How to Help Kids Navigate Two Cultures

Raising children with two cultures is both an amazing opportunity and an occasional challenge. Read more...

By Jessica Gomez, Psy.D. Director of Clinical Innovation | Mar 14, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

Millions of people in our country are first or second-generation Americans. Children who grow up with parents who are foreign-born are often straddling two cultures – that of their parents, and that of their peers. This can be both an amazing opportunity and a struggle for a child as she develops her own identity. It also presents opportunities and challenges for parents.

All parents hope that their children succeed and thrive in the world. All parents have moments where they worry about their children. There are many universal parenting issues, and there are many issues that are intensified when two cultures are involved.

There’s no way to generalize the different types of issues that apply to multi-cultural families, as issues are as diverse as the people who are experiencing them. But think about a child who is trying out for an athletic team, or quitting a team. This decision might seem inconsequential to a child. But perhaps his parents have a different perspective because of their culture of origin.

Or there are bigger decisions, such a child who is choosing not to go to college, or choosing a different college from what his parents had hoped. This would be a challenge for any parent whose child was choosing something other than what the parent had envisioned. But when you add in the layer of culture – a family who views higher education differently from the child’s peers and their families – it can get even more complex.

The root of this is often that parents and children are not aware of these differing values. Children don’t necessarily know what their parents’ expectations and hopes are, and parents don’t always understand the influences that a child is receiving from peers. When I work with families who are straddling two cultures, I often encourage them to open this door of communication.

First, families need to be aware that there are differing values. I encourage parents to reflect on their own experiences, values and expectations for their children. How were they raised? What was their childhood like? What did their parents value for them? All of these things influence their parenting style. Parents should take time to reflect on their values and consider what is important to pass along, and where they can be flexible with their own children. It is so important to remember that our children are not us. They have different personalities, and they are being raised in a different time and place. They will not share our exact experiences. Parents should spend some time reflecting on this, and should consider what values are the most important to pass along, and in what ways they can help children grow into healthy, independent individuals.

Next, I encourage parents to share their hopes and dreams for their children. At our Momentous School, parents create vision statements for their children. (link) This is an activity where they write out a letter detailing what they hope for their child’s future. With older kids, I encourage parents to talk about what they envisioned when they were expecting the child. What did they hope she would grow up to become? What values did they hope she would hold? Sometimes simply letting a child know about expectations, dreams and goals can be really empowering and can give the child a valuable perspective into her parents’ point of view. 

When children don’t know or understand their parents’ expectations, they struggle with following and respecting them. They’re more likely to dismiss something if they don’t know what it is grounded in. They may just assume that their parents are being unnecessarily strict or don’t “get” what it’s like to be a teenager. When a child sees and understands a parent’s perspective, they won’t necessarily magically do what their parents want 100% of the time, but they’ll have a better sense of the purpose. They’ll be able to weigh the parents’ perspective among other factors instead of automatically ignoring it.

Research has shown us that children go through a process of individuation during their adolescent years. This is true for the general population, and carries extra weight for children growing up with two cultures. This is the period of a child’s life where she’s more likely to drift away from her culture of origin. This can feel like a scary time for parents. It may seem that the child is leaving and will never come back. But I always encourage parents to be patient during this time. This process of individuation is so important. Children need to expand and experience the world and then determine what parts of each culture they are going to hold on to.

I am a first generation Mexican-American, and I like to tell people that I went to college before I realized that I was Mexican. Of COURSE I knew I was Mexican, it was part of the fiber of my childhood growing up. But it wasn’t until I went away to college - and away from everything that made me who I was - that I realized how important that culture was to me. I am not alone in this experience. Research indicates that it is not until our mid to late-20’s or into our 30’s that we begin this process of enculturation. That is, it’s not until we make it past that process of individuation in our teens that we determine what our true cultural identity is. It can be extremely difficult to sit back and watch as kids drift away and explore their identity, but I always tell parents to be patient and trust the process.

Aside from simply waiting it out – waiting for the child to explore and come back – the other best advice I can give parents is to be available to their children. How often do parents talk to their kids about their own childhood? Do the kids know what it was like growing up in the parents’ home country? How often do parents reflect on their own values? Do kids know where their parents stand on topics in the news?

As children grow up, parents should try to spend quality time with them. Of course this advice applies to everyone, but is particularly relevant for families who are working with two cultures. The more that parents and children talk and spend time together, the better they’ll be able to understand each other. Families get busy, and I know it’s not realistic that there will be hours of family time every day. But it’s about quality over quantity – 15 minutes before bed, one family dinner a week, turning off the radio on the drive to school.

Children will not embrace everything about a parent’s culture of origin. She’ll find parts that speak to her and parts of her new culture that speak to her. She’ll grow up to be a blend of both cultures. This is what we want for her, even though at times it may feel like a betrayal. We want her to become part of her new culture while still holding on to some of her family’s values. When she chooses something different from a parent’s expectations, it may be natural for parents to experience a sort of grief process. They imagined that their child would get married and now she wants to travel or pursue a career. They may grieve the vision that they held for their daughter, but still support her. It can be hard to watch her as she chooses a different path than they had expected, and completely natural to feel sad and conflicted during this time.

All parents grow and change with their children. All parents have a vision when they’re expecting children. But sometimes the child comes and it’s nothing like they expected. The child is an introvert, or an athlete, or likes to push limits. And parents learn from that and adjust. Culture is another piece of the puzzle that parents learn to navigate as they watch their children move through the world. With open communication and a lot of patience, families can embrace and enjoy the process of forming and exploring cultural identity.