Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Parenting from an Immigrant Perspective

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star…" I sang. After about the 20th rendition, my 5-month-old son dozed off in my arms. "Twinkle, twinkle" was my stand-in, night after night, for lullabies I should know, but did not. And that was the least of the shortcomings that seemed to be facing my husband and myself.

"Young parents learn about the aims and methods for raising their children from ancient traditions and from having the extended family nearby for advice and help," say Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Steven Parker in their book, Baby and Child Care. How true, I thought, and how unfortunate for us. We were new parents and first generation immigrants raising our son far away from our families.

Our own parents raised us under the watchful eye of our grandparents, aunts and uncles. Further informing their endeavor was the broader culture, where generations of ancestors had come of age and whose parameters were intimately familiar to our parents. For our part, as children, imbibing traditions and family history was not a matter of choice; it was taken for granted because we were immersed in it.

What were our parenting aims and methods to be? How would we fill the void created by the physical distance of our extended family? How would we achieve a balance between staying connected to our Indian roots and becoming integrated in the culture of our chosen home? Is there even such a thing? If there is, how would we go about integrating elements of our family histories, traditions and rituals into our son's upbringing?

With the nuclear model of the family being the norm, nonimmigrants face many of the same issues as immigrant parents (with single parents often facing some of the toughest obstacles). However, immigrant parents face additional hurdles on the parenting track.

There is a "discontinuity between their cultural and social capital with that of the mainstream culture and institutions," say Cynthia Garcia Coll and Lee M. Pachter, two sociology professors who have studied the issue of ethnic and minority parenting. This is particularly true of non-Caucasian immigrants. Moreover, in many cases, extended families are so far away, and the journeys so expensive, that visits can be arranged only once every couple of years, if that.

We were incredibly lucky that my parents stayed with us for three months when our son was born. They taught me, by example, that silly games are the building blocks of child development and that talking "baby talk" to a child is an absolute requirement. When my in-laws came for a short visit, I learned even more. Eventually, they returned to their lives in India, to other children and their circle of relatives, friends and activities.

The panic attacks that followed their departure, however, were tempered by an illuminating thought — we were not alone.

In just the last 10 years, according to the US Census Bureau, slightly over 13 million immigrants arrived in the United States. Although their reasons for coming to settle here vary widely -- from seeking better economic conditions to escaping persecution — they all eventually face the same issues: getting an education, finding jobs and, most importantly, raising children here. How do they handle the issues that confronted me and, quite conceivably, every first generation immigrant parent?

With ingenuity, I learned. And by treating tricky problems as opportunities to learn and grow in a new society, right alongside their children.

"Not being able to turn to someone like your own mom for simple things" was very difficult initially when the children were small, says Beatriz Benitos, an immigrant from Bolivia. Beatriz runs Integrity Home Cleaning Services in Northern Virginia. Formerly an unemployed divorced mother of three, she is smartly dressed in a suit and looks every inch the businesswoman she has become.

But, she is quick to add, she had to be resourceful. "There is always a solution; it's just a matter of looking for it, finding a way."

Finding Support
She read a lot because she needed to learn, not only about her culture, she says, but also about the new culture in which she was going to make a home. She found the support she needed — church, friends and parenting classes at the local community center. She remembers a friend who was "almost like a mother" to her. Although she raised her three children (now 18, 16 and 13) as a single mother, she gratefully acknowledges that she did not raise them on her own.

"If I didn't have a support system, I made one available to me," echoes Archana (who asked that her last name not be used), as we sat in her warm kitchen in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood in Burke. Her homage to her dual heritage, an American with Indian roots, was clearly evident — spice jars shared shelf space with boxes of pasta, and images of Hindu deities shared the countertop with her microwave.

Together with her husband, she raised three daughters, now aged 24, 21 and 18. Initially, she said, she missed her family so much, especially when she was carrying her first child, that she went back to India to stay with her parents and have her baby there.

Once she returned, with a 2-month-old baby in tow, she began creating a support system for herself. She made friends quickly, among immigrants and nonimmigrants alike, tapping into the community and resources at the temple wherever she lived (they moved frequently). And it was this diverse circle of friends that she looked to for answers when cultural issues, foreign to her upbringing, stumped her.

Sex education in schools, for example. She would have preferred to wait until she thought her daughters were ready to discuss the issue, but she had no choice. Because sex education is part of the fourth or the fifth grade curriculum, "our hands were forced; we had to start talking to them." Maintaining their innocence and "tomboyishness" in the face of the knowledge they were gaining was tough, she says.

Beatriz recounts a similar problem. When her daughter reached school age, she wanted to sleep over at her friends' houses, a concept completely unfamiliar to Beatriz. "It was a constant struggle," she says. Back in Bolivia, Beatriz was not allowed to sleep out, even at her grandparents' house. She worked around the problem by having most of the sleep-overs at her house. On the rare occasions when she did allow her daughter to sleep out, she got to know the hosts parents in advance so she would feel comfortable.

When Archana turned to her American and Indian friends for advice about the sex education issue, they convinced her that it was better that children were educated about sex by their teachers in a scientific way, rather than by "their friends in a twisted way." Now, in retrospect, she is grateful for this education process — a combination of learning in school and communication between parents and children at home — and believes it has served her daughters well.

She also credits the school system's discouragement of spanking for the excellent communication she and her husband still enjoy with their grown daughters. Instead of spanking in order to discipline, they learned to talk to their children to hash out problems, she says.

Keeping in Touch
In the absence of frequent visits with family, open communication is vital for passing on family history to their children, agree Beatriz and Archana. "I strongly believe in letting them know about their family and background," says Beatriz. She talks to them at the dinner table about their family and about how she grew up. She took her children to Bolivia once to meet their family. "They were amazed" at the size of the family, she laughs. She has arranged for her parents to visit here just so they could spend time with their grandchildren.

Archana talks to her daughters about the "whys" of Hindu traditions and rituals as they observe them at home. She is also conscientious about cooking Indian dishes regularly. She has developed an elaborate family tree and tries to arrange visits to India once every two or three years so the children can develop and maintain a rapport with their cousins. In many ways, her nieces and nephews back in India are more westernized than her own children, says Archana with more than a hint of pride in her voice.

Family photographs also play an important role in keeping children connected to their roots. Beatriz uses them when she is talking to her children. Archana displays photographs of her parents and her in-laws on the wall across from her children's bedrooms. She imagines her children being blessed by the elders every morning as they walk out of their rooms.

While their children learn about their family's culture and history at home, the parents are equally involved in their children's activities outside the home. Beatriz volunteers at her children's schools and at her church. One of her sons also volunteers his time to the church and to the older residents of their neighborhood. Archana volunteers at a local homeless shelter, runs an Indian folk dance group for children at her temple and participates in the diversity programs in the local public libraries.

The Melting Pot
They also celebrate uniquely American traditions in their homes. Archana's family and a group of close family friends get together every year for "Thanksgiving Potluck." "We did not have that in Bolivia, but here there is a special day. We love that holiday," says Beatriz, obviously delighted at the concept. Now, she and her children get together with her brother's family (who recently moved to America) every year for Thanksgiving. She initially introduced that holiday to her family so that "when the children went back to school on Monday, they have something to talk about….They have to be a part of their school, our community; they have to belong somewhere."

Archana expresses a similar reasoning for putting up a Christmas tree in her house every year. She not only wanted to inculcate respect for other religions in her children, but also did not want her children to feel left out during the holidays. But rather than giving each other gifts, the family puts off purchasing important items during the year so that they can get them at Christmas, "and everybody is happy."

In spite of all the disadvantages they have faced over the years, Beatriz and Archana point out advantages of raising children here. Because of fewer social commitments with relatives, says Archana, they were able to devote more time to their children. Children are also more active here, participating in many activities outside of school. For Beatriz, "It's the freedom that you have to raise your children how you like to raise them…with your own beliefs."
"Don't worry, you'll do fine," are Archana's parting words to me.

"If you have your strong beliefs and your values, you can raise your kids wherever you are," says Beatriz. I figure that's good advice from a generation who's "been there, done that."

Beatriz and Archana's stories reflect resolve and resourcefulness. They mirror those of millions of immigrants who have allowed their pasts to educate their futures, creating generations of citizens that straddle diverse traditions and strengthen America's cultural fabric. I hope to someday share in the achievement of these parents of well-adjusted children who lay claim, in equal measure, to their heritage as children of immigrants and their destiny as citizens of America.

A version of this article appeared in Washington Parent magazine and in Vijay Times, Bangalore.

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