Raising Children of Peace
Edited by Farley and Betsy Jones
Chapter 3 Past, Present, and Future
Parenting from the Experience of a Multicultural Family
C. Thomas Phillips
Although by all appearances my family of origin is an average white American family of European background, however, my grandparents on my mother's side were Native Americans. Raised with an awareness of my Native American background, I also became painfully aware of the lack of harmony between the two races.
The discrimination which my grandfather experienced had led him to deny his Indian background as ignoble and pagan. This denial of his inheritance produced a silent suffering which he was to bear throughout his life. On one occasion he said to me, "Never marry outside of your race, because it is the children who suffer. They will have no place where they truly belong:" However, later it was this same grandfather, a Christian minister, who would preside over our civil marriage, after coming to appreciate the contribution which my Japanese wife brought to our family. He interpreted our marriage as a return to our family's Native American background because of the resemblance of Orientals to some Native Americans.
The conflict between Native American culture and European culture remains unresolved. Native Americans had to leave their culture behind on the reservation to join the dominant culture. Part of my personal quest for identity was to resolve this historical conflict which I had inherited. International marriage appealed to me as a logical solution or perhaps even my destiny.
Genuine Love Requires a Sacrifice
In order for multiracial or multicultural marriages to be successful, couples should be prepared to sacrifice previously held ideals or norms about the family. Usually our model for parenting comes from experiences growing up with our parents, which varies even within one culture. However, especially when your spouse comes from a different race or nationality, it is necessary to recognize that the roles ascribed to husbands and wives, and fathers and mothers may differ drastically from culture to culture.
My wife's father had indisputable authority in the family, while my parents shared authority. In the beginning of our family life I expected to discuss issues with my wife to reach a common agreement. However, my wife expected me to assume the role held by her father and to give clear direction. This difference in understanding of our roles sometimes led to tensions or confusion in our relationship. However, this dilemma forced me to take more initiative and assume greater responsibility, while stimulating my wife to be more reflective and expressive about her own viewpoint and feelings.
Genuine love often requires a sacrifice of individual concerns or desires for the sake of the happiness of significant others. One of the unique sacrifices made in international marriages may be related to self-expression and language. Although Americans are very open about their feelings and are accustomed to articulating themselves, Japanese generally have a negative concept about people who easily express themselves. In Japanese culture, feelings are often kept deep inside, to the degree that one can lose touch with his or her real feelings. Feelings are often conveyed in Japanese very subtly by a single word and sometimes silence conveys a whole volume of thought. An international couple with different native languages has to work out how to communicate, finding a "common language" through which they can convey their feelings, moods and concerns.
Also, in international marriages, spouses may have differing childhood memories of national or religious holidays. Therefore, it becomes necessary to decide which traditions your multicultural family will transmit to your children. Couples have to go through a process of rethinking the values transmitted in various traditions and then determine how they can be reapplied into their family tradition.
Although some sacrifices are required, there is also the rich possibility of realizing a higher level of love as two opposite cultures meet in marriage. Our approach to parenting has been to create a nurturing environment for our children based on our efforts to harmonize the two cultures represented in our marriage. We have sought to understand and learn from one another, bringing out the best aspects of our cultures as the foundation for educating our children.
From the outset, we were challenged with how to harmonize our different concepts about celebrating our children's first birthdays. The first celebration, which I had left totally to my wife's discretion, was an affair with adults enjoying a very nice meal while the children were left to plan among themselves. Her family celebrated their birthdays simply-with a special meal together without any special gifts or party. In my family, there was always a lot of celebrating: one year a skating party, the next year at the beach, and so forth. My wife and I then had to discuss together what are the good aspects of having a special celebration while also teaching children to appreciate more simple and intimate gatherings as a family.
Another experience that we have crossed over in our family is how to recognize Christmas. For many Americans, Christmas brings special memories and feelings. My wife had celebrated it in Japan with a cake and the exchange of cards among a few friends. We were undecided if we should introduce gift-giving at Christmas into our family tradition due to the excessive commercial emphasis. However, upon recounting the story of the Magi offering gifts to Christ as the inspiration for gift-giving at Christmas, we could appreciate the original motivation for the tradition. Then, by using gift-giving as an opportunity to teach our children the value of giving rather than anticipating and expecting what would be given to them, we could give them moral guidance and share the Christmas story.
We have never studied parenting or even formally discussed our different approaches to parenting. However, we are in agreement that parenting has a great deal to do with the quality of our relationship as husband and wife. To guide our children to be mature, loving and interdependent people, we are striving to live a Principle centered life which can inspire our children. We recognize that our limitations will influence our children's spiritual and moral development. Therefore, as parents, we feel that we should be continuously seeking our own spiritual growth.
Today there is much about returning to traditional family values as though there is some ideal state which the family has enjoyed in the past. However, evidence from anthropologists and sociologists point to the fact that families have been evolving throughout history. This evolution comes in part as a response to balance the needs of the family within the social environment.
Therefore, families in different cultures have responded in different ways to the needs for independence and interdependence of family members. Family members are interdependent upon one another for material and spiritual needs; however, each family member also seeks some degree of independence, in order to be well-adjusted emotionally and spiritually within the social environment.
David Augsburger, a Mennonite professor of pastoral counseling, has examined different family types in different cultures and has identified paradoxical needs found in all families. These include the need for interdependence and independence, the need for horizontal relationships and vertical relationships, the need for love and justice, and the needs of inner directed security and outer directed service to the community. Families are challenged to find some balance between the poles of these paradoxes. This structure will serve as the format for describing the process our family is encountering in our effort to create balance and harmony between American and Japanese cultures.
Interdependence / Independence
In my wife's family of origin each family member had a responsibility and a destiny relative to their position in the family. There were very clear expectations from each of the family members based on their order of birth.
In my family of origin each member of the family was a highly differentiated individual. Both my mother and father were wage earners; therefore, both shared household responsibilities and came to decisions as equal partners. However, the high degree of differentiation within our family made it difficult at times to come together as family.
Because we both have experienced the strengths and weakness in both models of families with highly interdependent relations and highly independent lifestyles, my wife and I consciously seek the qualities lacking in our family backgrounds. We have tried to create a sense of the special responsibility that each person has toward the family while trying to create an atmosphere where spontaneity allows us to respond to the needs of our children as individuals. We want our children to be interdependent, to find a balance between developing their own unique abilities and characteristics and maintaining a sense of duty toward other members of the family.
Horizontal / Vertical
In my wife's family there was a very strong sense of vertical order which was more important than horizontal relationships. The primary relationship was between the parents and children. In her home, after a certain age, her mother slept with her and her sister, and her father slept with her four brothers. This vertical order extended into a strong awareness of ancestors, going back many generations, and an awareness of responsibility to future generations. However, in the Japanese family the relationships and obligations between children and parents are often emphasized more than the relationships and obligations between the parents. This creates some confusion about the value of the husband and wife relationship beyond child bearing.
In my own family experience, like most American families, horizontal relationships were more emphasized. The primary relationship of American families involves the relationship between the parents. The parent/child relationship is somewhat secondary. The parents are not viewed with the respect given in Oriental societies and usually seek a relationship more like an elder friend. Also, my family had little awareness about our ancestors, except for our American Indian ancestors and only a vague sense of responsibility to future descendants.
We have felt the importance of our relationship as parents as the root of love in our family. But also our relationship with our children is very important. We have often felt that our children's inability to love or overcome certain situations is directly related to our own problems. It is as though the vertical relationship between parents and children determines the quality of their horizontal love among each other. We have enjoyed adding into our family tradition aspects of my wife's family experience such as sleeping together with our children. While at the same time trying to model to our children our loving relationship as a couple. We teach our children to respect their parents by the respect we show to one another, while not becoming so distant that they cannot share their feelings easily with us. Also, the vertical aspect of awareness of the presence of ancestors and our responsibility to future generations has given an added sense of meaning and purpose to our family life.
Love / Justice
Unconditional love is an important aspect of true love; however, the wholeness of the family must be maintained by a sense of fairness and justice. My wife's experience in family life was affected by her being one of six children. My wife has a strong expectation that children will observe principles of conduct and behavior in respect to their position in the family.
My parents expressed love and unconditional acceptance of their children regardless of performance. We were given a great deal of trust and freedom, while discipline was usually only given when things seemed to be getting out of control. This may also be the result of coming from a family with only two children.
While children need to feel unconditional love from parents, they also need to learn order and justice in the family, this will help them become responsible members of the society and learn to control their own desires at times for the sake of the whole. In this area I have gained much from my wife's approach, being more strict and demanding of our children when they are young, and then gradually giving them greater freedom and responsibility as they grow older. Discipline can also be an expression of true love, sometimes giving children d greater sense of their parents' love than a less demanding love.
Inner Directed Security, Outer Directed Service
Sometimes parenting and public life are seen as conflicting poles of family life. Traditionally, fathers have taken the role of public service and mothers the role of parenting. Inwardly families are directed to guarantee the protection of the member of the family, while outwardly they are encouraged to serve the larger society.
The greatest joy for our children is seeing their parents lovingly relating to one another. This gives them a great sense of security and value. However, we recognize something is always lacking in our ability to give to each child according to their needs. Therefore, in our family we have also emphasized the need for serving others outside of our immediate family. We have tried to give our children a sense of pride that their parents are also living for a purpose greater than their own family. Then, they can feel proud when they are asked to make a sacrifice as a family -- such as when our service requires us to be away from one another. As we reach out in service to society, we bring back to the family a deeper love and appreciation for one another. Others are then drawn into our family-giving to our children in areas where we are lacking.
As a multicultural couple we have sought to bridge our cultures through our relationship of love, establishing a family nourished by the best of both cultures. We want our children to become global citizens and world leaders who can usher in an era of peace and harmony among people of all cultures and races.
I admire those who have developed techniques to control the behavior of their children and to systematically guide them. However, rather than relying on external techniques, we have approached the problem as primarily an internal challenge. As parents, we have sought first to be people of integrity who are always following our consciences, then are faithful to one another in marriage, we then try to teach our children to demonstrate filial piety in response to our love. The results of our efforts will be measured by our ability to raise children who are mature individuals and responsible citizens of society.
Our family is truly our school of love. Not only are we teachers for our children, but at times our children become our teachers. If children can witness the loving relationship of their parents they will be better equipped to embrace others, however different. For our children to ask which is better, Japanese culture or American culture, is like asking who is better your mother or your father. During a small disagreement between my wife and me our daughter turned to us and said, "I know the answer ... you are both right!" The multicultural family can serve as an example and model for how to realize world peace, raising children equipped to build a better world where people can respect and gain from others who are different.
1. David W. Augsburger, Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986.
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