Megan’s small fingers refused to cooperate. As the 8-year-old sat at the piano trying to learn a playful sonatina, her fingers kept stumbling over the same difficult phrase. Her frustration mounted. Finally, she burst into tears. "I can’t do it!" she wailed.
Her parents, Peter and Huibi, both witnessed the emotional meltdown. Their responses, however, couldn’t have been more different.
"Never say, 'I can't,' " Huibi instructed her daughter. "You will keep practicing until you get it right."
Peter winced. "She's doing fine," he said. "We're not trying to raise a concert pianist. Why don't we let her practice again tomorrow."
"No, she needs to try harder."
"She needs rest and encouragement."
Although neither parent realized it at the time, their reactions were scripted by the cultures in which they had been raised. Huibi grew up in an Asian society where parents showed love to their kids by pushing them to succeed, while Peter's American upbringing valued words of affection and reassurance.
In reality, both parents wanted the same thing: a confident, happy child. But their views of how to reach that goal were worlds apart.
Differing approaches to parenting can exist in any home, but when the parents come from two separate cultures, those differences are woven into the very fabric of family life. Raising kids in an intercultural home is nothing less than an adventure. Yes, there are challenges — such as clashing values and beliefs — but there are also joys and advantages.
So how can parents maximize the benefits and work through the challenges of a culturally diverse home? By taking a positive approach to their differences, parents can enrich their family and build a united front for their kids.
Guided by their cultural backgrounds, all couples enter the parenting years with certain assumptions: where their child will sleep, how he will be potty trained, how he will be disciplined, what values he will be taught, what language he will speak, how he will be educated. These assumptions can be a major source of disagreement for intercultural couples. What is customary in one spouse’s culture may be completely opposite in the other's.
The thing about assumptions is that we are usually unaware of them. So when two people with two different sets of assumptions start a family, there are bound to be some surprises. And that can be both a challenge and an opportunity — a challenge to stay united as parents and an opportunity to try something new.
Wendi, an American married to a Laotian, says she can't take for granted that her husband would come to the same parenting conclusions that she does. Along with the couple's different cultures, the two are also challenged by dramatically opposite life experiences. She grew up on a farm with an abundance of food, while her husband, Sook, lived in a refugee camp for more than two years before coming to the U.S. No doubt these experiences led to their different perspectives on eating.
"Sook encourages physical activity but also loves to give the kids ice cream and candy, sometimes more than I would like for them to have," Wendi says. "I have learned to keep quiet and let the kids enjoy their treats, and he has learned to limit the amount of treats."
The best way for intercultural parents to minimize unexpected conflicts is to carefully reflect on and talk through their assumptions. They can begin the conversation by making a list of common parenting issues, then discussing how they would approach each one.
Cultural ideas about parenting are often deeply ingrained, and they are not easily set aside. Even when a couple realizes that an issue has no right or wrong answer — such as which holidays to celebrate and how — there can still be strong emotions attached to the decision.
Couples who stay open-minded and respect each other's cultural values are most likely to benefit from the diversity in their family. Both parents must be willing to compromise for the sake of unity.
Andres, who is from Ecuador, has learned to appreciate and trust the perspective of his American wife, Cathy, as they raise their son. When their 1-year-old son cries after they lay him down for the night, they are using a parenting method that has become popular in many American homes: Instead of picking him up immediately, they give him time to learn how to self-soothe.
For Andres, this parenting tactic runs counter to his own cultural experience. In Ecuador, crying babies are comforted right away, he says, and he admits that it's hard for him to hear his son cry. In order to support his wife's parenting decision, he has to look beyond his own cultural understanding of what it means to be a good parent.
"I have told my wife that I don't like it. But I've learned to understand what she wants to do," Andres says.
Comparing cultural values with God’s values
Intercultural parents enjoy the advantage of being able to choose from two sets of traditions and values. They can take what they like from each culture and leave what they don't. As parents create their own family identity, it's helpful to evaluate their values in light of Scripture.
Lovely, a Taiwanese-American, and her husband, Alan, who is Samoan, seek to align their family's values with God's Word. But it hasn't always been easy.
Lovely says that test scores are often a measure of success and self-worth in her culture, and she admits that she, too, has placed emphasis on her children's scores rather than valuing the unique gifts of each child. "I have had to surrender to the Lord and ask Him to let my kids be all they are in Christ Jesus," she says. "We felt that God's truth overrides cultural norms or behaviors."
Cherise, whose husband is from South Africa, says that her parents have held strong to superstitions and old wives' tales. Similarly, her husband's family has kept tribal rituals that violate biblical principles. She and her husband have explained to their children that those beliefs do not please God. For their family, following God's Word is more important than pleasing relatives or passing down unbiblical cultural beliefs.
Navigating extended family
Working through parenting differences as a couple is difficult enough, but add extended family to the mix and the job of raising kids becomes all the more complex. Extended family members sometimes have a hard time understanding and respecting the couple's blend of cultures. And in some cultures, grandparents and aunts and uncles are expected to have a say in parenting decisions.
Renee, a Caucasian-American who is married to an African-American, says that differing cultural expectations have at times strained her relationship with her husband's family.
"It's almost assumed that everyone in the family can get involved in helping you raise your kids, but neither my husband nor I agree with that approach," she says. "Some relatives will actually get offended if you don’t go to them for help. This was a very hard concept for me to understand, so my husband had to clue me in."
Cherise and her husband, Thabo, have also encountered some tense moments with extended family. When her family visited her husband's relatives in South Africa, one elderly relative had excessively high expectations of her 15-year old, she said. This relative's own girls had been given much more responsibility than those in middle-class American homes, and she expected no less from Cherise's older daughter.
"Thabo and I respected this elderly in-law who made a parenting decision regarding our teenage daughter," she said. "Later during our trip, I discussed the differences in familial roles and expectations with my daughter in private. I also told her that I appreciated how she responded respectfully and obediently."
Celebrating family identity
Cross-cultural families enjoy a double dose of variety in many areas of life.
"Multicultural kids have a unique advantage in getting to know firsthand more than one culture," Renee says. "But I think it's important to help them know those cultures and feel a part of them so they can have more of a sense of belonging. Otherwise, they may always feel like outcasts, not entirely fitting in anywhere."
Intercultural families can look for opportunities to introduce their kids to their diverse heritage. If the parents have different native languages, they can make an effort to speak both at home in the presence of their kids.
Cherise says she wishes she and her kids were better acquainted with Northern Sotho, her husband's native language. For Cherise, she and her family had the rare opportunity to visit her husband's homeland, which helped their children learn a great deal about apartheid and its effects on blacks in South Africa.
While international travel may not be practical for every family, there are other ways to experience a family's diverse heritage. Parents can find movies or TV shows from their respective home countries. Families can experience museums, books and cultural events together. And they can celebrate both cultures' holidays when appropriate. Food and clothing choices may present other opportunities for discovery and enjoyment, as well. The result will be a family with a stronger sense of identity and different cultural perspectives.
"It is important to us that our children can relate to both cultures," Sook says. "I want them to be comfortable with Lao people just like they are comfortable with American people. We can take advantage of our family dynamics to teach our children to value all cultures."