Raising children in a different culture

Raising children in a different culture

Raising children in a different culture

Updated 3 June 2014, 9:55 AEST

What is it like for parents from Asian backgrounds raising their children in Australia? Are they really torn between two cultures – or have they struck a balance?

Bringing up a child in a different culture brings obvious challenges, from language to expectations about the role of parents. In a country like Australia, where "nearly half of the population is first- or second-generation Australian," it’s an increasingly relevant topic.

Anita Harris, an associate professor at Monash University and author of Young People and Everyday Multiculturalism, says the conventional way of thinking about young people who are second generation is that they are “torn between two cultures.” But is this the case?

When American law professor Amy Chua released her bestselling parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in 2011 she was forced to defend the book from accusations it perpetuated a stereotype of ‘humourless and relentless’ Asian parenting.

But the book launched a global discussion about zealous immigrant parenting and its opposite – the relaxed Western style of parenting often portrayed as too permissive.

Anita Harris says the reality is often more nuanced. “These days, young people are working out many number of influences, including those shaped by new media, technologies and global markets, rather than simply trying to move between two fixed sets of cultural expectations i.e., the ethnic family and the Anglo host environment,” she says.

Parental expectations

Artist Sapna Chandu was born in Australia and raised between Melbourne and Bangalore. She says she felt Australian while growing up, and this led to frustration with her parents’ expectations.

“I wanted to do things like go camping or to the beach and my parents wouldn't allow it. They didn't want me to go in the sun because they didn't want me to get tanned,” she says. “It was very difficult for me to understand their priorities.”

Swimmers at Sydney's Coogee beach
Swimmers at Sydney's Coogee beach

Australia is famous for its beautiful beaches (Credit:ABC)

But there can also be high expectations from children. As Chinese-born Australian Ning Pan, an ABC journalist, discovered when her son came home asking for ‘fairy bread’ for his picnic at school. She was clueless about what he meant.

“I asked myself, ‘what is that?’ I told him I didn’t know about fairy bread.” Although the internet came in handy and the recipe was quite simple, the response left her son in doubt.

“My son looked at my confused face and said, ‘Mom knows everything, right?’

“I guess raising children is hard, but raising children in a culture you didn’t grow up in yourself is a bigger challenge which needs understanding, frankness, a bit of more bravery and life-long learning,” she says.

Fairy Bread slices
Fairy Bread slices

Fairy bread is plain white bread dusted with colourful sprinkles (Credit:ABC)

Schooling and career choices

Migrating to a different country can build anxiety around the prospect of future employment and career choices.

Margaret Lau, a second generation Chinese Australian says, “My mother ultimately came down on the side of ‘do something that makes you happy, that will make you money’. So when I told her I wanted to do a PhD in creative writing, she asked me a lot of questions to understand the purpose of a PhD.”

“I think my mother also understood that I'd be very unhappy if I was pressured to do something that I didn't want to do,” she says. “So though my mother emphasised financial stability, she also advocated for something that I could enjoy.”

Sapna Chandu, who studied dentistry for five years but is now a professional artist, says her parents expected her to become a dentist but that wasn’t something she always wanted.

“Now I'm glad I still do dentistry. I love doing it part-time and the art has really pushed my technique, perception and dexterity to a much higher level.”

Child holding a pencil
Child holding a pencil

Schooling and career choices are sometimes an a source of anxiety to those who migrate (Credit: ABC)

But parents can add unwanted pressure when it comes to school grades, as writer Sunil Badami found out.

My parents were strict to a degree – my father always put a lot of pressure on me to succeed and gave me a hard time about not coming first in every class.

“But I did know a lot of my Indian friends and peers were put under incredible pressure by their parents to become doctors – and to my mother’s credit, although she’s always questioned my desire to be a writer, and would have loved me to become a doctor, she never criticised my career choice.”

 Instilling cultural practices

Sunil Badami married an Anglo-Australian and feels his daughters will benefit from the multicultural environment they are growing up in.

“I love that my children don’t just have one culture to choose from. I know growing up in a recently White Australia Policy and assimilative Australian society I was often embarrassed to be Indian, to be visibly different,” he says. “But my children’s primary school recently had a term long celebration of Indian history and culture – something unimaginable for me growing up.

“Our girls still don’t love Indian food – it’s the spice – but then neither did I growing up. But they are exposed to Indian culture and food as much as possible. They have pictures of the goddesses they’re named after in their room, and we tell them stories and read them Amar Chitra Kathas as much as possible!”

Female dancers in an Indian bollywood dance pose at Multicultural Festival 2014
Female dancers in an Indian bollywood dance pose at Multicultural Festival 2014

Balancing more than one culture has its benefits (Credit: ABC)

Growing up, Sapna Chandu felt she could choose from the best of both worlds.

“Yes, [there were] definitely positive aspects like understanding the Aussie way of life but still feeling my Indian heritage as we went back to Indian every second year and I studied Bharatanatyam for 20 years or so.”

Professor Anita Harris says young people growing up in a multicultural society often learn to balance different cultures. “They have all kinds of creative ways to cross cultural borders,” she says.

A balancing act

Straddling two or more cultures is perhaps tougher for parents who have migrated than children who were born in Australia. Professor Anita Harris says young people of culturally diverse backgrounds have all kinds of creative and practical ways to interact and create friendships and intimate relationships.

 “For example, young Muslims I have researched have close intercultural networks forged through mutually agreeable social activities. For example, they might avoid socialising through drinking but get involved in bushwalking with Anglo and other non-Muslim friends,” she says.

And there will always be points of difference between styles of parenting, not based solely on race or ethnicities, but also social contexts, priorities and personality.

Muslim girls wearing the Australian flag like a hijab
Muslim girls wearing the Australian flag like a hijab

Multiculturalism and balance (Credit:ABC)

“I think the big difference between Eastern and Western philosophies of parenting is that Asian children often feel a deep obligation and responsibility to their parents, from unquestioning acceptance of parental discipline, to the feeling that they are responsible for family honour, or later, looking after their parents,” says Sunil Badami.

“There’s a sense of being part of an overriding family unit and communal culture, rather than the individuality that Western parenting encourages,” he adds.

But in the end, every parent wants their child to have a happy life, irrespective of their own culture and faith.

“I guess every parent is weighing: should I give them a push or let them be? I think the key in this question is passion, no matter in which culture we are raising our children,” says Ning Pan.

“As parents, we need to lead them to find their passion: passion in learning, passion in life. And try to inspire them, not push them along the way. Anyway it’s their life to live, their decision to make; we are just the ones to guide them through the journey,” she adds.