Parenting in a new culture a challenge for African migrant families

Deakin health researcher Associate Professor Andre Renzaho has been examining how migrant families settle into Australian culture. He has found that reconciling the parenting style of their home country with what is accepted practice in Australia is a challenge for many parents, and often leads to family conflict.

“My research has highlighted the issues that arise when two differing parenting styles collide,” Associate Professor Renzaho said.

“Australian culture reflects values and practices that seem inconsistent with traditional parenting from the migrant parents’ country of origin.

“We cannot expect African migrant parents to simply dismiss their cultural norms as soon as they arrive in Australia. We need to provide them with information and tools to make it easier for them to understand and adapt to the Australian way of life in a way that is also sensitive to their own cultures.”

Associate Professor Renzaho explained that African migrant families come from a culture based on an authoritarian parenting style that centres on the collective family, respect for elders, corporal punishment and interdependence.

“This is a stark contrast with the Australian parenting style that promotes the individual, freedom, self-determination and independence,” he said.

“The role of the Australian legal system in determining what parents can and cannot do is also foreign to migrant parents who are used to having the final say on how they parent.

“We found that many parents do not trust the legal system and see it as undermining their roles and the overall functioning of the family.

“Children pick up the Australian cultural norms and understand the legal system quicker than their parents and are known to disarm authoritarian parenting practices by the threat of state laws that would lead to family separation.

“The unfamiliar power of state intervention to separate a family for disciplinarian practices is an omnipresent threat, which appears to have far reaching effects on the family functioning, including gender roles of the parents as well as health and wellbeing of these migrant communities in Australia.”

A specially designed parenting program piloted in Melbourne has shown promise in improving the relationships between parents and children.

The program involved 39 African migrant and refugee families in Melbourne. It consisted of skills development and education sessions designed to help parents raise their children confidently and understand their children’s needs in the new cultural, social and educational environment in Australia.

“In evaluating the program we found improvements in parental expectations, parental empathy towards their children’s needs, awareness and acknowledgement of alternatives to corporal punishment and parent-child family roles,” Associate Professor Renzaho said.

“However, there was no change in children’s independence, suggesting that the parenting program did not impact on attitudes towards allowing their children to have power in the family or operate independently.

“Interdependence between family members sits at the core of traditional values for African families and, as we found with this program, will not be transformed quickly. Unless addressed, this clash of cultures will continue to cause conflict between parents and children.

“Future programs will need to explore ways of encouraging parents to allow their children more independence in a way that does not reject their traditional and cultural identity and incorporate training in Australian family laws and how they relate to parenting.”

Associate Professor Renzaho’s research has been recently published in the Journal of Family Studies, the journal Child and Family Social Work and the International Journal of Intercultural Relations.