This is a guest post written by Leanna of All Done Monkey.
Multicultural families face challenges similar to other families: What values do we want to pass on to our children? What traditions do we want to teach them? How can we give them the best education? What role will extended family play in our lives?
Yet in multicultural families these familiar challenges are complicated by the blend of cultures and family traditions: Do we raise our children in the church or the synagogue? Or both? (Or neither?) Do we send them to an English language school or a Spanish one? How do we maintain ties to family on another continent?
Most multicultural families, however, will agree that facing these challenges is more than worth the trouble, considering the benefits of raising children who learn to value differences from an early age. Some might even argue that multicultural couples are usually quite well prepared to tackle thorny issues… and these issues can even bring them closer together.
How can this be? Perhaps one reason is that when both members of a couple come from the same culture, they were usually raised doing things differently – however there is often an expectation for some sort of common ground. If you marry someone from an another country or background, you know that you will have differences, so you consciously work on them as a couple. You have most likely already learned that you need to work through challenges together – and that there is often no one “right” way. By facing challenges with family unity in mind, you can figure out how to use them to grow even closer together.
Below are 7 common challenges facing multicultural families and why I believe they can be advantages:
1. Where to Live: This challenge arises from the very beginning. When raising children, connections to extended family are very important, yet many multicultural families do not live close to relatives or have to choose which relatives to live near. Also, they might have to choose job security over travel or moving abroad to help their children learn another language/culture. But in the end, where a family decides to live can be what defines them and makes them unique. Making a conscious decision as a family can lead to greater bonding and a sense of shared purpose: We are the family that moved to Taipei to discover the world. We are the family that made the continents our classroom.
2. What Religion to Follow: Blending cultures often means having to purposefully choose which beliefs and values to pass on to your children. The resulting conflict can expose very sensitive emotions and cherished (or painful) memories. Yet talking openly about your beliefs can also lead to wonderful, heartfelt discussions that help you build a strong, vibrant family culture with shared (or at least mutually supportive) values.
3. What Holidays to Observe: This challenge is related to #2 but does not align completely. Non-religious families often observe holidays for the sake of tradition or fond childhood memories or simply the influence of outside culture. I will never forget how every year my best friend and I would exchange Christmas presents – even though she was Hindu and I was a Bahá’í! It’s best to have a frank talk about expectations and desires for celebrating holidays with your family. Do you just want to give your kids the spirit of the holiday, or is the religious aspect also important? Do you care about having a traditional celebration, or are you really just looking to have a fun day with your relatives? Often celebrating holidays together can be a fun way for all members of the family to share in each other’s traditions, without the deep conflicts over philosophies or doctrine.
4. What Language to Speak: Speaking a language can be an entryway into another culture and place, and learning a language from early childhood has many benefits for children. Yet raising multilingual children is hard work, and it can be especially difficult if a family is under pressure (from relatives or society) to only teach the majority language. Making the decision about which language(s) to teach your children and choosing a strategy for how to go about doing it is often a defining moment for a family, because it can be a very clear marker to others that you have consciously decided to raise your child to be “different.” But again, making such a decision as a family can be a source of strength, as it can help define a family culture. (Plus it can be fun to have a “secret” family language that others don’t understand!)
5. Relationship with: Marrying into another family is one of the greatest rewards and challenges in any marriage. Extended families are often where cultural differences become more apparent. If your spouse married outside of his culture, chances are he has more experience with other ways of thinking and doing things. This may not be the case with his family, so chances for misunderstandings are higher. Yet the chances for loving, mutually enriching relationships are just as great. On a strictly cultural level, there is no better way to see another country than with your new family, and you will gain intimate access to another way of life that would be difficult to gain otherwise.
6. Health and Safety: Especially once you have children, looking after their welfare can be a great source of contention, since the stakes are so high. Philosophy and religion make for great discussions, but in the end you can agree to disagree. Not so your child’s physical safety. Abstract sentiments go out the window when they come up against the concrete, day to day decisions about how to protect your children. What type of food is best? Can they play outside barefoot? How well do you know their friend’s parents? Basic standards vary from person to person, but also culture to culture. As with the other challenges, frank discussion is best, with a heavy dose of mutual respect, remembering that in the end you share the same goal of raising healthy, happy kids.
7. Dealing with Prejudice: And finally, of course, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room: Multicultural families are much more likely to face prejudice from society, whether because of mixing cultures, languages, or (especially) races. Children from multicultural families may feel they have to choose one heritage (and therefore one parent) over another, or may feel they don’t fit in anywhere at all. Yet despite the difficulties, in the end multicultural children are at an advantage in today’s world because of their intimate familiarity with more than one culture and, perhaps most importantly, their deep understanding of the need to bridges differences. If they are given the proper guidance to weather the prejudice they will inevitably face, they will become savvy yet sensitive citizens of today’s increasingly interconnected world.
It is important to remember that multicultural families – like others – were created out of love, and it is that love for each other that can ultimately help them triumph over any challenges they might face. Facing these challenges together can be turned into an advantage that will help cement the family unit.
What challenges has your family faced? How have you turned these challenges into advantages?
Leanna is a stay at home mother to a sweet, funny, rambunctious four year old boy and his adorable, smiley baby brother. She draws inspiration from the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith and tries to raise her Monkeys in a fun, spiritual, loving environment. She and her husband, who is from Costa Rica, are raising their boys to be bilingual and bicultural but more importantly to be “world citizens.” Her blog All Done Monkey is dedicated to sharing this journey with you!
This post is part of the Growing from Motherhood Series in which moms discuss various life circumstances and how they have grown from them. To read more of the series click here.