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What makes life easier or more difficult for parents raising young children? How do parents from different cultural backgrounds view these issues? The Institute's Parenting-21 study of families from Anglo, Torres Strait Islander and Vietnamese communities provides some insights.
The Commonwealth Government's Stronger Families and Communities Strategy recognizes that in the vast majority of cases the wellbeing of young children is best met through the family within the context of a supportive community. Given the significance of early childhood experiences for healthy development, the Strategy emphasizes the importance of early intervention, including the provision of access to effective parent education programs.
Of course, the existence of early intervention programs does not guarantee their accessibility or effectiveness. As Weston (1995) noted, accessibility depends on the level of match between characteristics of a service and those of its potential users. Thus, accessibility will be limited to the wealthy if the service is very expensive, and to those with a good command of English or those who can bring along an interpreter if only English is spoken at the service. Similarly, location, hours of operation, waiting times and appointment delays may or may not represent barriers to service use, depending on such factors as distance to be travelled, modes of transport available, time pressures, and possibly, flexibility of work hours. Other, more subtle factors include the level of cultural sensitivity and respect shown by service providers, as perceived by potential consumers. And it goes without saying that a service will be ineffective if it fails to address the underlying needs confronting the consumer; some of these needs will be culture-specific.
Thus, in order to be effective, early intervention strategies directed towards enhancing parental competence need to be sensitive to the factors that can promote or undermine parenting in different cultural contexts. Such issues are particularly salient in Australia, given the cultural diversity of its families, but little is known about the everyday concerns that parents in different circumstances are confronting in raising their children.
In order to throw light on these experiences, the Australian Institute of Family Studies participated in an international study (the International Study of Schools, Parents and Children: ISPCS) the aim of which was to identify cross cultural differences and similarities in parenting beliefs, values, daily concerns and behavior. The study includes teams from the United States, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Poland and Sweden.
Then in 1997, the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Service, of the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, provided a grant to extend the Parenting-21 study to include 69 Torres Strait Islander families and other key informants. This component of the study involved a discussion with one extended family group from each of the five islands chosen in the Torres Strait. In addition, focus group discussions were held with men and women who were "elders" (with adult children), "experienced parents" (whose eldest child was in secondary school), and "young parents" (with an eldest child in primary school), as well as "key informants" (all of whom were service providers). From the information provided by participants in the three groups, this article identifies factors that enhance and hinder parents as they fulfill their child rearing responsibilities.
Similar sources of influences were identified by parents in the three groups. These are classified into (1) broad external factors, including support networks and employment-related issues, and (2) family focused factors such as the structural characteristics of the family, its internal dynamics, and personal attributes of family members. The same sources of influences were sometimes seen as supportive, sometimes as detrimental, and sometimes as both.
External sources of influences Socio-cultural context
A case in point is the issue of discipline which was raised by some parents who found that the introduction of "white man's law" had intruded and compromised parenting rights and generally contributed to difficulties in managing children's behavior:
"If you touch them [children], you definitely get into trouble. I think the system when they actually put that into place, [they] had never done their homework properly ... So they actually just made the rule because of, maybe, some incident that had happened in mainstream Australia and they never realized what would happen. They never really understood how the changes would affect people from the Torres Strait, because you've got kids now that are actually running amok. The parenting rights, they have been taken away, you're not allowed to [physically punish] your kid." (TSI young father)
Perceptions of contrasting disciplinary practices between their country of origin and Australia, and the long-term impact on their children of the "Australian way", was also expressed by some Vietnamese parents: "We came from Vietnam to live in Australia - East to West - and there are some cultural conflicts that create some confusion and difficulties in handling and rearing children." (Vietnamese parent, 16 years residence)
"Discipline - how to raise the children in a democratic way but not to lose them, [not] to make them uncontrollable" (Vietnamese parent, 18 years residence)
Cultural mores in Australia, which to some extent still entail the expectation that men will be the main breadwinners, and mothers the main child rearers, can also undermine the confidence of parents whose circumstances do not fit this model. This was clearly expressed by an Anglo father who was employed as a shift-worker. While his hours of work enabled him to be more actively involved in parenting, he described his sense of social rejection in the following way:
"It's difficult being a male looking after children ... I find in the community that it's set up a lot more for women looking after children. People almost look at you and think -- well, what are you doin' with them? Where's your wife?" (Anglo father)
Despite these competing expectations between culture of origin and mainstream Australia, the comments of Torres Strait Islander parents in particular suggested that their immediate community played a large part in assisting parents in their child rearing responsibilities. The individual communities in the Torres Strait are small and some parents felt that this fostered a strong community spirit and sense of neighborliness, with an accompanying acceptance of responsibility to look out for each other and to be vigilant about the wellbeing of each other's children.
"You're not worried about your child like people are down south. I wouldn't be worried about my child. She could be running about in the middle of the village but I know she's still safe. Even families that aren't really directly - like blood - related to me, they would look after her." (TSI young mother)
"During school holidays the whole community, we all go up to meet the children at the air-strip to show them they are important." (TSI key informant)
Reflection Exercise #2