parenting traps

Cultural gaps can cause parent-child conflict

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / May 9, 2002

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No matter what the country of origin, when an immigrant family arrives in the United States, it's not unusual for children to become fluent in English and for parents to just get by. A child typically becomes the interpreter for the family, not just of the language but also of the culture. While there are lots of good things about this, it can also lead to problems, from children carrying an inappropriate burden of responsibility to parents feeling intimidated by a shift of power in the family.

The Lyra family has been lucky. Three years ago, when Romelo and Marize immigrated to Amherst from southeastern Brazil with their 12-year-old daughter, Aline, none of them spoke English. Aline learned it quickly in school and Marize enrolled at the Center for New Americans.

Romelo got a job. He didn't have time for class.

Marize learned English as quickly as her daughter, and she made a point to learn the ins and outs of American culture, too. She knows about peer pressure, MTV, and nose rings. "She hasn't asked for one," she says gratefully of her daughter, now 15. Romelo's lack of English has become an issue, though. It surfaced only recently, when their American-born son, Daniel, 3, teased his father in English, "Romelo, where are you?"

It was a poignant moment. Even though Daddy knows some English and Daniel knows some Portuguese, they don't speak enough of the same language to connect on more than a superficial level. Clinical child psychologist Nicolas Carrasco, who works with Mexican immigrants in Texas, says, "Too many years of not connecting emotionally can cause a real breakdown in a family."

There is also a practical problem for the Lyras. Romelo used to share responsibility for child care. As Daniel gets older, Marize worries, "How can I leave Romelo to take care of Daniel? Maybe Daniel will have a need and he can't say it in Portuguese and my husband can't understand it in English." Hopefully, they will avoid that problem: Romelo has enrolled in an English class.

Lack of language can play out in many ways. A child who becomes the family interpreter may gain a sense of status within the family, says developmental psychologist Raymond Buriel, a professor at Pomona College in California who studies immigrant families. This child also may feel closer to parents because they share so much with her. (Siblings, however, may be jealous.)

On the other hand, having that information can translate to stress and worry for a child, especially if it's about finances, and can lead to resentment when it takes a child away from play - indeed, away from her childhood. "There are limits to what you can expect from a child," Buriel says. Clinical psychologist and best-selling author Mary Pipher urges parents to have an adult cultural broker in addition to their child, especially to help them through school issues like parent-teacher conferences.

Pipher, whose newest book is "In the Middle of Everywhere, The World's Refugees Come to Our Town" (Harcourt), says learning English is the most important thing immigrant parents can do, aside from providing for the family. "Without it, you lose some of your authority and your ability to influence and direct your children," she says.

Not that parents should abandon their language of origin or any other custom or value they hold dear. Instead, make thoughtful decisions, she says, about what to keep and discard from a former culture, including when and where to speak your native tongue, and what to select and reject from the new culture.

Because they want to fit in with their peers, children tend to embrace American values faster than parents, says Jim Ayres, executive director of the Center for New Americans, a support network that serves Amherst, Northampton, and Greenfield.

That can lead to some significant clashes of value systems within a family. Consider, for instance, that parents coming from many cultures in Asia, Africa, and Latin America typically place a higher value on communalism than on individualism. In the typical Latino family, says Buriel, if a child earns money, it belongs to the family. Allowing a child to keep some or giving him an allowance is "symbolic of a loss of a cultural value that places the family as a unit above the child as an individual," he says.

When parents' traditional values prevent children from fitting in, it can be:

A source of conflict. Currasco says this leads parents into a big area of difficulty: discipline. Parents who previously used physical punishment "are paralyzed with fear here that the law could come after them," says Ayres. He even hears of children who threaten, "Don't spank me, I'll call 911!"

Without an understanding of alternative means of discipline, such as time-out or setting limits and imposing consequences, parents tend to punish by isolation: "Go to your room without dinner."

That only serves as a further disconnect from the family, says Pipher. She tells parents to think about reparations: "You missed your curfew, we waited up for you, tomorrow night we will be too tired to cook dinner. You cook. We'll nap."

A source of embarrassment. All teenagers, especially 12- to 14-year-olds, think their parents draw negative attention to them; immigrant children tend to be even more sensitive to this, says Tufts University developmental psychologist David Elkind. Unfortunately, an immigrant parent who senses she is a source of embarrassment tends to withdraw, staying home from a school event, hiding in the presence of a child's friends. This only feeds into a child's embarrassment. Elkind urges parents be open about feelings: " `I know you wish I wouldn't wear a sari. Here's why it matters to me.' "

The more parents talk about their values and their feelings about them, the better.

Pipher, who works with refugee families in Lincoln, Neb., tells of a Laotian father who simply said no when his 12-year-old daughter was invited to a birthday party. "From the tradition of his culture, he felt he would be linked to this family for perpetual gift exchange," she says. "All the daughter wanted was to be with her friends." Once he explained his feelings, the girl was able to interpret them in a way that made her proud rather than ashamed.

Ayres urges parents to negotiate with children and to look for ways to make mutual compromises. "In no way be apologetic for the values or customs you keep, but have an open ear for the struggles of your children," he says.

When teenagers begin to question traditional values ("Why can't I date?" "Why can't I keep money I earn?") it can feel like treason to parents. "It's a loss of loyalty," Pipher says. Many immigrant children manage this by behaving one way at home and another way outside. This cultural switching can be a healthy adaptation, but it can also lead to deceit. Pipher tells of a boy who wanted a black leather jacket to belong to a gang. "He lied," she says. "He told his parents he needed it for school."

Fitting in is ultimately what every parent wants for their children. But at what price?

Marize Lyra's daughter told her recently, "Mom, I feel like I am an American." Marize was startled: "I felt, `Oh my gosh, I don't know if I want her to feel like that! I want her to feel comfortable, but I don't want her to feel exactly like an American.' "

Buriel has some sympathetic advice: "Tell her she's not just any American, she's a Brazilian-American."

Afterthought - Recommended: The "Little Big Book for Grandmothers," edited by Lena Tabori and Alice Wong (Welcome Books), reminds me of a proverbial bag of tricks. With games, songs, rhymes, crafts, stories, and recipes, all intended to do with a grandchild, this could easily become a well-worn and beloved book.

Contact with school might help

1. Just because you try a new custom or parenting technique doesn't mean you have to do it forever. If you try it and don't like it, you can always go back to your previous methods.

2. Clothes can be a big source of conflict. Rather than make arbitrary rules, which a child may disregard once she leaves the house, give her a chance to tell you where and why she wants to wear the clothes. Look for ways to make compromises: she agrees to wear a head covering and you agree she can wear stylish american shoes.

3. Be open with your children about the good and bad of your ethnic traditions.

4. Offer to make a feast or celebration for your children's friends and their parents to introduce them to your family's favorite foods.

5. A child of any age who is being ostracized, bullied, or teased at school because of ethnic differences may not tell you, because she doesn't want to make you feel bad. Be sure to establish a relationship with a teacher or school administrator, even if your English is poor or you feel awkward. When you have a personal relationship, the school is more likely to be able to be helpful.

6. Don't just worry about negative influences on your children, get information from people you trust through channels that already are part of your routine - community or church groups, for instance. Talking to other parents is one way to learn to distinguish disrespectful and troublesome behavior from what is just a cultural difference.

7. Research shows that when parents take an English class, it makes life easier for children, not just because it takes a burden off them, but because it tells them, "English is important for all of us. We all want to belong here."

8. While watching TV is a way to develop an ear for English, the commercials can be confusing for immigrants who aren't yet savvy consumers. "If you turn the TV off, your kids won't want so much," says psychologist Mary Pipher.

9. These are some agencies in Massachusetts serving immigrant parents: Amherst: Boston Center for New Americans, parenting support program, 413-587-0084,; Chelsea: Roca Inc., parents' support network, services in Arabic, French, Khmer, Spanish, and Croatian, 617-889-5210,; Fitchburg: LUK (Let Us Know) Inc., parent support groups in Spanish, 978)-345-0685,; Milford: Milford Family Center, family support service in Portuguese and Spanish, 508-473-8112.

10. A good book for preschoolers about ethnic differences is "Yoko," by Rosemary Wells (Hyperion).
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