Meeting the challenges of raising children with two cultures.

When Aziz and I married, we planned to give our Arab-American children both cultures. We want them feel like natives in both worlds; to be able to speak Arabic and English; to feel comfortable kissing cheeks and shaking hands or hugging; to enjoy hamburgers and falafels; and to appreciate Beethoven, the Beatles and Fairouz.

We want them to have the security of being part of a tight-knit extended family in which all the joys and sorrows are shared. At the same time, we hope they learn the lesson passed down from the American frontier: that they are free to pursue their individual dreams and have personal responsibility for what they make of themselves.

Trying to give them both cultures is a big gamble. In the worst case, they’ll be outsiders wherever they are-feeling alienated and misunderstood. Or they may embrace one culture and reject the other. On the other hand, if we succeed, they’ll be at home in both, expanding their life experiences exponentially and developing a unique, valuable perspective.

“Bi-cultural children have an ability to see and be able to deal with complexity of intergroup relations that is literally in their bones, hearts and minds,” says Joel Crohn, author of Mixed Matches, a psychologist who specializes in helping families create successful intercultural relationships. The struggles they go through in clarifying their identities help them become better people, he says. They become more complex and interesting men and women with broad views on the human situation.

A Dramatic Trend

Intercultural parenting is on the rise worldwide due to significant growth of mobility and immigration in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. In the U.S. it is up by about 30% since 2000. It is also on the rise in parts of Europe and Australia.

Of course, among the most mobile of people are the Lebanese. “It is an almost uncontested truth that every Lebanese household has been touched by migration, be it a family member, a relative or a friend,” writes Guita Hourani, director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center at Notre Dame University.

Many Questions and Challenges

More families are dealing with bicultural challenges than ever before, often facing more questions than answers:
• How should we raise our children?
• Should we speak two languages at home or one?
• Celebrate the holidays of both cultures?
• In the case of interfaith marriages, teach them both religions?
• Are we prepared for our children to look more like “the other side” of the family or neither?
• Should we give them names acceptable to both cultures or names typical of one or the other? If so, which one?
• What kind of education do we want them to have?
• How will we teach them the many things about their heritage that they won’t learn in school?
• At a more fundamental level, how should we teach them to behave and what methods of discipline should we use?

Aziz and I have different expectations of behavior and different ways to discipline. He grew up in a home in which the children participate in house cleaning, cooking, taking care of younger siblings and contributing to the family income. They kissed their father’s hand when he returned from work. They didn’t openly question parental authority. When they disobeyed, they were shamed.

In contrast, my mother, like many American moms, cooked dinner and served us, cleaned the house and did our laundry, drove us to activities and asked for our input on family plans. To punish us, she sent us to our rooms or removed privileges.

Should our family adopt one approach or the other or a mixture of both? How will our choices affect our children?

There are no definitive answers. Approaches that work well for some families spell disaster for others. But, Crohn says, “There is one consistently bad solution: avoiding the difficult issues and living with chronic resentment. What is really important is doing the work to discover which path will work for you.”