Practicing Cultural Humility with Parents


Alfred Adler (1958) claimed that every child is born into a new and different family. He believed that with every additional member, family dynamics automatically shift and therefore a new family is born (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2004a). If we extend Adler’s thinking into the cultural domain, it might be appropriate to conclude: “Every family is born into a new and different culture.”

[This is an excerpt from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” It’s at: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=la_B0030LK6NM_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1369460232&sr=1-5%5D

To be sure, culture is not a static condition; it’s a malleable and powerfully influential force in the lives of parents and children. Vargas (2004) stated,

“Culture is not about outcome. Culture is an ever-changing process.  One cannot get a firm grip of it just as one cannot get a good grasp of water.  As an educator, what I try to do is to teach about the process of culture—how we will never obtain enough cultural content, how important it is to understand the cultural context in which we are working, and how crucial it is to understand our role in the interactions with the people with whom we want to work or the communities in which we seek to intervene. . . .  I do not want to enter the intervention arena (whether in family therapy or in implementing a community-based intervention) as an “expert” who has the answers and knows what needs to be done.  I am not a conquistador, intent on supplanting my culture on others.  I have a certain expertise that, when connected with the knowledge and experience of my clients, can be helpful and meaningful to my clients.” (p. 429)

In part, Vargas was making the point that it’s more important for professionals to practice cultural humility than it is to view ourselves as culturally competent.

A Cultural Dialectic

All professionals should strive to be culturally sensitive and humble, seeking to respect and prize human diversity for the richness, variety, and surprises it brings to life.  But while embracing culture, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no perfect culture, and sometimes cultural practices need to change or evolve for the sake of a given child, parent, or family.  Therefore, although we value divergent cultural perspectives, it’s also reasonable  to question whether specific cultural beliefs and rituals are useful or healthy to individuals, families, and communities. This is a cultural dialectic—similar to the radical acceptance dialectic discussed in Chapter 1.

When working with parents, it’s the professional’s job to do the cultural accepting and the parents’ job to do the cultural questioning. You should accept the parents’ cultural background, heritage, and parenting practices. However, if in the process of examining cultural influences on parenting, parents take the lead in questioning their culturally influenced parenting practices, you can and should remain open to helping parents push against cultural forces to make positive changes. For example, parents may want to discuss any of the following topics with you:

  • Whether or not to have their infant son circumcised
  • Their daughter’s body-image issues as they relate to American cultural values toward thinness
  • Whether it’s acceptable for their Muslim daughter to attend school or pursue higher education
  • Traditional Native American values and their children’s potential tobacco use

Helping parents determine whether their own cultural values clash with individual and/or family well-being is a delicate and potentially explosive process.  The challenge is to remain relatively neutral while helping parents evaluate cultural practices using their own parent-child-family health and well-being standards.

Case: Tobacco, Culture, and Addiction

Parent: I’m worried about my son and whether he’s started smoking. I use tobacco, in traditional Indian ceremonies, but I usually end up smoking more than I want to, and I see it as a bad habit, too. I’m not sure how to approach this with him because I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

Consultant: Tell me some ideas you’ve had, from your cultural perspective, about how to get the message you want to get to your son.

Parent: I want him to know that tobacco use should beceremonial or sacred, even though I use it more often than that. I know regular smoking is very unhealthy and so I don’t want him to have it as a habit, but I don’t know how to tell him that.

Consultant: If you think about someone from your tribe whom you really respect, how do you think that person would handle it?

Parent: In my tribe it’s really important to respect your elders. I’m my son’s mother and he should respect me, but you know how that goes. Maybe if I asked someone else, someone older and with even more respect than me, maybe that would help.

Consultant: Whom would you pick to help you talk with your son about this?

Parent: My older brother, his uncle, is pretty high up in the Tribal Government and maybe I could ask him to tell my son it would be better not to smoke, even though lots of Indian people smoke.

Consultant: Do you think your brother would be willing to give your son that message?

Parent: Yes. He’s traditional in some ways, but he’s very much against all smoking and drinking.

Consultant: You and your brother are both right about the dangers of regular tobacco use. As I imagine this discussion, I can see the two of you having a big impact on your son. But I guess there’s also the issue of your smoking and your son’s knowledge of that. Can you have your brother talk about that with your son, too? Or maybe both of you should do this together. How do you think this might work best?

In this case example, for the most part, the consultant is remaining neutral and respectful of the parent’s cultural traditions and yet, at the same time, helping her explore how to get her son a strong and clear message about not smoking tobacco.

Following the Parents’ Lead in Cultural Identity and Cultural Understanding

For most of us, culture is so deeply woven into our lives that it travels below awareness. From time to time we may glimpse it and wonder how it came to be that we choose to engage in specific cultural behaviors, such as:

  • Sitting on the couch with our children watching The Simpsons
  • Getting eggs from the store rather than directly from backyard chickens
  • Going to church on Palm Sunday where a processional, complete with a donkey, waits quietly in the sanctuary
  • Deferring to one’s husband
  • Expecting our oldest son to take care of us
  • Gathering with friends to overeat and watch the Super Bowl
  • Wearing a yarmulke, burkha, or other garments or pieces of cloth to cover our bodies or heads

Culture carries with it many questions, answers, and mysteries. As you can see from the preceding list, culture is ubiquitous; it’s impossible to escape its influence. It’s also impossible to accurately judge someone else’s cultural identity on the basis of physical appearance or initial impressions (Hays, 2008).

When working with parents, you shouldn’t assume parents’ cultural attitudes and experiences in advance. This is true no matter how similar or dissimilar to you the parents appear.  It’s best to begin with a clearly stated attitude of openness and then follow the parents’ lead.

Consultant: So, you grew up in Malawi?

Parent: Yes. I came to the United States when I was twenty-four.

Consultant: I don’t know how much of your Malawi tradition influences your parenting and so I hope it will be okay with you if, on occasion, I ask you about that.

Parent:  That’s no problem at all.

Consultant: And, as we talk, I hope you’ll feel free to tell me about anything that comes up or seems important about your particular cultural approach to parenting.

Parent: Yes. I’m comfortable with that.

Whether the parent is Laotian, Belizean, Argentine, French Canadian, or from any other cultural tradition, you should remain open to his or her particular and potentially diverse parenting approaches. However, you should also be open to helping parents question whether their own approaches to parenting are bringing them the results they desire. This is your professional duty. Again, the basic principle is to follow the parents’ lead in questioning cultural parenting practices and not become a cultural conquistador who tells all parents the one right way to be a parent.

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