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Changing values confuse parents

Immigrants find parenting in the U.S. challenging

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[APRIL 24, 2004]  URBANA -- Chinese immigrant families have a strong desire to adapt to life in the United States, but deeply ingrained cultural beliefs often cause conflict and confusion, especially when it comes to parenting, said Yan Wang, a University of Illinois researcher.

One mother told Wang, "When my 3-year-old daughter plays with friends at home and they fight over a toy, I tell her, 'You're the host, you need to give the toy to your guest, or 'You're older, you should let the younger ones have it. As a host, as the eldest, you're supposed to assume a certain role.

"Then, at a parent-teacher conference, the teacher told me that we needed to work on my daughter's assertiveness. At school, the rule is: If it's your turn, you have the right to say no," she continued.

Angela Wiley, a specialist in family studies at the University of Illinois and Wang's graduate adviser, said that immigrants to the United States bring with them a whole toolbox of ways of thinking about the world, including ideas about the right way to parent.

Wiley and Wang studied 22 Chinese immigrant families, including graduate students, faculty and other community families, with children aged 2 to 5, to learn about the tensions they are experiencing as they navigate American culture. The two researchers presented their findings at a meeting of the National Council on Family Relations, and now they are using what they have learned to develop a series of Extension brochures for immigrant parents, in English and Mandarin Chinese.

Wiley said that Western parents expect children to speak out, but Chinese parents value self-control and obedience. American parents spend a lot of effort bolstering a child's self-esteem, but centuries of reliance on Confucian ideology makes this a less important issue for Chinese parents. They even fear it will cause such undesirable psychological traits as frustration, stubbornness and an unwillingness to be corrected.

"One mother told me that her daughter is learning to draw, and she praises her child's work when they're alone at home together," Wang noted. "But if visitors ask how her daughter's art lessons are going, she feels uncomfortable bragging and answers, 'Oh, just so-so. She's afraid she's confusing her daughter because the little girl asks her later, 'Do you really think I'm good?'"

Instead of praise, Wiley said Chinese parents are much more likely to focus on what their child does wrong and use a child's mistakes to teach life lessons. They consider a child's transgressions a resource to convey moral and social standards.


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Wang explained that Chinese culture is relationship-oriented and that group needs have higher priority than personal needs. This begins early, according to Wang, who said that Chinese parents believe in co-sleeping with their children.

Later a child's education becomes a family goal. Evidence of this can be seen in the many grandparents who arrive on six-month visitor's visas to help with their grandchildren while their son or daughter attends graduate school. "This is a tremendous resource, but it is also a stress unique to most American families," Wang said.

"My parents are often very perplexed about the way we are raising our son," said one mother in the study. "He sleeps in a crib in his own room, but it's so tough for my parents to hear him cry and not go to him. I know it is confusing for my little boy because I'm trying to get him to sleep on his own, and my parents, who spend a lot of time with him, have very different ideas."

Wang said most students are grateful for their parents' help, but having them here sometimes adds another layer of stress to their lives. "They are here, they have no life or career, they need us to drive, so my weekends tend to be packed. I feel strongly that my parents have sacrificed a lot to help me, so I should try to organize something fun for them," said one study participant.

That sense of obligation runs deep. Although many American couples wait until their careers are established before having children, Chinese couples in the study often started their families earlier, "probably because grandparents encouraged it," Wang said. "I'm sure couples are pressured to start families in the U.S. too, but grown children are more influenced by their parents' needs in Chinese culture. They want to make their parents happy if they can."

Wiley said that any parent of children aged 2 to 5 experiences many of the same stresses -- potty training, the terrible 2s, sibling rivalry -- but immigrant parents often have a broader range of stresses that affect their parenting.

"If you have financial stress, feel pressure to perform academically in a strange culture or face discrimination, these issues all make a difference in the way you parent," Wiley added. "Anytime you're looking at parenting behaviors, you need to understand the context in which they're occurring."

[University of Illinois news release]

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