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Differential Acculturation and Shifting Power Dynamics Within Families

On arrival in Australia, South Sudanese children and youth have adopted elements of Australian culture more rapidly than their parents, leading to a growing cultural distance within families. Participant parents in this research had a clear-cut wish for their children to maintain their heritage’s cultural values and practices. Nonetheless in their view, the youths are abandoning “the African way.” The wish to maintain and reestablish continuity after the disruption of displacement and migration through preservation of culture is a universal aspiration among refugee parents. At the same time, refugee children tend to acculturate and to take on elements of the new culture more rapidly than their parents who are often more isolated within the host community (Atwell et al. 2009; Hwang 2006).

Young [South Sudanese] people here [Australia] don’t listen to their parents. But what caused the situation is that when young people came here they were quicker to adapt to the situation and they adapted quickly. But it is challenging for the parent who doesn’t understand how things work in this country (Male Sudanese community worker).

What intensifies this tension in the case of the South Sudanese Australian community is the view among South Sudanese parents that Australian culture has little benefit for their children, and that some of the values displayed by the behaviors of their adolescents are in direct conflict with values endorsed by their heritage culture:

Children have freedom in Australia, but it is not good for them (Female participant).

In Australia children in high school have boyfriends and girlfriends, but we don’t do that in our culture. If you are young then you should do the things that young people should do, and don’t follow the things that adults should do. So I’m thinking I want to bring up Agok more like my culture (Another female participant).

An important structural consequence of differential acculturation within families is shifting power dynamics between parents and children (Doney et al. 2010; Hebbani et al. 2009; Lewig et al. 2010; Ochocka and Janzen 2008). For example, the more rapid acquisition of the English language by children compared to their parents can create a power differential within the family structure as children take on the task of negotiating the systems and structures in the new society (Atwell et al. 2009). Reliance by parents on their children for their daily contact with the outside world can lead to a weakening of the parental role, and it may cause some parents to feel threatened by the potential loss of their authority and role of assisting the social development of their children. At the same time, children felt that they had too much responsibility transferred onto them compared to their Australian counterparts.

The sense of threat of losing parental power over their youth was strongly felt by all participating parents. Responses included finding ways of parenting children from a less authoritative position, or withdrawing from aspects of their parenting roles. Nonetheless, the majority of parents responded with attempting to strengthen their parental authority by amplifying the authoritarian and hierarchical elements of their traditional parenting style. Elements of the authoritarian parenting style, such as corporal punishment and curtailing the social activities of adult children, however, met with disapproval and intervention from Australian authorities. Reports of child abuse, often in relation to discipline or punishment of the child (Lewig et al. 2010) resulted in child protection authorities prosecuting parents and, in some cases, removing children.

Disproportionate parental authority also has met with considerable challenge from children and youth. As children developed their understanding of their new cultural and legal environment, they began to question the fairness of their parents’ actions. Challenging the authority of their parents has become a more viable option under the laws of their new country. Older children, especially, found support in Australian legal and institutional structures such as assisted accommodation and access to various income and social benefits. Participating parents blamed government payments, such as the youth allowance, for the breakdown of family structures. They noted with some astonishment that their children could use the law of their new country and call, or threaten to call, the police and other authorities if they found themselves in conflict with their parents.

When children have a problem and they see a counsellor to tell them such and such happened, the counsellor tells them to call the police. They put that in their mind and they think that it is a good idea. So when you want to parent them and say to them do this, they can just call the police (Female participant).

Parents judged that such interventions undermined their family structures. They believe that authorities and institutions should instead support them in their parenting roles.

Australian government and social institutions indeed have an important role to support parents and families in terms of adequate financial resources and structural backing. This role should extend to fostering legally approved and meaningful parenting skills among immigrant parents, as lack of skills and confidence in applying nonphysical discipline indeed may be the main reason why refugee parents feel threatened by the impact of Western cultural influences on their children.

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