Cultural sensibilities matter in parenting

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

Here are two stories inspired by real life events, but only one with a happy ending. In the first story, a Danish actor from Copenhagen visits her husband (a Brooklyn resident) with their child. The year is 1997. The other is about a young couple recently transferred to a private company’s U.S. office where the husband is employed. They are both Indians. The year, 2015.

One afternoon, the Danish mother decides to have lunch with her partner and parks the baby in a stroller outside a restaurant on an East Village street as they enjoy a leisurely meal. For her, this is common practice in Copenhagen, arguably one of the safest cities for children. Several passers-by see what they believe is an “abandoned and crying child”, and call emergency services. The police arrive and the couple is arrested for negligence.

In the second story, an Indian couple live with their sons in Oregon. The mother decides to give up her career to care for the two toddlers. One evening, the elder child falls down and is hurt while playfully climbing on his father’s back. He is rushed to hospital where the parents are informed about a hairline fracture of the tibia. Following treatment, the mother is interrogated about what looks like a suspicious injury, during which she innocently remarks that the father “may have accidentally dropped the child”.

These two stories have a similar narrative: Immigrant parents, unaware of the possible consequences of their conduct in a foreign country, and confronted with the ultimate nightmare — the loss of their children to child protection services. However, the subsequent events unfold very differently for the two families.

Like fish in water, we human beings seem unable to view different cultures in context. We are socialised into believing that our ways are the best and those who do not fit into our paradigm are considered peculiar or perverse. Nowhere is this more evident than in childcare practices. When people migrate, these dynamics become more complicated.

Whether one culture’s practices will be considered acceptable depends on several factors, especially the direction of movement. A shift ‘upwards’ to a more developed country automatically marks people out as ‘immigrants’, while a move to a less developed country makes people ‘expatriates’. In Delhi, such expatriates retain their cultural and educational practices by establishing little islands of their own with minimal contact with Indians.

Same story, different outcomes

The consequences were dramatically different for the two stories. In the first case, the judgment was unambiguous: the police had acted hastily with the Danish couple, interfering in what was a private matter. “It was an innocent mistake, if you can call it a mistake”, was the argument advanced. The case was closed and the custody of the baby restored to the parents.

In contrast, the Indian couple is under tight scrutiny. The husband has been charged with assault, and the family faces repeated interrogation and assessment. During these sessions, the mother naively mentioned aspects of their parenting, commonplace in an Indian home, but considered abusive by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For instance, unaware of the potential consequences, she said they were strict with the children, wanting to be perceived as good parents. On being asked some leading questions, she said they frequently sent their children to the play area, a well-lit garage. This did not go down well with the evaluators. When the department was given custody of the children, it declared the mother mentally unfit. She now faces a prolonged legal battle to prove her fitness. According to media reports, the children will soon face an evaluation for mental “incapacity on account of their upbringing”.

In a distressing trend, the conduct of Indian children abroad is frequently being pathologised as mental disorder by foreign child protection officers on account of perceived wrong parenting. In countries such as Norway, the U.K. and the U.S., immigrant parents who happen to come into conflict with child protection services face similar patterns of hostility. Visiting care workers criticise their lifestyle and childcare practices. It is no wonder that parents become defensive, distant and even indignant. As a consequence, they are deemed uncooperative. An emotional outburst from a parent usually seals their fate — they are declared unfit for parenting.

At no point are we implying that an Indian parent can do no wrong. Our argument is that before a family is tormented in this manner, abuse on the part of parents must be established beyond reasonable doubt. Otherwise, child protection services, originally conceived as guardians of human rights, become perpetrators of the very crimes that they are authorised to prevent.

There is adequate anthropological evidence to explain cultural differences in childcare practices, and there is no one method that can claim to be the perfect formula for raising children. Social scientists have also established that ecological, economic and social circumstances determine methods of parenting.

Culture specific

Every culture has evolved its own practices. For instance, among Indian families, sleeping with the child is considered beneficial to their sense of security. Letting a child ‘cry it out’ in isolation is deemed extremely cruel. Other indulgences allowed to children include feeding on demand, in contrast to the strict feeding schedules typical of a Western upbringing. Fresh food is prepared for each meal and serving frozen food is considered an act of neglect. Unlike the West, very few public spaces prohibit the entry of children.

These are just some practices that demonstrate the differences in childcare methods between European-American communities and those in Indian homes. Even the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) accepts this diversity while declaring that parental responsibility is to be protected from government interference.

There is no element in the UNCRC that imposes on parents rules on how they should raise children. Between global, cultural, ethnic, familial and individual ideologies, parents negotiate the care of their children. It is also to be noted that Indian authorities do not adopt the moral high ground that child protection services in the West do when expatriates from these countries visit and settle in India.

Many Indians travel abroad on study and work, often to provide for a better future for their children. Ironically, they risk losing the very reason for which they emigrate — their children. It is an issue that needs immediate attention.

(Nandita Chaudhary is associate professor of developmental psychology at University of Delhi; Jaan Valsiner is Niels Bohr professor of psychology at Aalborg University, Denmark)

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2021 4:03:59 PM |

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