School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron
Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
To accompany Chapter 6
Before we begin our discussion of parenting in various cultures, we should define the term "culture."  According to the American Heritage Dictionary, culture is defined as, "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or peculiar to a society or class."
Another definition would be, "the sum total of the attainments and learned behavior patterns of a specific people, regarded as expressing a traditional way of life" (Hamner & Turner, 1999).  Both these definitions stress the idea of a common culture, that all of us in the U.S., no matter what our ethnic heritage, have many things in common that make us a unified group.  Even though the United States is made up of many, many different subcultures, there are many beliefs, ideas and experiences which are shared by most everyone.  Some of these shared experiences would be things like going to school for the first time, the belief that hard work leads to success, wanting to get married or be in a committed relationship, the desire to have children, going on a first date, getting a driver's license.
There are also events that happen in our society that capture our attention and that we have in common - for example, the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the day President Kennedy was shot, the day Martin Luther King was shot, Baby Jessica
in the well.  More recently, events like the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, and the electrical blackout from New York to Detroit in the summer of 2003 are those type of incidents that make people say, "I remember where I was when. . . ."
But even though we are all part of the larger culture, there are differences in how individuals and families in the various subcultures experience life.  These differences contribute to our individuality and uniqueness.  In these notes, we will look at some of the similarities and differences in parenting in African-American, Hispanic-American, Native American, and Asian-American families.  Before we begin, we need to understand that the while the facts of some individuals' lives are not always fair and positive, this does not mean that groups of people should be judged negatively simply because they belong to a particular ethnic group. The fact is that individuals who belong to minority groups in the U.S. are much more likely to experience poverty in this country, and poverty leads to a great many of the social problems that we have today.
The Children's Defense Fund recently conducted a study comparing African-American and white children in America.  This study found that African American children are
twice as likely as white children to:
     - have neither parent employed
     - live in institutions
three times as likely to:
     - be poor
     - live with a parent who has separated from a spouse
     - live in a female-headed family
     - be in foster care
five times as likely to:
     - be dependent on public assistance
twelve times as likely to:
     - live with a parent who never married.
While these are distressing facts, it is important to keep in mind that millions of African American families are not on public assistance, have children who stay in school and out of trouble, and do not get pregnant, and if they experience difficult times, find a way to overcome their problems.  In 1967, Martin Luther King reflected on the black family and gave the following caution: "As public awareness of the predicament of the black family increases, there will be danger and opportunity.  The opportunity will be to deal fully rather than haphazardly with the problem as a whole, as a social catastrophe brought on by long years of oppression.  We need to develop resources to combat the oppression.  The danger is that the problems will be attributed to innate black weaknesses and used to justify further neglect and to rationalize continued oppression."  While much progress has been made in this area, African Americans still deal with discrimination in our society.
There have been many changes in the lives of African Americans during the past 30 years - a rise in the number of poor families, but also an increase in the number of middle class African-American families, and the steady decrease in the blue collar working class.  If we examine some of the reasons for this, we can see that these changes have occurred not
because of something within African Americans themselves, but because of changes in our economy and society in general.
A little history here - when Lyndon Johnson became president in 1963 upon the death of President Kennedy, one of his primary goals was to eradicate poverty.  No other president has initiated as much legislation designed to help people overcome poverty as Johnson did.  He began the Head Start program, which has been very successful at helping disadvantaged children have a "head start" and catch up to their more fortunate peers as far as cognitive, physical and social development is concerned.
Once Johnson's programs became enacted we saw a decrease in the number of people living in poverty, and more jobs available so that more people were able to support their families and feel positively about their role in society.  Johnson's programs contributed to the child poverty rate going from about 27% in the early 1960s down to 14% when he left
office in 1969.  This decrease in the poverty rate and increase in self-sufficiency lasted until the 1980s when many of those social programs were dismantled or cut drastically.  At this point, we have a child poverty rate of about 20%.  It started going up during the 1980s, went down some in the 1990s and started creeping back up with the weak economy of the early 2000s.
During the same years that those government programs were being instituted to help the poor, we also had an expanding economy (lots of jobs), and more educational opportunity for everyone, which was particularly beneficial to individuals and families in minority groups in the U.S.  The "boost" that people got from all these resources is a major reason that we saw an increase in the number of African American middle class families.
The demise of blue collar jobs has come about because much of the manufacturing that we used to do in this country has moved to other countries.  Corporations want to have the cheapest labor possible, and as companies began moving their operations to places where the labor is extremely cheap, jobs were lost in the U.S.  We have also seen a rise in the use of automated labor, which also contributed to the loss of jobs.  These factory jobs were the backbone of our country for a long time.  When my dad was raising his family, he went to work for one of the rubber companies here in Akron.  In fact, most of
the men in both my dad's and my mom's family worked for the rubber companies, and many of these guys worked there for 30-40 years before retiring.  They were fortunate to be able to have a secure, if not highly paid, job that could support a family.  As a child growing up in Akron, I used to complain about the smell of the rubber factories.  My dad would gently remind me that that was a good smell because it meant that "people are working."  Those factory jobs were providing a living for thousands of workers for many decades.
When those jobs which did not require a college degree began to disappear, many families moved into the ranks of the poor.  Because people belonging to minority groups tend to get the short end of the stick in this country anyway, they tended to be more adversely affected by this than white workers. People belonging to minority groups are often the first to get fired, it is harder for them to find another job, and they are less likely to get financial credit to get back on their feet.
Thus, we saw the demise of the blue collar working class within the African American culture.  At this time African American males are three times as likely to be unemployed as white males, have a median family income that is about 57% of white families', and have less education.  All of these things make it difficult to get ahead or even stay afloat.
From slavery through segregation to present-day discrimination, African Americans have waged a long battle in the U.S. for justice and equality.  Even after slavery was ended and African Americans had won certain fundamental rights, like the right to vote, they faced pressures to keep them from exercising their rights.  While everyone today is guaranteed certain rights in our society, there is still some pressure and discouragement of minority groups to exercise their rights.  An example of this that only recently changed deals with voting.  In the early 1990s I worked at a social service agency.  One of my co-workers, an African American woman, and I were talking one day about having gone to vote that morning before work.  At that time I lived in a predominately white neighborhood, and she lived in a predominately African American neighborhood.  I talked about the fact that it was very easy to vote, since the voting booth was very near my home (and this was the case for predominately white neighborhoods all over the county).  She told me that in order to vote, she had to take two buses to her voting booth (and said that that was not an unusual situation for other African Americans in our area).  After bringing up this subject with several other people, I found that this was a common situation.  While more recently this situation has improved, it points out the idea that even though we all have the same rights regarding voting, it was much more difficult for African Americans to take advantage of that right than it was for whites.
We can't deny that discrimination against minorities has a great deal to do with why they are disproportionately represented among the less advantaged.  For example, even when African Americans have the same amount of education as whites, this doesn't translate to equal incomes or equal consideration for jobs.  The economic problems of African American families mean that the black male has a tough time fulfilling his role as a provider and contributor to his family's well being.  As mentioned earlier, African American men are more likely than white men to be unemployed or be in the lower income brackets.  Added to that is the problem that when husband and wife have different levels of education, the husband is likely to be more educated than the wife in white marriages, while the wife is likely to be better educated in African American marriages.  Overall, African American wives provide a greater proportion of income to their families than do white wives.  This can cause strain, because one of the values we still hold to in our society is the idea that the husband should be a good provider.  To some extent we also still hold the value that the husband should earn more money than the wife.
It has been found that as economic problems in African American families diminish, African American husbands and fathers assume a more active role in family life.  The African American father in a family who is not having economic problems is more involved with teaching his children and making child rearing decisions.  It has also been found that African American fathers, more than those of other races, try to socialize daughters to be competent and independent at an early age.
When we look at young people, we find that middle class white kids and middle class African American kids have very similar values and attitudes.  Same with individuals from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale and individuals from the upper end.  In other words, our position in society with regard to socioeconomics has a very strong impact on our attitudes and lives.
  We have a tendency in our society to focus on the negative situations that African American families find themselves in rather than looking at the strengths of African American families.  While there are many risks to the healthy development of African American children, these are not present for all African American children.  In actuality, researchers have not looked very extensively at the diversity within African American families themselves until recently. 
One finding that is interesting about black single parent families is that when compared with white single parent families, the African American family is actually better able to cope with their situation and felt more positive about parenting and the fact that their children added satisfaction to their lives (Jacobsen, Brooke, and Binger, 1991).  There are several possible reasons for this - 1) there is a greater acceptance of single parenthood among African American families; 2) there is greater extended family support, and 3) children are not seen in a negative way when they are born to a single parent mom (less likely to be referred to as "illegitimate" or treated any differently than children born to married parents).
When we look at two-parent African American families, there is likely to be a greater amount of equality between the spouses than between the spouses in white families.  Interestingly, African Americans tend to be more traditional in their ideology about family life but more egalitarian in practice.  This egalitarianism results in part from the fact that African American husbands are more likely than white husbands to approve of their wives working.  African American women actually have a more consistent history of being employed than do white women; both African American husbands and African American wives have an expectation that the wife will work.  Another advantage that African Americans seem to have over white families comes at the time when children are grown and leave home.  African American moms are less likely to have "empty nest syndrome" than white moms.
As far as the actual parenting of their children, African American parents expect independence from their children at an earlier age than white parents, with daughters being expected to handle family responsibilities at an earlier age than daughters in white families.  Because African American children are more likely than white children to be raised by a single parent mom, the influence of the peer group for these children is very significant.  Dating tends to begin earlier for African American kids, and sexual activity begins earlier also.
Education is important to African American parents; they tend to see education as a way for their children to avoid poverty and have more equal opportunities in the workplace.  Until recently, African American children had a higher drop out rate than white children and were less likely to enter or finish college.  Over the past few years, the dropout rates for African American and white children have become pretty much equal.  However, white children are still more likely than African American children to attend college.  African American males have more difficulties in school than white students or than African American females - one study found that teachers tend to favor white girl students, then white boy students, then African American girl students, and lastly, African American boy students.  In fact, teachers had the least expectations of and didn't see much potential in, African American males.
One of the most important resources and supports for African American parents is the support system provided by their friends, relatives and neighbors.  A major coping strategy in the face of difficulties is the kin network present in African American families.  Support given by extended family and friends includes help with finances, help in making important decisions, providing clothing, food, transportation.  The church within the black community is also a source of support and assistance.
As mentioned earlier, discrimination and economic deprivation in African American families are primary factors in the problems these families face.  Many have suggested that in order for the lives of African American children to improve, we need to have a national commitment to work toward full employment, a guaranteed minimum income, high quality affordable child care, meaningful education, decent housing, and health care for all.  Obviously, parents who have jobs, know that their children have educational opportunities equal to everyone else's, and have adequate health care coverage are going to be better able to parent their children well.  These are rights and opportunities that everyone deserves.
To sum up, research shows that there are some characteristics that are common in African American families:
  • Feeling orientation
  • People orientation
  • Proficiency in nonverbal communication skills
  • High degree of human interaction
  • Biculturation
  • Multiple environmental stimuli
Many of the problem situations that African American families face are also faced by Hispanic American families - more likely to live in poverty, lower educational levels, living in crime ridden neighborhoods.  However, even though Hispanic American families are poorer on average, than white families, they are not as poor as African American families.  As of 2003, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the U.S., comprising slightly higher numbers than African Americans.  Hispanic American family income is about 70% that of white families (African American families' is about 57% of white families).
Hispanic American women tend to marry a little later than either African American or white women, and tend to have lower marital/family satisfaction over the years, even though there are less conflicts between Hispanic spouses than between African American or white married couples.  Hispanic marriages are also less likely than African American marriages to end in divorce.
Within Hispanic American families, the stereotype tends to be of the dominant husband/father and the more submissive wife/mother.  Research, however, has failed to support this stereotype, and in fact, has found much egalitarianism in Hispanic families regarding family decisions and household behavior.  Hispanic American fathers help with family work, including child care, enjoy family activities more than spending time with other males, and are playful and companionable with their children rather than stern and authoritarian.  Fathers in Hispanic American families, however, are accorded respect and
deference because of their position in the family as the father.
Hispanic American families, like African American families, tend to have closer bonds with extended family than white families do.  Hispanic American families are more likely to have co-parents, such as godparents, who offer both emotional and financial support.  This wide range of family members to count on for support allows the Hispanic American family to cope with the demands of an often hostile environment.  Hispanic American families are more likely to look within the family (both immediate and extended) for help with problems rather than go outside the family; this help and advice is often sought from older members of the family, with respect being given to the older members of the family.
Hispanic American families tend to accept children for who they are and tend to be relaxed about when children achieve developmental milestones.  Unlike African American families, who encourage independence and decision making at a fairly early age, Hispanic American families are more laissez-faire about these things, waiting longer to give children responsibilities.  Hispanic American mothers tend to be closer to their daughters, but sons are given more freedom and are pampered more, particularly in adolescence.  Female children are more likely to be encouraged to stay close to home, while male children are encouraged to "go out and have experiences in the world."
To sum up, research has found that there are some characteristics that are common in Hispanic American families:
  •      Strong family ties
  •      Involvement in kin networks
  •      Emotional support
  •      Two-parent participation in child rearing
  •      Mutual aid, respect, affection
  •      Differences in child rearing according to gender of the child
  •      Deference and respect given to fathers
There are about 2,000,000 Native Americans living in the U.S. at this time, and the expectation is that that number will more than double in the next 30 or so years.  Most Native Americans are concentrated in five states: New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington.
About 30% of Native American families are headed by single parent moms.  About half of Native American households include extended family and about 25% include people who are not related to the family. Native American families are among the poorest in our country, with the median income being 71% of the median income for the general population.  While there are some commonalities among Native Americans with regard to income, there are also many differences between Native American groups.  For example, there are many fewer poor people living on the Hopi reservation than on the Pine Ridge reservation.  Alcoholism is more of a problem among Native Americans than among other minority groups; the infant mortality rate is twice the national average; and one third of Native Americans are illiterate.
Among Native Americans, the family is the basic unit of society and community.  For Native Americans, tribal identity is very important and is a factor in the self concept of Native American children.  For Native Americans, the extended family is important but is viewed differently than the extended family networks of other minority groups.  Extended family networks among Native Americans are structurally open, and are composed of clans, which include several households of relatives.  "Family" is defined in terms of household composition, second cousins, and clan membership.  There are traditional relational networks which offer assistance and nurturance.  Children are socialized into adulthood through membership in the clan and through the teachings of the extended family network.
Common values among tribal families are tribal loyalty, respect for elders, humility, avoidance of personal glory, giving and sharing, and love of the land.  Native Americans have respect for nature and believe in working with nature rather than fighting or trying to control it.  Family values include responsibility, courage, patience, optimism, and contentment.  This contentment comes from a feeling of oneness with nature and life, a spiritual awareness through living in harmony with all of nature.
Native American child rearing practices are shaped by their world views, which regard children as beloved gifts.  Rather than seeing children as a chore or people who must be "dealt with", Native Americans genuinely enjoy caring for and playing with their children.  Like Hispanic American families, Native American families are fairly relaxed about developmental milestones, believing that they will happen when they are ready.  It would be unusual to find a Native American parent working with their child with flash cards, trying to encourage the child to be an early reader, for example.
Children are reared and socialized in an atmosphere that exposes them to a large number of people - parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.  Not only does the mother provide child rearing, but also aunts and grandmothers.  Grandparents tell the children stories about their heritage so that cultural beliefs and values are passed on.
Physical punishment is unusual in Native American families, as is yelling at children.  Discipline generally is based on the "natural consequences" idea rather than specific punishments for specific acts.  Children are encouraged to understand how their behavior has an impact on other people and behave accordingly.
To sum up, characteristics of Native American families include:
  •      High poverty rates
  •      Diverse roles, values and relationships across tribes
  •      Family is the basic unit of society and community
  •      Family includes household residents, extended family, and clan members
  •      Relational networks support and nurture strong bonds of mutual assistance and affection
  •      Elders provide guidance and wisdom
  •      Many individuals participate in child rearing
  •      Living in harmony with nature is valued
  •      Participation in tribal ceremonies and rites of passage
  •      Group-oriented philosophy
Traditional Asian culture tends to influence the nature of family life among Asian Americans.  In traditional Asian culture, the individual's needs are subordinated to the group's needs, and so Asian Americans are likely to socialize their children into the values of obedience, loyalty, and self-control.  Also, Asian American parents instill a high value in education.  Traditional Asian culture elevates the male over the female, with the father expected to be the breadwinner, and the wife expected to manage the children and the home.  Wives are expected to defer to their husband's wishes, and children are expected to defer to their parents' wishes.
However, these traditional values, like the traditional values of other minorities, are changing as Asian Americans become more acculturated.  Also, depending on where Asian Americans have settled and on when they emigrated to the United States, there are differences in the attitudes and behaviors of families.
In Chinese American families, the extended family is still important as a source of social support, but is less important than it was previously.  In traditional Chinese culture, the father is the absolute head of the family with his authority being unchallenged.  In more recent times, however, Chinese American families are more egalitarian, with the father being the figurative head, but the mother being the actual decision maker.  Chinese American families do not encourage open expression of thoughts and feelings, and in fact encourage suppression of unpleasant thoughts.  As with other minorities we have discussed, in the Chinese American culture, group values are more important and valued than individual desires.
Chinese American parents stress moral development in their children and the development of one's potential.  Filial piety is a concept that governs Chinese American families - the idea that children are obligated to provide aid, comfort, affection and contact with the parent and to do well in their education and job, thus bringing glory to the parent.  Children are expected to satisfy their parents, and to show respect and reverence to their elders.
Education is highly valued in Chinese American families and it is expected that children will do well in school and be successful.   From their parents children are taught mutual dependence, group identification, self-discipline, and good manners.  Parents take complete control of and responsibility for the development of their children.  They see their role as a teacher of their children.
We have a tendency to see Japanese American families as ones with children who are highly obedient and well educated.   Traditional Japanese families emphasize the household as the most important entity for socialization; emphasize the group rather than the individual; emphasize loyalty; have clearly defined roles within the family; and conform to social norms.  Males in the family have more authority than females, with older males in the family also deserving of much respect and having authority.
For the most part, Japanese American families have become well acculturated to life in the United States and do not differ significantly from the average American.  Of all the minority groups discussed in this lecture, Japanese Americans are probably most like the majority of American society.
To sum up, characteristics of two major Asian American families include:
Chinese Americans:
     Father is undisputed head of family
     Gender and birth privileges
     Obligatory reciprocity in interactions
     Interdependence/group values
     Filial piety
     High achievement expectations
     Value on cooperation and obedience
     Elders are highly valued 
Japanese Americans:
     Authority vested in father and older male children
     Emphasis on group as opposed to individual
     Child centeredness
     Emphasis on prolonged dependency, obedience, conformity and non-confrontational parenting techniques
     High educational and achievement expectations
     High family stability
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