Multicultural Families

In spite of enormous changes in its structure and functioning, the family is still the main context in which most people are brought up. The family provides safety and nurturance for young people with opportunities for development and growth. The family also provides continuity from one generation to the next, passing down family traditions and beliefs. Finally, the family provides a connection between individuals and the society in which they live. All of these functions are steeped in culture, and are made all the more complex because of culture.

Each family has its own culture, made up of ethnic, religious, historical, educational, socio-economical, and racial aspects. The complexity of family culture is strongly affected by the coming together of people with different cultural identities. When two people from different cultural, ethnic, racial or religious backgrounds form a family, there are significant issues to be addressed. For example, concepts of family may be narrower for Pakeha (involving primarily the nuclear family) than for Maori (where kinship ties are broader and more extended), impacting on the ways in which a multicultural family might operate. So the sharing of personal information might be widespread within an extended Maori family, while a traditional Pakeha family may consider that the nuclear family should be separate from extended family when it comes to sharing personal information.

Christians and Muslims believe in one god, while Hindus and Buddhists believe in many gods, creating the potential for significant conflict and disruption within families with mixed beliefs. Even within a single religious group, there may be powerful differences in beliefs and practices. Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians have different ways of observing their Christian faith that have led to civil war, much less conflict within families!

In a country that is bicultural at its core, like New Zealand, there is an ongoing evolution of identity within individuals and families. Importantly, ethnic or racial stereotypes predict that any individual identifies with one particular culture, but as we have learned in the last fifty years from studies around the world, individuals’ cultural identity exists on a continuum – people relate to culture in a range of ways. There are some who relate strongly to a particular culture and its practices and beliefs, and there are others who relate weakly to, or even reject entirely, the idea of a particular culture for themselves. At the extreme, these people prefer to create a cultural identity that provides a good fit with their personality, life experiences, and goals.

The migration of families from one distinctive culture to another also puts enormous pressure on the family’s cultural beliefs and practices. While experiences differ between migrant families, they all have adjustment issues as they struggle with the loss of familiar country and culture, and the need to fit into the new environment, often with a language that is completely foreign to the migrants. Systems such as government agencies, legal structures, and educational institutions have a significant influence on the cultural practices of any family. For example, in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society, Muslim families may find practices and laws that are in direct conflict with those associated with their religion.

There is no doubt that migration is an extremely stressful process, and many families separate as a result of these stresses. In separation and divorce, religious and cultural differences between parents are highlighted once again, and can lead to protracted custody disputes. While the parents were together, they may have been tolerant of each another’s differences, and may have agreed on a particular cultural practice or combination of practices for the family. However, the anger and hurt caused by relationship breakdown and separation can make people return to their original beliefs and practices, and result in bitter arguments about parenting and childcare.

In some cases, a parent has walked away from a child forever because he or she could not tolerate the idea of the child being influenced by the other parent. It is also fairly common for children of immigrant families to want to fit in with their new cultural environment, and this can cause significant family distress as adolescents reject parental authority and belief systems and try to forge their own identities. While these processes occur in all cultures, they are exaggerated when the adolescent’s development is complicated by the differences between his or her parents’ culture and the culture of their adopted country.

It has been suggested that there are three qualities of family functioning that are common to all successful families, and that play a critical role in determining the ability of a family to cope with stress – irrespective of what that stress is.

The first quality is family flexibility – the ability of the family to adapt to changing demands from within the family and from the world outside the family.

The second quality is family communication. Open, straightforward discussion using positive communication strategies allows difficult issues to be resolved.

The third quality is family cohesion – the extent to which family members show their interest in each other, support each other, and enjoy each other’s company.

It is in the development of these three qualities that families are able to tolerate differences within their own systems and differences in the external world.


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