Indo-Caribbean Parenting in the Western World: The Challenges of Differing Cultural Norms
Written by: Jennifer Ramasami
The story of the Indo-Caribbean immigrant is largely the same as any other immigrant living in the United States. They traveled a vast distance, away from everything they have ever known to achieve a better life for their loved ones. However, simply transplanting oneself from one country to the next does not mean you leave that old life behind. The cultural norms follow and influence how individuals carry on in everyday life activities, including how to interact with others, how to approach work, and how to parent.
In Indo-Caribbean households, parents can have insurmountably high expectations of their children. Indo-Caribbean families, on average, expect their children to write, dress themselves, read, verbally express their needs/desires, and act politely by the age of 4 or 5 (Leo-Rhynie et al.,2009). They also expect that children in general should be able to sit still for long periods of time and not make a mess while playing. Academic success is pushed upon children at an early age as well.
These expectations are out of touch with healthy child development and realistic expectations for children’s competencies by this age.
Preschool-aged children are cognitively inflexible, easily distracted, and have a difficult time controlling their emotional responses. To put it shortly, if you expect a typical 4-year-old to sit in the same spot for over an hour playing quietly without making a mess and letting you know when they’re hungry or sleepy, you will be sorely disappointed.
When thinking about the living environment of individuals in Indo-Caribbean countries, these expectations and parenting methods hold some logic. In places like Guyana or Trinidad, where historically there has been significant economic hardship and unstable social conditions, parents did not have the luxury of time and resources to rear their children in ways that may have been more developmentally accommodating. They likely needed their children to be self-sufficient and academically successful at any early age so that the parents could focus on making sure their family survived and their children had even the smallest possibility to thrive and be successful. My father, a Guyanese-born American, would agree with these notions. According to him, there was no time to misbehave or act out of line, life was constantly moving. One word of defiance or whining would land you with a lashing. If someone was serving food and you were distracted or hesitated for a moment to say if you wanted some or not, you were skipped over, no pause.
You were expected to listen the first time, there was no such thing as a second chance.
As the number Indo-Caribbean families continue to grow in the United States it is vital to consider how parenting styles from a different country translate into a new cultural context, or how they acculturate. There are different patterns of acculturation that immigrants typically follow. They may remain stringent and stick to their own beliefs and practices or they may completely adopt their new environment’s methods and practices (Berry, 1997). Others still may integrate their culture’s beliefs and practices with the customs of their new environment. This integrative method is seen as most adaptive for families and it is likely that taking an integrative approach would be most helpful for Indo-Caribbean families in relation to enhancing knowledge of child development (Roopnarine & Jin, 2012). While it is understandable that parents hold such high expectations of children in Indo-Caribbean communities, it is also true that the pressure to perform skills that are above and beyond developmentally-appropriate levels increases anxiety in children in developed societies (Burts, Hart, Charlesworth, & Kirk, 1990).
Solely adhering to Indo-Caribbean parenting customs when raising children in a Western country may increase stress on the child, stress on the parent, and heighten parent-child conflict.
This could be especially true as children get older.
For American-born/raised Indo-Caribbean kids, they have to navigate between two different cultural systems and try to understand the two simultaneously at an early age. By adopting a parenting approach that is more integrative of both cultures, the strain of moving between the two cultures could significantly lessen. In fact, by showing children healthy ways to celebrate their home culture while also adaptively navigating their broader cultural context, healthy and positive family relationships are displayed.
This could look like still holding children to high expectations, but ones that are more developmentally appropriate.
There are also values common in Indo-Caribbean communities, such as putting family first, having a solid respect for elders, and emphasizing the importance of education, that can be positive principles to embody. Along with that, ideals such as fostering independence and taking care of one’s mental and physical health can be lessons to incorporate that are not common in Indo-Caribbean parenting, but may be more common and adaptive if you’re living in a country like the U.S.
It’s important to note that this is a very brief, simplified way of looking at parenting from a culturally-informed perspective; there are so many factors that simply cannot be addressed in one blog post. When navigating your way through parenthood, it is best to allow cultural norms to inform, not completely dictate, how you parent; choose strategies and values that allow your family to thrive and encompass all aspects of your unique lived experiences.
Jennifer is an Indo-Guyanese doctoral student training to become a pediatric psychologist. She was born in Brooklyn, NY, but has gone to live in South Florida, Chicago, and now Cleveland where she is completing her pediatric psychology residency at the Cleveland Clinic. She loves reading, exploring new places, and cooking.
Berry, J.W. (1997). Immigration, acculturation, and adaptation. Applied Psychology:
An International Review, 46, 5–68.
Burts, D. C., Hart, C. H., Charlesworth, R., & Kirk, L. (1990). A comparison of frequencies of stress behaviours observed in kindergarten children in classrooms with developmentally appropriate versus developmentally inappropriate instructional practices. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 5(3), 407–423.
Leo-Rhynie, E.A., Minott C., Gift, S., McBean, M., Scott, A., and Wilson, K. (2009).
Competency of Children in Guyana, Rural Jamaica, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines Making the Transition from Pre-primary School with Special Emphasis on
Roopnarine, J. L., & Jin, B. (2012). Indo Caribbean Immigrant Beliefs about Play and Its Impacton Early Academic Performance. American Journal of Play, 4(4), 441-463.