Immigrants Face Up to American Family Values

New language, new jobs - and a new child-rearing environment

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BERNARDINO JUAREZ remembers well the May morning 11 years ago when his first child, Bernardo, was born. He drove his wife, Estela, to the hospital and helped her check in. Then, following the tradition of men in his native Mexico, he said goodbye and headed off to work. ``I didn't stay, because we come from a different country,'' Mr. Juarez explains. ``There, the mother is supposed to take care of the kids. The father is supposed to work and support the kids.''

Months later, during a child-development class the couple attended at a nearby community center called Family Focus, Juarez learned that American fathers remain at the hospital, often participating at the birth. So the following year, when their daughter, Edith, was born, he stayed until after the delivery.

The incident typifies the kind of adjustments immigrants make as they rear children in a new country. Beyond the usual challenges of learning a language, finding a job, and adapting to a new culture, parents must come to terms with different attitudes toward discipline, education, and domestic duties.

Recommended: America's 4 parenting cultures

``Some of the things we learned from our parents don't work now,'' says Mrs. Juarez, who came to the United States 11 years ago. ``It's hard. Some people don't want to change. They don't want to betray their parents. They say, `I was raised this way. I will raise my children in the same way.' But it's not right.''

For many newcomers, this assimilation is a lonely process. But for those who have access to innovative programs like the nonprofit Family Focus center in Chicago's West Town neighborhood, there is the comfort of shared experiences. The Juarezes spend hours each week at the drop-in center, one of six scattered around the city.

On a rainy Friday afternoon, Blanca Almonte, the director, gestures toward a long table in the center where a dozen Hispanic women are making cloth dolls. Their children play in the next room. ``Most of these women come from extended families,'' she says. ``They are having to do a reassessment of values and customs. You have to look at what you're going to change. You have to adjust. At the same time, you don't want to completely abandon your cultural heritage. What do you keep? How do you decide?''

Sometimes those decisions rest as much with the children as with the parents. Eva Mannaberg, who teaches English to immigrants in Evanston, Ill., says, ``There's a reversal of roles. The children know what is going on in this culture. The parents lag behind and have to learn from their children. Kids know how to dress, and they know American food.''

Sitting in the dining room of their immaculate second-floor apartment, the Juarezes talk about these changes in their own family, and their efforts to preserve parental authority.

``I was spanked a lot,'' Mr. Juarez admits. ``But if I did that with my children we would be in trouble. Social workers tell us, `When you're real mad and angry, sit on your hands.''' Mrs. Juarez adds, ``Today, spanking doesn't work with children. You have to talk to them, explain. There's more communication.''

Then there are the differences between the relative safety of the small town in Mexico where the couple grew up and the dangers, real and perceived, of Chicago.

``I'm afraid for my children,'' says Mrs. Juarez, who walks her son and daughter to and from school each day. ``I worry about gangs. I keep them busy with a lot of activities so they don't hang around in the streets.''

Education ranks high on the family's list of priorities. The children attend a parochial school that requires parents to help in the office, lunch room, and library at least 10 hours a year.

The family attends church regularly. A large Spanish-language Bible sits on the dining room table. A small framed print of ``The Last Supper'' hangs on the wall. ``This is the right time now to teach them to pray, when they are little,'' Mrs. Juarez says.

Although Mr. Juarez, a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority, admits he has found it ``a little hard to adjust'' to sharing domestic responsibilities - tasks usually left to women in Mexico - he speaks approvingly of the more egalitarian families he has observed in the United States. ``American men help raise their kids, and they help their wives.''

Not all American customs and attitudes hold similar appeal for immigrant parents. ``Our [Hispanic] ideal is not independence, but interdependence,'' explains Almonte. ``It's OK to be independent in the workplace and in school, but not in the family.... That is why it's so awful when you emigrate alone. It's like they cut off a piece of you.''

FOR families who do emigrate together, any trouble they face in their adopted country is made tolerable by the support, love, and collective authority they draw from what Helen Lee, a Chinese mother of three in San Francisco, charmingly calls an ``extension family.''

For Mrs. Lee and her husband, Christal, who emigrated from Hong Kong in the early '70s, evidence of that ``extension family'' fills their two-story townhouse. Pointing to a photograph on the living room wall showing dozens of people, Mrs. Lee explains, ``That's Chris's family.'' Then, moving to another photo of an equally large group, she adds, ``And that's my family.'' All reside in the Bay Area.

Until recently, Mr. Lee's parents lived with the family. ``They helped us care for the children so we could concentrate on our jobs,'' says Mrs. Lee, who with her husband owns the City Center Sandwich and Juice Bar. Now the elder Lees have moved to senior housing to give their growing grandchildren more space. ``They were very understanding,'' Mrs. Lee says.

Again and again during an extended conversation about rearing children far from their homeland, the Lees circle back to two themes: family and education. In addition to the dozens of family photographs displayed around the house, there are ribbons, certificates, and awards attesting to the children's academic, athletic, and musical talents.

Yet they worry that the families of their children's American classmates hold different values. ``When I go to parent-teacher conferences, I see a big difference,'' says Mr. Lee. ``School say, `You've got to train your kid not to fight.' American parents say, `That's the teacher's job. I don't have time.'''

Mr. Lee says it is less a question of time than priorities. ``I never go outside without my kids,'' he says. ``Most of the time I stay home with my kids. I check their [homework] exercises.''

Adds Mrs. Lee, ``Time for the children is very important. We ask about school. We really care about it. I just want them to feel family and education. Because family is so important, children feel that feeling.'' Although the couple is concerned that the children will grow up ``too Americanized,'' she says, ``I always remind the children how we Chinese raise our children - that the family feeling is so strong. I want them close together.''

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...