Archive for the ‘Cross-Cultural Parenting’ Category

Parenting a writer

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Via a friend of a friend, a beautiful post on being a writer, with advice to a woman who wants to support her daughter — starting with "let her be bored" and "let her be lonely."

It reminded me of Annette Lareau's article on the role of social class in childrearing (possibly available here). Lareau contrasts the predominantly middle-class style of parenting, which she calls "concerted cultivation," with a more working-class orientation, "accomplishment of natural growth." There are many differences between the two styles, but a key one is the amount of unstructured time children have. Middle-class kids have less: they're enrolled in lessons, sports, clubs, camps, and afterschool activities. Parents prioritize exposing their children to new things, and shielding them from negative influences. As a result, middle-class children have a richer variety of experiences, but less experience negotiating conflict and making decisions, weaker ties to others, and less contact with people of different ages and backgrounds: "Because most of his school events, church life and assorted activities are organized by the age (and sometimes gender) of the participants, Alexander interacts almost exclusively with children his own age, usually boys. Adult-organized activities thus define the context of his social life."

In contrast, working-class and poor kids are more connected to extended families and the community, and have much more free time.

The way families use language differs, too. Working-class parents are more likely to speak in directives ("Billy, shower."). Middle-class parents prompt their children for information and further explanations, and are more likely to view things other than health and safety as negotiable. As a result, middle-class kids develop more expansive vocabularies and feel they have the right to use them.

There are advantages to both styles. Which is not to say they're equal — it's easy to see how middle-class kids are acculturated into what Lareau calls an "emerging sense of entitlement" (as opposed to working-class kids' "emerging sense of constraint"), and how middle-class parenting values are supported by schools and authority figures (at least, when it's middle-class parents and middle-class kids who are exercising them: "talking back" can be interpreted as an act of defiance or as an example of critical thinking, depending on the relative power of the speaker).

But there is also a great deal lost in the middle-class model. As M. Molly Backes notes in the blog post above, there's little a parent can do to support an emerging writer in terms of pushing her into clubs and activities (there is no "Poet Boosters" equivalent to "Band Boosters"), but writers do need lots of time to think without distraction. That's something parents can support, but I think it's also something that makes them uncomfortable. And while facility with language is important to a young writer — something more likely to be fostered in middle-class families — there's also value in growing up hearing many different types of speakers: Grandma, the guys on the corner, the storekeeper who remembers when your mom was a kid, the local cop, creepy Uncle Bob. Contrast that with a child who scores well on vocabulary tests but can only write in the voice of Jack from soccer, Taylor from soccer, Michael from soccer, Zachary from soccer…

As with any sociological study, there is overlap between the groups in Lareau's research and many parenting practices did not correlate with class at all. But I think it's valuable to think about the reasons why some parenting styles are considered more legitimate than others, and ask when they are truly about children's development and when they're an outgrowth of class anxiety. As much as people complain about "helicopter parents," the true venom is directed at parents deemed neglectful. Naturally this makes parents feel like they're falling down on the job if they don't pack children's schedules and otherwise engage in "concerted cultivation." As Backes' post shows, though, some activities can only be cultivated through trust, which in the moment feels like neglect. That's okay. Raising a writer means being comfortable with weeds.

18 days.

Friday, February 11th, 2011


Click on CC for English subtitles
The graffiti behind the father and daughter reads "The streets belong to us"

My daughter was seven years old on September 11. For the past decade – i.e. the entirety of her childhood, the only one she'll ever get – she has had to endure taunts and slurs and snickers, or at best pinched "tolerance," about her ethnicity and her religion. She's handled it well and is actually quite articulate in countering the bias. But it's fatiguing, and over time she has distanced herself from her Arab Muslim background. I can't tell you how much this saddens me, but I know she's not alone in this reaction, I know her life needs to be more than an ongoing argument with other people's ignorance, and I've tried to give her space to work out who she is and how she identifies.

She turned seventeen this week, and it's a milestone. For the first time ever, I have seen her beaming, in that I told you guys all along way, whenever some only-sorta-follows-the-news American asks her, "Wait… aren't you Egyptian?"

شكرا يا مصر

Studying abroad, DIY.

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Yesterday On Point did an interview with Maya Frost, author of The New Global Student, a book advising teenagers to quit high school and go abroad, where they can pick up college credits, foreign languages, and global skills. I bought her book and had finished it by the time the program re-aired in the evening.

I followed a path similar to the one she recommends and I agree with most of what she says (although how she says it sometimes grates — more on that below). When I was fifteen I studied abroad in Germany, but not on any formal exchange program. I just moved in with my grandparents and enrolled directly in the local public high school. That same year an American girlfriend moved in with my aunt and uncle, also living in Germany, and their daughter went to live with my friend's parents in California. Arranging these exchanges is pretty straightforward if you know someone — or know someone who knows someone who knows someone — willing to swap children for a few months. It makes no sense to pay an agency $10,000 or more to go to the trouble for you, and Frost's book provides several tips on setting something up in a country even if you have no contacts (yet). She rightly calls most of these agencies a waste of money, with the notable exception of organizations like Rotary that provide scholarship funding.

She argues that students shouldn't wait until college (or later) to do this. Young brains are still flexible, she says, and the impact of living in another culture will do more for a teenager than it will for someone over twenty. Adolescence is a period of intensity. Teenagers notice everything around them; they are not even capable of shutting that part of their brain off, of getting stuck in a rut, of saying "but we always do things this way…" That intensity is inevitably going to go somewhere, and it's better to direct at something real, like foreign travel, than to stifle it in the world of shopping, malls, prom queens, and video games. Young people also pick up languages faster. Exposing the teenage brain to another culture will pay off for a student's entire life in ways that travel when s/he's older will not.

Most teens who come back from such an experience will have different priorities about their future. This, she argues, is a feature, not a bug, although it's often the thing that scares parents most. The tiny world of high school seems so limited after you've spent a year managing on your own in another country, in another language. It was in Germany that I decided I wanted to graduate early; when I came back home I heaped on the correspondence classes in order to make that happen. Apparently I'm not alone. Her book is filled with stories from other high school exchange students who've had the same experience of wanting to get high school over and done with as soon as possible — or who simply decided not to come home at all. This possibility terrifies most parents, but again she argues it's a positive. The world needs global citizens, and the flexibility and language skills acquired abroad are more useful in the long run than staying on the regular high school track would be. She advises teens not to worry about having the typical four-year college experience and to just pick up as many college credits as they can through a combination of CLEP tests, community college and correspondence courses, and foreign language programs abroad. Transfer the whole lot to any affordable college, spend a year or two there, and you'll have a BA by the time you're twenty or so. It doesn't matter if it's a name-brand university; what matters is that you're fluent in Spanish or Swahili, you have no debt, you're young, and that you know how to travel the world.

Predictably, most of the criticism she's gotten focuses on class. "This is a rich white kid thing," she's told. She (and her husband, who seems to be the primary breadwinner) argue that actually it's cheaper than the regular high school-to-college track. A Rotary program might cost a couple thousand dollars, which is cheaper than having your sixteen-year-old live with you in your own home for a year; after all, they're being fed by some family in Paris. And colleges abroad are usually cheaper than their American counterparts, since most countries subsidize higher education.

I feel strongly both ways. Frost's audience is the suburban family for whom college is a non-optional expectation. She tells them to get out of the rat race and quit worrying about AP classes and SAT scores, to not be so overprotective of their children, and to teach them the virtue of getting by on less. She's clearly not thinking about the kids who know all about getting by on less, who live in dangerous neighborhoods where children being "overprotected" is the least of their parents' worries, who don't stress about AP classes because their school doesn't offer any, who will have to fight to get a high school diploma at all because the teaching they receive is so ineffective, or who have disabilities that can't or wouldn't be managed by an unrelated family in a foreign country. When she says parents can save tens of thousands of dollars on their children's educations she's assuming they have college savings or will be contributing to their kids' educations out of pocket, but five or ten thousand dollars isn't "cheap" if your starting expectation was zero. And when she says it's less expensive to send your child abroad than to have him/her live at home, she's assuming your child doesn't contribute anything to the household, like income from a part-time job that goes towards the utility bill, or unpaid care for younger siblings. Most of all she's assuming that duh, of course your kid is going to college somewhere: it's just a question of where and how. The better part of her book is about dealing with criticism from people who will think you're crazy for sending your kids abroad and letting them miss rites of passage like prom. But for a lot of families, that's the least of their worries.

She also assumes that your kids will be competing with other monolingual white American kids, and won't they be lucky to have this global advantage? Absent are the kids who are already bilingual, by virtue of growing up in an immigrant family. She constructs many hypothetical situations in which your global child is favored in a job interview over Jessie and Steve, who've only been to England, but in my experience the real competition is Noriko, who speaks Japanese without an accent. On the surface this may seem like an argument for pushing a global view even harder — after all, other countries have much greater facility with giving their students a multilingual education, and the world is increasingly transnational — but underneath it there needs to be a discussion of white/American-born privilege. If Ben who spent two years in France is getting a job over Emmanuel whose family is from Haiti, well, what's going on with that? Did Ben really get his job because he's "a global citizen," or is there a little bit more to it? Would Emmanuel's summer working on a farm abroad really look the same on a college application as Ben's summer doing the same? Are we allowed to talk about that? Or are we just supposed to celebrate Ben's ability to order a meal in a Romance language?

All that said, I appreciate that she's taking a machete to the view that traveling abroad is reserved for the children of the elite. Although more than half of graduating high school seniors say they plan to study abroad, very few of them actually do, because they look at the price tag for these programs and assume they're out of the question. One of the things she hammers home is that "official" study abroad programs are far more expensive than organizing one's own travel — what she calls "indie" programs — because when you go with a study abroad program you are paying the university fees at your home institution, too. She advises students to enroll directly in foreign schools.

This is what I did as a college junior at The American University in Cairo, and I was shocked to learn that some American students had spent an extra ten or twenty thousand dollars for the exact same credits I was earning. I also learned that there were even cheaper options I hadn't known about. Later, in grad school, I went back to Egypt and arranged independent study credit for research I was doing and for taking Arabic language classes at a private language school. This cost even less than AUC, which was already cheaper than most American colleges. And Egypt, like most countries, had a lower cost of living compared to the United States. Here she is absolutely correct: getting most or all of one's college education in another country is potentially far cheaper than entering the American system of higher education, where even public universities charge tuition.

Unfortunately, Frost's book is mainly concerned with convincing you that this is a viable option. That's great, but what would have been more helpful would have been lists, lists, and more lists of universities abroad, high school correspondence options, short-term study options, foreign language schools, work abroad programs, Peace Corps alternatives, and tips for funding it all. Luckily this information is available online for the dedicated student who is willing to search for it, but it'll be nice when it moves into the realm of common knowledge, when parents, teachers, and guidance counselors stop telling kids there is only one — monolingual, monocultural — path into adulthood. Frost's book is a start.

Survey – Korean-American adoptees in Minnesota

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Via anti-racist parent:

Minnesota is home to the largest population of Korean-American adoptees in the country. MPR News wants to know what the 2012 end of international adoptions from South Korea means for these Minnesotans and their communities. Is this a victory? A defeat? Bittersweet? Are you expecting a change in your own community or its identity?

Respond

Arabic.

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

Muah. K's dad is buying her a plane ticket and he just called me and asked how to spell her name. Including her last name, which is also his last name.

He needed to double-check that the version he uses is the one that matches her birth certificate.

Coincidentally, yesterday I found a good piece from 2002 about the trouble with Romanizing the Arabic alphabet. The author has a good web site, too.

Weaning in Gaza.

Monday, May 8th, 2006

A couple weeks ago I sent Bee Lavender a link that someone had posted, Raising Yousuf: a diary of a mother under occupation. The Hip Mama people contacted the author, and her piece about breastfeeding under occupation is now up on their web site. Go read!

Religion and children.

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

I was mentioning to someone yesterday how much time I spent in church as a kid. I think he was startled: first by the sheer number of hours I logged there, and second because I know so little about Christian history. You'd think there would be a contradiction there, no?

So now I'm trying to remember just what we did all that time in church. I know we sang, a lot, the same children's songs over and over again. We said the Lord's prayer. We put on a play about Noah's Ark once in third grade, and did nativity scenes every Christmas. We visited the nursing home every couple months, and wrote letters to members of the church who were in the hospital. We decorated the church for holidays. We colored pictures of Jesus. We gave out Christmas trees to "poor" families ("poor" in quotes, because it was a small working-class town without much wealth disparity, so the "privilege" we're talking about was there by a pretty slim margin). We collected canned goods. We took turns handing out communion wine and lighting the candles on the altar. We learned little stories — Noah's ark, Moses, Adam and Eve, Jesus's birth — but never discussed them except in the most obvious terms: love is better than hate, being good is better than being bad, freedom is better than slavery. We said prayers for sick people. We made crafty items for our parents out of glue and yarn.

In short, it was a service agency. Not a religious education. I'm not sure I have a problem with this — I'm just calling it what it is.

By junior high it became a sort of extended guidance counseling session. We talked about our friends and the tyranny of popularity and our relationship with our parents, what we wanted to be when we grew up, and all the Big Issues of '80s like suicide and AIDS. That sounds nice, doesn't it? I remember it as excruciating. Being forced to discuss matters this private with a community I had not chosen was hell on earth.

And again, not a religious education.

The mosques in this area have an entirely different view toward children. There's no singing, period; a lot less art and a lot more rote memorization of Qur'anic verses and the Arabic alphabet. I don't like this approach, either. The Arabic I like in theory, but in practice it favors the kids who speak it at home and ends up alienating those for whom it's a second or third language. And memorizing the Qur'an in Arabic without learning the translation and without discussing the meaning is something I've never understood. What's the point? I know it's beautiful to listen to a child say a surah, but to them it's just the babbling of nonsense words until they sort out the meaning and the context.

I don't have any better ideas. Just something I'm thinking about today.

This is incredible stuff.

Wednesday, May 7th, 2003

Myths Over Miami: Folklorists record homeless children's beliefs about God.

On Christmas night a year ago, God fled Heaven to escape an audacious demon attack — a celestial Tet Offensive. The demons smashed to dust his palace of beautiful blue-moon marble. TV news kept it secret, but homeless children in shelters across the country report being awakened from troubled sleep and alerted by dead relatives. No one knows why God has never reappeared, leaving his stunned angels to defend his earthly estate against assaults from Hell.

All the Miami shelter children who participated in this story were passionate in defending this myth. It is the most necessary fiction of the hopelessly abandoned — that somewhere a distant, honorable troop is risking everything to come to the rescue, and that somehow your bravery counts.

Research by Harvard's Robert Coles indicates that children in crisis — with a deathly ill parent or living in poverty — often view God as a kind, empyrean doctor too swamped with emergencies to help. But homeless children are in straits so dire they see God as having simply disappeared. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam embrace the premise that good will triumph over evil in the end; in that respect, shelter tales are more bleakly sophisticated. "One thing I don't believe," says a seven-year-old who attends shelter chapels regularly, "is Judgment Day." Not one child could imagine a God with the strength to force evildoers to face some final reckoning. Yet even though they feel that wickedness may prevail, they want to be on the side of the angels.

The misunderstanding.

Tuesday, April 29th, 2003

Once? In Dakhla, X and I met a 9-year-old girl by the side of the road who was so striking that he dared risk the Evil Eye and told the girl's family she was beautiful. "Come back this afternoon for tea," they said. "We'll have her ready for you."

They knew he was already married. In fact that's all they knew about him. But he was from Cairo, a man with means enough to travel, and they must have recognized his compliment as an opportunity. So she'd be a child bride, the second wife to a stranger, but the link to the city would be solidified and the dowry would be enormous.

He agreed to the meeting and then we laid low in another part of town for a day or two, as was right and proper. He couldn't cast doubt on their intentions with their own daughter. His "she's much too young" would be interpreted as "she's beautiful but not beautiful enough to marry"; his "I don't believe in polygamy" would become "I won't share my good fortune with a family such as yours." Better to let them think he'd been unavoidably detained than to reject the proposal outright.

I can still picture her in her long red dress. The age my daughter is now.

The little girl with big black eyes who could have been my co-wife.