Family Values: its repercussions on care arrangements for immigrant children

by Dr. Carmencita de la Cerna

In the transition from one culture to another, the value systems of a culture of origin could be challenged by the cultural values of the host society. However, immigrants try to adapt to their environment as a coping strategy in spite of the multiplicity and complexity of challenges in cross cultural transition (Ward, Bochner & Furnham, 2001).

Migrant Settlement

Adaptation and social integration of immigrant families in any country is a complex process. Settling in a new environment requires skills “to cope with everyday requirements” as migration is a dislocating process (Ho, Cheung, Bedford, & Leung 2000:27). One could face a feeling of disorientation owing to the shift of environmental conditions including the lack of support system and link with the mainstream community (p.30). Linguistic barriers may also intensify the feeling of estrangement exacerbated by the lack of knowledge of culturally appropriate services available to immigrant families (p.41). Age of arrival into a new country is also regarded as vital in the successful settlement of immigrants. A few studies have shown that young immigrants were more resilient and readily accepting of the cultural norms of the host society compared with their parents (Marin, Marin, Otero-Sabogal, Perez-Stable, & Sabogal, 1987; Beiser, Barwick, Berry, da Costa, Fantino, Ganesan, et al., 1988; Ward, Bochner & Furnham, 2001). On the other hand, older immigrants have a strong attachment to their culture origin and would desire the maintenance of their home culture. However, in the settlement process, immigrant families endeavour to adapt to the requirements of the host culture and may compromise some of their customs and traditions. Migrants do not simply dismiss their tradition in favour of the cultural practices in the host society. Immigrant families make choices which family values and cultural practices can change and which ones are not negotiable (Gonzales-Mena, 1997).

Cultural Pluralism

The notion of cultural pluralism accepts that groups should be allowed, even encouraged to hold on to, what gives them their unique identity whilst maintaining their membership in the larger social framework (Gonzales-Mena, 1997:9). The importance of recognising cultural differences is crucial in the successful settlement of immigrants. An inquiry into the migrant settlement in Australia in 1986 suggests that the culmination of settlement is in the “full and equal participation in Australian society” (Jupp Report cited in Fletcher, 1999:18). This same report continued that the difficulty of migrants to fully participate in Australian society maybe construed as the “failure of social institutions to take adequate account of the different needs and circumstances of the populations they are responsible to serve” (p.19).

Australia is a multicultural society with its residents born in over 200 countries with 160 ancestries differing in history, home language, religious beliefs and family traditions (ABS 2002; 2003). Australia’s multi-ethnic composition of its population has to be acknowledged and their needs built in the “program planning aimed at immigrants and their children” (ABS, 2003:1). Accommodating culturally appropriate needs in the provisions of service deliveries could help families in their settlement. One of which is a culturally sensitive child care while parents are looking for jobs or attending English classes.

Hence, child care services should be able to respond flexibly and appropriately to the needs of immigrant families. It is important that early childhood professionals in the field are cognizant of culture-specific child rearing practices of families of ethnic minorities. Early childhood professionals should be able to address the issues of bridging parental practices in the home and in mainstream child care services in their programming. Where a service may not be able to meet all parental expectations and goals for their children under existing Australian political conditions, these should be discussed with parents to reach an understanding to achieve a common goal for the benefit of the children in their care.

Culture and Parenting

Culture is a way of life unique to a group of people bound by rules of interactions and relationships (Berry, Poortinga, Segall & Dasen, 1992:67). These rules are socially constructed guiding the conduct of persons within a group in the performance of culturally acceptable task (Valsiner & Litnovic, 1996:60). According to Rosental (in Wise & Sanson, 2000:5) cultural values and attitudes of parents regulate child rearing practices and expected developmental outcomes of children in their care. For example, in traditional or collectivistic societies, obedience of authority, cooperation, living in harmony and altruism are valued (Wittmer & Petersen, 2006, Fuligni, Tseng & Lam, 1999). In highly developed countries, individualistic orientation, competition and independence are paramount (Bornstein, Tal & le Monda, 1991; Markus & Kitayama, 1991) and separate from “ascribed relationship such as family, community and religion” (Kim, 1997:149). Another example of cultural influence in child rearing practices is in sleeping practices. In Western cultures, children are trained early to sleep on their own as opposed to Asian cultures where tradition dictates that the infant sleeps with the mother not only because there is only one room in the house and everybody sleeps in the same room (Matsumoto, 1996).

While, there is a tendency to generalise the characteristics of a culture, there are no stereotypical cultural practices. Although Asians as a race is assumed to share some similar cultural values, “individual Asian cultures …differ in the degree to which they endorse these values (Kim, Yang, Atkinson, Wolfe & Hong, 2001). The same can be surmised of those in the Western cultures. It is important to remember though, that culture is “never static; it continues to evolve …When one culture rubs up against another, both are transformed” (Gonzalez-Mena, 1997:32).

However, other factors also affect parenting practices such as economic conditions and environment as well as family structure. (Matsumoto 1996:96). For example, families living in a fishing village may inculcate different values and different expectations from their children compared with families living in the urban areas. Children in families living in rural villages may be expected to follow a similar occupation they grew up with because of limited opportunities. Children of families in urban areas may be expected to become a formally schooled adult. The extended family structure also makes a difference in the care giving practices of families because aunts, uncles, and grandparents are available to support in the care of children. The support of an extended family system can help alleviate the stress in everyday living and care of the family (Matsumoto, 1996:97).

Child Development Theories

Understanding a child’s development must be seen in the light of culture and circumstances. Early childhood research acknowledges the psychosocial theory by Erikson (1950; 1963; 1965) which pointed out the development of self through interactions with others in its environment. The various contexts in the environments surrounding a child and their impact on the child are carefully mapped out in the ecological theory by Bronfenbrenner (1979; 1992). These contexts may include those in the immediate environment (home, child care and school) and those other contexts which do not necessarily contain the child (parents’ workplace, customs and tradition of a society) are all deemed to influence a child’s development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; 1992; Hujala-Huttunen, 1996, Gallimore, Weisner, Kaufman & Bernheimer, 1989; Berk, 2006).

However, a child is not a passive recipient of influence. The ecocultural theory of Gallimore, Weisner, Kaufman & Bernheimer (1989) proposed the reciprocity of influence between a family and a child and its environment. Similarly, Vygotsky’s sociocultural model (in John-Steiner, & Souberman, 1978) also suggested the adaptive capabilities of children and the bidirectional relationships between the child and the environment or in a child-caregiver relationship. A more specific example was contended by Caulfield (1995:4) in his sociocultural model of reciprocity which suggests that a caregiver’s response and interactions with the child are influenced by a caregiver’s cultural beliefs and expectations.

The reciprocal relationship between the child and its caregiver has a significant impact on a child’s survival. This is acknowledged in Bowlby’s (1969) theory of attachment. In the attachment theory, the primary caregiver usually the mother is at the top of the hierarchy. Attachment is defined by Schaffer and Emerson (cited in Ferguson, 1970:42) as the “tendency of the young to seek the proximity of certain other members of the species.” This is a tendency of human infant to seek contact or proximity or social interaction (Ferguson, 1970; Harrison, 2003). The reciprocity of influence in child-caregiver interaction suggests that a human infant is an active participant in social interaction not just a passive recipient.

The Study

This study investigated care giving practices in 15 child care centres as well as the child rearing practices and values of three cultural groups namely: the Filipinos, the Cambodians and the Sudanese. Child care directors were interviewed about their perceptions of factors influencing parents from non-Anglo backgrounds in their choices for non-parental care. They were also interviewed regarding the child care centre’s responses to cultural diversity and how they were reflected in their staffing and programming. Parent informants comprising of 40 Filipinos, 15 Cambodians and 30 Sudanese families in South Australia were also interviewed about their cultural values, child rearing practices and their preferred alternative child care arrangements.

The overriding question of this study was:
To what extent are Australian child care centres responsive to the needs and values of people from non-Anglo backgrounds?


A social constructivist approach in a qualitative paradigm was adopted for this study investigating who, what and why (Berg, 2007; Sercu, Garcia, & Prieto, 2005; Denzin & Lincoln, 1998; Von Glaserfeld, 1996, Wadsworth, 1996). Social constructivism suggests that an individual constructs ones’ reality in the interaction with his or her environment based on previously constructed perceptual and conceptual structures (Von Glaserfield, 1996:5). Social constructivism works well with an indigenous approach in the collection of data which according to Enriquez (1997:48) employs techniques that are culturally sensitive reflecting the ways of the population being investigated. An indigenous approach may include asking around, repeating questions and asking different informants, to collect meaningful data and to increase reliability of responses (Enriquez, 1997:48).

Three techniques were used in the collection of data: a) the Background Information Questionnaire, b) narrative interviewing, and c) the vignettes. In narrative interviewing, relating of personal experiences was aimed to collect culturally meaningful data. A narrative is a construction of self via story telling (Sands, 2004:48). It is “shaped and organised by asking and answering questions” wherein participants express their “thoughts and feelings” (Hyden & Overlien, 2004:254). The story represents individual’s experience and the story is told according to one’s understanding of events to give meaning to that experience (Hyden & Overlien, 2004:250; Reissman, 1993:2).

Generative questions were used in narrative interviews followed up by subsequent questions to ascertain particular points. Vignettes were also used in narrative interviews. Vignettes are hypothetical scenarios which approximate realistic events and therefore provide opportunities to interviewees to relate to it (Poulou, 2001: Abstract; Soydan, 1996:123; Finch 1987). Through these techniques, parent informants and child care directors were able to express their interpretations of their experience. Personal interpretations of experience were important for this study in the attempt to understand what was really happening in the early childhood field.

Results of the Study

Choice of Child Care

The results of the study have shown parent informants’ preference for traditional values which were also reflected in their choices of alternative care for their young children. The preference for maternal care came out overwhelmingly from the Filipino and Cambodian informants while the majority of the Sudanese used mainstream child care.

The Filipinos

Fifty-five percent of Filipino informants indicated the preference for maternal care for their children; 17.5% chose Filipino carers as alternative carers for their children; 27.5% made use of other types of care such as Outside-School-Hours Care (OSHC); family day care; informal arrangements with neighbours and occasional care for very young children when they went shopping which rarely happened. Centre-based care was used only by 7.5% of informants who had both neonates and toddlers.

The Cambodians

The majority (73%) of Cambodian informants preferred maternal care for their children with grandparents as alternative carers occasionally; 6.67 % had a grandmother to look after her 15-month old child; another 6.67% hired a Cambodian friend. Only 13.33% chose child care centres.

The Sudanese

Eighty per cent of the Sudanese sample used centre-based mainstream child care; 6.67% stayed home to take care of their families; 3.33 % used vacation care and another 3.33% was waiting for a place in child care. Although the majority of Sudanese informants used centre-based care, this did not necessarily mean it was their preferred type of care. According to Sudanese informants they did not have a choice because the English language schools made the choice for them. Also, being refugees and new arrivals they did not have a support system that Filipino and Cambodian families had.

There were other issues that emerged from this study: a) dissonance of values and care giving practices between the home and centre-based care, b) a few directors did not have the minimum educational qualifications required for a child care worker as provided for in the Children’s Services (Child Care Centre) Regulations 1998 and no one had a graduate qualification in management, c) perceived lack of qualified applicants for child care positions from culturally diverse backgrounds, d) informant directors’ limited understanding in the application of cultural pluralism in the workplace, e) limited resources to aid in the understanding of child rearing practices of other cultures, f) existing resources offered only basic information and therefore were inadequate to provide the needed understanding of cultures of ethnic minorities, g) child care centres with directors from non-English speaking background had more staff members and service users from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Family Values

There were shared cultural values by the Filipino, Cambodian and Sudanese informants as well as practices unique to each group.

Essential Cultural Values among a selected Filipinos, Cambodians and Sudanese Families

Although parent informants were insistent on following their traditional family values and practices, they were also willing to negotiate and compromise to meet demands of their children in a changing environment and where there was legal implication such as those in the child protection legislation. However, there were aspects of informants’ traditions they remained adamant to maintain. Among them were respect, obedience, interdependence of family members, parental authority and aspects of religion-related practices.


This study highlighted shortcomings in the child care services but also appreciates the importance and complexity of the roles of a child care workers. The work of early childhood professionals is becoming complex because they are not simply taking care of children but are responsible for the future workforce of the country. Therefore, they are loaded with the task of providing children in their care with an atmosphere that would contribute to their optimum development. To achieve such a goal, early childhood workers have to be very knowledgeable, not only about government regulations, but also about child development and child rearing practices of families from different cultures and in various contexts.

Cultural pluralism in children’s services is essential in a culturally diverse society like Australia and will continue to be so. Cultural practices of migrant families have to be acknowledged and their needs have to be incorporated in child care programming (ABS, 2003:1). If child care services are committed to cultural pluralism, it is important that early childhood professionals recognise the diversity of culture-specific child rearing practices of families particularly of the ethnic minorities and address the issues pertinent to bridging parental practices in the home and in non-parental care.

However, some accommodation will have to be made by families using the child care service because a group care setting is constrained by administrative and legal requirements. Hence, it is imperative that there is effective communication between families and staff to be able to reach an acceptable compromise to best serve the interest of children.

Awareness of the shortcomings of the service is a starting point to address the issues of concerns through discussions, reflections, professional development and upgrading of resources.


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Dr. Carmencita de la Cerna
obtained her Doctor of Philosophy from the University of South Australia in 2007, her Master of Management degree from the University of the Philippines in Cebu in 1987 and her Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Cebu of Institute of Technology in 1966. Her research interests include early childhood education, cultural pluralism, child care and child rearing.


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