Recently, the New Yorker published an article describing the experiences of a woman named Niveen, whose little boy was placed in foster care and ultimately given to another family despite Niveen’s efforts to get him back. Based on a single story from a single article, I certainly don’t want to pass judgment on whether anyone made the “right” decision or even whether a “right” decision existed to be made. But I was struck by the demands that were placed on Niveen. She was required to take a parenting class and then demonstrate parenting styles that the professionals involved in her case approved of. Niveen, an immigrant, described having to learn to “parent American style,” which the handbook described as being a democratic style that balanced the child’s freedom and responsibilities (p. 54).
My own immigrant mother is highly skeptical of raising children democratically. When I became a teacher, she advised me that I should only give children choices when I actually wanted to give them a choice–if I wanted to know what color marker, or which flavor ice cream, for example. If they needed to sit down, take out their book and start working on something, then I should tell them clearly to please do that.
When I was younger, I got into trouble at school when teachers told me I had a “choice” between, for example, being quiet and not getting a sticker, and then I would get angry that my teachers pretended that I had options when it seemed like I really didn’t. But my parents and more directive teachers eventually made clear what was expected of me and how I was really supposed to interpret “Would you like to sit down now?” As I got older, I became comfortable responding to both teaching styles. When I became a teacher myself, I was able to help my students understand and interpret different teaching styles as well.
I offer this story not to say that my mom’s parenting style is “better” or “worse,” but simply to say that it is a particular style with particular results. Sometimes my parents’ style conflicted with the teaching style of my school, but I think that conflict was ultimately a good thing for me. Well-meaning professionals who want to help parents do a better job need to be aware that there are a lot of ways to be a good parent, and that our assumptions about what being a good parent means are grounded in our own cultural backgrounds. It would be a shame to separate children from loving families simply because those families aren’t doing things the way we would.