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Parenting Challenges across Cultures: Roles, Rules, and Resistance
Cheryl Crippen

Cheryl Crippen

Columnist/Consultant, Cross-Cultural Relations at the Parent Voice, Magazine
Cheryl is an educator and consultant who specializes in cross-cultural relations. Read more under 'Columnists".
Cheryl Crippen

There are two precipitous drops in relational satisfaction for most couples: after the arrival of their first child and later during the turbulent teen years.

For intercultural couples, these transitions can activate latent cultural values and norms that take on significance in childrearing. In my previous column, I presented dimensions of conflict for intercultural couples as they navigate early parenting decisions related to naming, discipline, and food. As children develop and parents gain experience in cultural negotiation, new challenges and resistance emerge in the implicit rules surrounding education and family roles related to adolescents, parents, and extended families.

Intercultural Parenting 

Educational Goals

In my interviews with intercultural parents, most reported that it didn’t occur to them to discuss their expectations about education before having children, especially since they generally married someone from a similar level of educational attainment. However, cultural norms about the purpose, structure, and expected outcomes of education vary considerably. Parents from Ghana, the United States, and Korea shared their views:

Beatrice [Ghana]: I am leaning toward a really small type school and I know [my Texan husband] thinks that is really weird… In Ghana, kids go away to boarding school early, like age 6, but he would never go for that. It’s just too different from what is normal here [in the United States].

In Ghana, kids go to boarding school. My American husband would never go for that. Click To Tweet

Isabelle [U.S.]: A big [conflict] was homeschooling…I don’t think there are any Korean-American families that homeschool. But we had to sit down and think about what we want out of an education for our kids. And some of those things were hard for Richard because I think the Korean drive to excel academically means you don’t do something weird like homeschooling. Like, “What are other people going to think?” And the outside validation of what is your kid learning…if they don’t have a straight-A report card to show someone, it’s as if it doesn’t count. I really don’t understand that, since I was raised with the message that learning is more important than the grade.

The Korean drive to excel academically means you don’t do something weird like homeschooling. Click To Tweet

Richard [Korea]: Well, if you have grades, or if you are on a list, or you are in this advanced class, then everyone sees that. But if you are in your own home, no one knows. So, for me, that is a hard thing to give up. 




Adolescent Autonomy

Intercultural parents of teenagers frequently cite discord surrounding discrepant cultural norms, rules, and expectations about the appropriate age of autonomy, freedom, and decreased supervision.

This conflict between intercultural parents is compounded by developmentally typical American teen resistance, which enables the adolescent to become aligned more with the norms of one parent over the other (i.e. the parent that values greater teen autonomy).

Sandra [Peru]: My [American] husband was allowed more freedom when he was their age. I have talks with my husband and he thinks they have to experience failure, but I think you can’t let them have failure that disables them and prevents them from having success later. I’m still a little more protective because this is the age where they can get into trouble. Things happen in our community when kids are unsupervised not because of lack of money or time, but probably because of the assumption that they are old enough to know what to do. I have an opinion about that and it is a very strong one. They need to be supervised. I have noticed that many American families in our neighborhood are very lenient about that, and children get into a lot of trouble.

Shana [U.S.]: Daily living in the US is just really different from the village [in Uruguay] that my husband grew up in. So even though he has lived here for 14 years, he still has the perception that things are safer than they are. He definitely sees the kids being more independent, and I see them as young pre-teens that need constant supervision. We argue about this constantly, and our sons think he is the “cooler parent” because of this.

My Uruguayan husband sees our pre-teens as being independent. I (US) think they need constant supervision. Click To Tweet

Charlotte [England]: We have very different attitudes toward childrearing… [my Nigerian husband] thinks they should have a responsibility from a very early age, and they should be taught about money, and responsibility and they should have chores, …And I’m always saying, “They are just children.” And he doesn’t have that concept that a childhood is carefree, no responsibility in life… To him, you have responsibilities the minute you are born. And in his culture, children have to help out, they do the chores and do whatever they are told to do, and be seen and not heard.

My Nigerian husband has no concept that childhood is carefree. Click To Tweet

Parent Roles

Implicit cultural rules about the division of labor, gender roles, and the primacy of the child in relation to the spouse are other areas of conflict and resistance that emerge for intercultural parents as their children develop.

Samantha [U.S.]: What I discovered in Antonio’s [Spanish] family is that the men can do anything they want and the women have to follow the rules. For example, I knew the men in his family were spoiled and domestically fairly helpless and could sit around watching television while the women do all the food preparation and cleaning…And it’s not about tasks because my brother-in-law will come in and cook a gourmet meal. It’s about rules and who can break them. Males have the right to do whatever they want to do, but not females. We have to tow the line. And I worry about the message that sends to our daughter.

In my husband’s Spanish culture, men can do whatever they want. I worry about the message this sends our daughter.

Charlotte [England]: I was concerned about what was being modeled to [my son] regarding gender roles that the men sit down and are waited on and the women do all the serving and do all the chores. And I do think that is in Ola’s mindset, no matter how much he knows that I am not a Nigerian woman, and this isn’t the way we live here, I still think that is an expectation that is there.

Anastasia [Russia]: In Russia, the child is most important for you, child is number one. In America, [mothers] try to balance husband and child and self. In Russia, you sacrifice everything for your child. For me, as soon as my son was born, my husband didn’t exist for me and I didn’t see that at the time…I realized that women in Russia treat their children kind of like extensions of themselves and the husbands become much less important. My [American] husband doesn’t understand why he doesn’t come first.

For me (Russian), as soon as my son was born, my husband (US) didn’t exist for me Click To Tweet.



Centrality (or not) of Extended Families

Finally, culturally blended families include different expectations about the role of the extended family and grandparents in childrearing. This presents both opportunities and challenges for couples who were raised with collectivistic and individualistic orientations respectively. Zinzi and Tad shared their perspectives on this dynamic:

Zinzi [Zaire]: Not having my family close by is really difficult for me and so I have proposed many times that “You know, it’s really hard, really difficult with school and work, and we don’t have time for ourselves, and my parents would love to watch, keep Amani for us even if it is for a few months [in Zaire].” And she could stay with them and be exposed to her African heritage, and we could go see her in the summer. But see that is my African perspective… [My husband] sees us as the primary caregivers and I see the entire family is involved. For him, it is like sending our daughter AWAY, and I see it as sending her TO my family.

I am not sending our daughter AWAY from us. I am sending her TO my family in Zaire. Click To Tweet

Tad [U.S.]: I think it would be traumatic for Amani at this age [7 years old] to be separated from us. She has never been apart from us, and I can’t imagine just leaving her in Africa even with her grandparents. She has never met them; in fact, I have never met the entire family, and we aren’t going to just ship our daughter off to Africa! I believe that since we have children, it is our responsibility to raise them. I have a serious problem with sending Amani to another country.

It’s not that I distrust Zinzi’s family…I just personally believe that this couldn’t possibly be good for Amani’s perceptions of her worth to us, and of our love for her. Sending her away like that would make her feel unwanted, especially since that is not the typical practice here in the United States. In fact, the reason that we don’t have her in daycare and I stay home with her instead of working full-time, is because we value our role in being the primary care providers in her life. It seems to me that in Zinzi’s culture, the extended family can be considered equal to the Western notion of the nuclear family. The problem is that I wasn’t raised with that notion and it is difficult for me to accept.

How do intercultural parents resolve these seemingly intractable conflicts? Next month I will present techniques for couples to engage in cultural dialogues to enhance their understanding and navigation of diversity within families.

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Cheryl is an educator and consultant who specializes in cross-cultural relations. Read more under ‘Columnists”.

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