, Asian American parents attributed their child's performance to lower ability and lower effort and reacted with more blame and anger. Child characteristics—involving the child's cognitive limitations and chronological age—also played an important role in parents' evaluation of their child's performance, attributional ratings of effort and ability, and behavioral ratings of encouragement and help. As researchers begin the process of examining parental attributions in ethnic minority populations, it is important to pay attention to both ethnic differences as well as within-group differences.
This study was based on my postdoctoral research. The support of National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship Grant 0310013 is gratefully acknowledged. I thank the families and individuals with Down syndrome who participated in this research. I am grateful to Robert Hodapp, Connie Kasari, and Sandra Graham for their comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. Portions of this paper were presented at the 2005 American Psychological Association annual convention.
Author: Tran M. Ly, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate School of Education, Los Angeles, California 90095. firstname.lastname@example.org