What parenting teaches us about intercultural learning
Updated: Jul 23
Globalization of migration flows, shifting ideas about ethnicity and race, and intimate relations across ethnic boundaries mean that more and more of us parent children with individuals from an ethnic background different to ours, or in a society different to the one that we were raised in. In some cases, we are doing both. What does it mean to parent children from such diverse backgrounds? How can culture and intercultural learning prepare us to help children navigate the complex cultural realities they will inhabit? And for us as AFSers, how can we foster inter-cultural learning in our parenting, whether for our own children or for our exchange students? What can our children teach us about “learning to live together”?
I have grappled with these questions since I decided to write this article. To gain some inspiration, I conducted a small survey amongst other parents who I knew identified as raising intercultural children. I was quickly flooded with all sorts of input, the topic it seemed, spoke to many of us. I asked about the benefits they perceived such upbringing provided for their children and the challenges that they faced in parenting (you can take the survey here).
Perceived benefits included the capacity for building tolerance, adaptability, empathy and understanding about human diversity, higher emotional IQs, better understanding of the world, and wider horizons. The challenges parents faced included agreeing with partners on education philosophies, conflicting ideas about discipline, dealing with different communication styles, and a general difficulty to agree on how to raise children, balancing exposure to parent’s or family’s cultures and ensuring children’s language acquisition.
The parents’ enthusiasm and shared experiences encouraged me to look further into the research about intercultural parenting. However, while there are some studies that address particular features of intercultural parenting, some of which I will discuss here, there are no longitudinal studies that have looked at the nature of intercultural parenting. The phenomenon is fairly new and the ethics of studying such intimate environments, let alone children, are very complex.
So what could I say about it? Running the risk of self-indulgence, I will offer my experience of parenting my now toddler, who is Colombian, Irish and New Zealand European, in a society that, while becoming my home, is not the one I grew up in. This is not by any means an article about parenting advice, nor is it a set of best practice guidelines or a childcare manual. It is just a reflection about what this experience has taught me about intercultural learning and more specifically about Culture. I am sharing it in the hope that it will resonate with some of you, that it may clarify some concepts for those new to intercultural learning and that it will provide research and resources for parents. May it serve to us all as a space for reflection about what the future holds for next generations in terms of intercultural understanding.
Culture is not universal
It is easy for babies. They can just take hold of life with a cry and a bunch of reflexes. Somehow, they seem to know exactly what they want and how to get it. Becoming a parent is a completely different story. At first, surprise sets in, when our naïve strategies fail. Eventually, we come to realize that raising a child means letting go of our pre-conceptions (literally, the ideas we had before pregnancy!), unlearning what we thought we knew and re-learning what we were once taught.
This was my first re-lesson as a parent. As an anthropology student I had studied the myriads of different ways in which people act, as a parent I had forgotten that there are no universals. Did you know that in Inuit tradition, a new baby was not considered a true human being until he had been offered meat? Or that it is the men of Manus island in the Pacific Islands who care for babies while their mothers work in the Mango groves (Jackson: 2002)?
Have you heard that in Norway it is widely believed that day-care is better for toddlers than staying at home? Or that in Japan 4-year olds can run errands with their slightly older siblings, without parental supervision? Both cultures focus on cultivating independence. Yet in Scandinavia the general framework are democratic child-and-adult relationships. While children are expected to sleep in their own rooms from an early age, the “rights” of children are considered important. Children are usually allowed into their parent’s bed for comfort, even in the middle of the night. Not allowing this can be perceived as denying children’s rights or even acting neglectfully. In Asia, on the other hand, co-sleeping with a family member throughout childhood is common. But within the family obedience is key, not democracy (Choi: 2014). For every rule of parenting that you thought was right and universal, there will be a culture that proves you wrong.
The intercultural comfort in this is the classic “no right, or wrong, just different”. As long as there is love and care in parenting, children develop pretty much the same skills at roughly the same stages. ‘When’ a child learns a skill depends on biology, ‘how’ they learn it depends on culture (Renner: 2016). All these possibilities make us realize that, rather than worry about getting things wrong, we might be better off experimenting and working out what works for our children (Jackson: 2002). Whether they co-sleep, self-settle, bed-share, sleep in their individual rooms from day one, have a beautifully made wooden cot or are in a woven basket they will sleep through the night. Eventually. Thou I am yet to experience such joy 🙂
Yet parenting is universalizing
While there are myriads of ways in which we can raise children, the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, feeding, sleepless nights, experiencing a child’s first steps or words, are all shared features across cultures. I was reminded about this while travelling with my then 10-month-old in a taxi around Bangkok. The taxi driver spoke very little English, let alone any Spanish, and my Thai can be reduced to some badly pronounced “hello” and “thank you”. Yet, after a few games of “Peekaboo”, the driver simply turned around, cell phone in hand, and uttered “Same, same!” The picture of his baby was on the screen. Events like this link our human existence and biology with the “webs of meaning” that is culture.
This discovery has reminded me not to overlook or lose track of our commonalities and shared meanings, in the quest to pinpoint our difference. To continue encouraging AFS program participants to literally “feel for” and put themselves “in the shoes of” others. It has given me hope that these new generations of multi-ethnic individuals will be able to find the intersection between the struggles of the different (and not just ethnic) minorities, and hopefully give voice to them. Because the issues of a few are the issues of us all.
Culture is learnt
Recent studies about brain development demonstrate that babies are the best learning machines in the universe. Babies are the world’s original innovators, constantly conducting experiments and proving hypothesis right or wrong (Renner: 2016). Recent studies also demonstrate that when children are given explicit instructions in their own language about how to use a toy or a tool, and particularly when children think they are being taught, they are more likely to simply reproduce what the adult does. Instead, if children are encouraged to explore for themselves, to test out the world, to be guided by questions like “Mmm, I wonder how this works,” or “Hey, what do you think will happen if…” they are much more likely to come up with innovative and creative solutions and for the learning to really stick (Gopnik: 2016).
If we want to equip children for the new information economy we need to ask open ended questions, to facilitate knowledge sharing, to encourage them to ask more questions rather than expect them to figure out one answer (Gopnik: 2016). We need to see that children, and indeed our participants, are capable of learning about multiple conflicting values, uphold contradicting views, to apply knowledge depending on the context (Rey Vasquez: 2013), and that there are plenty of other influences that will shape their “icebergs”. Indeed, we don’t have to make children, or for that matter our participants, learn. We just have to let them learn (Gopnik: 2016).
Culture is shared
Parenting has also taught me about the importance that family and friends have in our success as parents. Indeed “it takes a village (and in our current reality, a global one), to raise a child” and culture is passed down through the generations. For me, this has reinforced the role that grandparents and elders have in shaping the lives of children, especially when we are trying to pass down the cultural values we were raised with while living in a different society. Grandparents can be a family’s biggest taonga (Maori word for treasure, good or possession), the founders of the family’s love legacy, the best storytellers, the guardians of traditions, parents with years of practice and not as much exhaustion or anxiety.
The Maori word for grandchild is ‘Mokopuna’. The word is made up several words including ‘Moko’, which represents the Maori face Tattoo, and ‘Puna’, flow, spring or fountain. In this way Maori capture the idea that children carry within themselves their ancestors, the traditions, the art, what we celebrate, our cultural identity. Yet they are also the spring that comes forth in the world. It is this sentiment that children bring to our intercultural lives. They are the reflection of the past as well as the look into the future. May we continue to treasure them as such.
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Alice, K. (2002). “Whenua” in Home Birth Aotearoa. Available from http://homebirth.org.nz/your-home-birth/spirit/
Choi, A. (2014). “How cultures around the world think about parenting” in Ted Ideas. Available from: http://ideas.ted.com/how-cultures-around-the-world-think-about-parenting
Gopnik, A. (2016). “What babies know about physics and foreign languages” in The New York times. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/31/opinion/sunday/what-babies-know-about-physics-and-foreign-languages.html?_r=0
Jackson, D. (2002). Baby Wisdom: The World’s Best-kept Secrets for the First Year of Parenting. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Renner, E. (Director). (2016). The Beginning of Life [Motion Picture]. Brazil: Maria Farinha Filmes.
Rey Vasquez, C. (2013). “Opening the lunchbox: What distinction looks like from the playground” in Global Ethnographic (1). Available from http://oicd.net/ge/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Vasquez-C.-Global-Ethnographic-2013-1.pdf