Children’s separation from their family is part of the immigration process worldwide as millions of children are left behind by their parents who migrate to find a job and seek a better future for their offspring in terms of education, health and housing. Even though transnational family life most commonly aims to family reunification or return migration, the physical distance between migrant parents and children during this lengthy process may have a negative impact on connectedness between family members. Therefore, managing family relationships from a distance might be more feasible for a limited time-span or in certain phases of the life course.
Moreover, family migration plays an important role in learning about one’s culture and about the host culture. The latter is crucial for the process of developing an ethnic identity as immigrants try to understand and reconcile differences of culture, values, and prejudices of home and host cultures (Phinney, 2000). Parental figures are fundamental in the formation of ethnic identity as parents can foster the transmission of cultural knowledge. This is important given that children as early as age 3, internalise messages relating to their cultural and racial identity and exhibit racist behaviour (Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2002). Moreover, related research has found that after age 9, negative stereotypes of identities tend to remain stable unless a child experiences a life-changing event (Aboud, 1988). Thus, unless children gain awareness on cultural issues before adolescence, it is likely they will grow up with negative attitudes.
Parents of left behind children should raise their children’s cultural awareness and foster their cultural competence. Cultural competence is about one’s awareness of their culture which includes ethnic and racial affiliations. According to The National Center for Cultural Competence (NCCC), cultural competence entails five elements. Those include valuing diversity, ongoing self-assessment, managing the dynamics of the difference, acquiring cultural knowledge and adapting to diversity and the cultural contexts of the community (Howard, 2010).
Parents can work toward intercultural awareness and cultural competence by talking to their children about diversity and promoting tolerance for other cultures. Apart from knowledge gains, learning about their migrant parent’s host culture can help children gain important interpersonal and communication skills and improve their perception of other cultures and cultural identities, leading to a greater appreciation of differences in terms of ethnicity, but also gender, religion etc. Cultural competence can help children understand and respect different histories, cultures, languages, traditions, valuing how diversity promotes richness in community and society.
Talking openly about identity can help left behind children make bridges across cultures and traditions. The more they learn about who they are and where they come from, the closer they will get to building a respectful attitude towards others. As a result, increased cultural awareness can teach children the importance of tolerance and empathy and help them create a safe and accepting and environment in their interactions with others.
Also, engaging in conversations and activities that foster intercultural awareness can assist migrant parents in building a better relationship with their left behind children through meaningful communication and exchange of experiences that can help overcome the barriers of physical distance. Parents may inform their children about the culture of the country they live in and prepare them if they plan to move to the same country by sharing cultural experiences, traditions, norms and the cultural dos and don’ts. This process can help broaden the child’s horizons and teach them the importance of flexibility and adaptation. At the same time, the child’s sharing of traditions and events taking place in their home country might help parents to keep in touch with their roots and home culture. Even in the absence of face-to-face interaction and despite spatial distance, the discussion on cultural issues can help maintain family bonds and feelings of closeness.
The following suggestions might help parents in the process of raising their children’s cultural awareness and competence. First, it is very important to promote their children’s critical thinking skills through careful examining and posing the right questions. Also, providing a response to children’s questions and comments about cultural differences is necessary even when they are not certain about the right answer, as a lack of response conveys the message that it is unacceptable to talk about differences. If parents feel unsure it is preferable to say something like “I will think deeper about your question and talk to you later about it.” (Pulido-Tobiassen & Gonzalez-Mena, 1999).
Also, parents should be listening carefully to what children are saying and come up with a few clarification questions to get a better picture of what they already know on the specific topic and what is more that they need to learn. Furthermore, what is important is for parents to adapt as well their questions and responses to the child’s age and personality. Another idea that might be helpful for parents is to share their thoughts and ideas with other parents or colleagues, as this exchange might help them gain new ideas and insights in order to find what works best for their children.
When touching upon the issues of culture, discrimination and prejudice it is important for parents to model the behaviours and attitudes they would like their children to develop. This entails paying special attention to situations that may promote prejudice instead of openness to diversity. For example, parents can draw related examples from books, songs, paintings, etc. In addition to that, parents should never neglect racist and prejudicial remarks without commenting or making an intervention. It is essential to develop a zero-tolerance policy on name-calling and discrimination of any kind, including race and ethnicity.
What might help towards this end, is to create opportunities for children to interact and make friends with others who might be different from them in several ways, as children learn best from concrete experiences. It may also be useful to introduce children to role models not only from their own culture, but also from other cultures and with diverse background. Developing positive relationships with people who are different teaches children to value such relationships and backgrounds (Pulido-Tobiassen & Gonzalez-Mena, 1999).
Parents raising their left behind children’s cultural awareness and cultural competence can help those foster a positive identity and sense of self and contribute to them valuing other cultures and diversity in general. Parental guidance and experience-sharing with their children will also help them come closer and bond despite being apart and living in different cultures, nurturing the parent-child relationship and helping the dyad overcome the barriers of physical distance. Also, intercultural awareness may ease the process of family reunification when this takes place, as children who are aware of their home and host cultures will be better able to navigate in the new community. Last but not least, raising intercultural awareness in children is pivotal in a broader sense, contributing to building a world characterised by respect and humanity.
- Aboud, F. (1988). Children and Prejudice. Wiley-Blackwell.
- Holladay, S., Denton, D., Harding, D., Lee, M., Lackovich, R., & Coleman, M. (1997). Granddaughters’ accounts of the influence of parental mediation on relational closeness with maternal grandmothers. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 45(1), 23–38.
- Howard, T. (2010). Why race and culture matter in schools: Closing the achievement gap in America’s classrooms. Teachers College Press.
- Phinney, J.S. (2000). Identity formation across cultures: The interaction of personal, societal, and historical change. Human Development, 43, 27-31.
- Pulido-Tobiassen, D., Gonzalez-Mena, J., & California Tomorrow (Organization). (1999). A place to begin: Working with parents on issues of diversity. San Francisco, CA: California Tomorrow.
- Van Ausdale, D., & Feagin, J. R. (2002). The first r: How children learn race and racism. Rowman & Littlefield.