Supporting Parenting Transition
As signaled earlier, parenting practices differ across cultures and times. In South Sudan, as in many African cultures, discipline and respect are important elements of parenting, and parents and other adults use an instructional approach together with physical punishment when teaching children. Although all participants were aware that corporal punishment could lead to intervention by authorities, most also feared that without physical discipline they would not be able to socialize their children into becoming responsible adults and were reluctant to abandon it. Through the interviews it became apparent that parents did not feel confident, skilful, or knowledgeable about using effective nonphysical discipline. Most participants suggested that parents should be taught alternative methods to teach and discipline children, and “slowly we will learn.”
Nevertheless, shifting parenting practices in the community may not be as simple as introducing alternative methods. Research by Varela and his colleagues found migrant parents to be reluctant to adjust their parenting style even when it is unsupported by the law and norms of their host country. Some in fact may become more rigid over time (Varela et al. 2004). It has been proposed that this may be part of the coping mechanisms of parents to strengthen parental authority and reinforce cultural identity among children to protect them from high-risk behaviors in their new environment (Kotchick and Forehand 2002).
Taking up alternative and often less instructional methods for raising children can be especially difficult for parents with limited English, as the language barrier can make it difficult to understand and apply new parenting norms and values (Atwell et al. 2009). Thus, what appears to be inflexibility among Sudanese parents to revise their heritage’s parenting norms may in fact be the result of a lack of confidence in Western parenting methods, and their capacity to support their children by applying those methods. Refugee parents need opportunities and safe spaces to explore the dilemmas of adjusting to new parental values and norms and finding ways of applying them in a way that are meaningful and acceptable to them.
Lack of skills in utilizing effective nonphysical discipline is only one of the reasons for parents losing confidence in their ability to manage the behavior of their youths. Another important contributing factor is the loss of social structures that sustained their values, practices, and strategies. After migration, most parents lost important support networks. Losing the support of their extended families endorsing their parental authority was deeply felt by many participating parents. The relatively high prevalence of sole parent headed families in the community was flagged earlier. Heading a family and raising children alone is the reality for many South Sudanese mothers in Australia. Sole parent families, in general, tend to have reduced financial resources and an increased demand on the parent. What adds to these challenges in the case of South Sudanese families is their relatively large family sizes (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011) and the absence of extended family members to assist. Also, in the case of divorce, joint custody and parenting by nonresident parents are unfamiliar concepts among South Sudanese fathers. As explained by one of the youth workers, “the husbands haven’t been educated in how to see their children after separation.”