“Would you like to eat?” or “Sit down and eat!”?

Thoughts on culturally relevant parenting and teaching.

Cultures vary in the ways they interact with children. This informs how students interact with each other, with adults at school (i.e., are they raised to see adults as peers, caretakers, authority figures, or a combination of several roles), and with the processes used to acquire and analyze new information.

How, then, do we culturally socialize children to be their very best selves? I’d like to begin with a scenario followed by a question or prompt. If you’ve had or have a young child in your life, whether as a parent, teacher, or caretaker of any kind, I’m guessing the scenario will be pretty familiar!

Scenario: It is lunch time and a wonderful array of food is spread across the table. The smells are enticing and the young person the food is intended for really needs to sit and eat before she melts down from lack of food. The trouble is, she’s engrossed in play, has told you she isn’t hungry, and has already ignored your first attempt.

Question/Prompt: Consider for a moment how you might try again to bring the child to the table to eat. Now read the options below.

  • You ask, “Would you like to eat now?”
  • You say, “Come sit down and eat.”
  • You say, “I need you to come to the table; it is time for you to eat.”
  • You take the child by the hand, lead her to the table, sit her down, and tell her to begin eating.
  • You explain how hard you worked to make the meal the child wanted so she can be well fed.
  • You leave the food at the table, ignore the child, and move onto other things.
  • You reprimand the child for disobeying you and explain that this is rude behavior. Then you command the child to the table to begin eating.

Your choice is influenced by the way you were culturally socialized. There may very well be patterns you draw on to socialize your child, patterns of which you may not be aware. For example, you may live in a monocultural environment where the people around you do similar things to raise their children.

As a Latina growing up in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem in NYC), I was surrounded by Puerto Rican and African American/ Black families. If I misbehaved on the corner, at the local bodega (grocery store), or in front of my Catholic school, the punishment would be no different than if I were in my home. Picture a stern face with narrowed eyes on a short brown Puerto Rican woman either reaching for one of her flip flops or giving a tiny pinch on the shoulder, muttering something in Spanish about cutting it out. No one around me found my mother’s parenting style odd. Sometimes, she even got a nod of approval.

Go back and reread the options above. This time, consider your reactions to the approach(es) you would not use. Have you heard these approaches used in schools or in other communities where you’ve visited? Do you find these alternative approaches too punitive? Too passive?

It is sometimes difficult to recognize your own cultural patterns until they are challenged by others. I vividly recall the time I was reprimanded by the White, Jewish parents I worked for while in college. I wanted their son to brush his teeth so he could eat and then we could play. I used a bribing strategy my Latino parents successfully used for all six of their children. I told the three-year-old that I couldn’t play with him until he brushed his teeth and got dressed. The child did what I wanted him to do.

However, it was clearly not okay with the parents who were listening on the intercom. They told me he didn’t have to brush his teeth or get dressed if he didn’t want to. That was the first time I was confronted with two unfamiliar child rearing practices: the idea that the child had a say on how the day would unfold and that my interactions with the child might be monitored on an intercom without my knowing it.

During my years as an early childhood educator in a progressive school I experienced many more unfamiliar child rearing practices. I picked up on subtle differences in cultural patterns used by parents and caretakers at drop off in the morning and during pick up in the afternoon.

For example, regardless of the school’s philosophy on how best to help children deal with separation anxiety at the beginning of the year, I noticed that many Black/African American parents tended to connect with other adults while their child explored the room and many White European parents navigated the room closely with their child. Neither of these practices is better than the other, just different.

I came to understand that these cultural patterns are as ingrained in others as my own cultural patterns were in me.

Schools develop cultural patterns as well. While I believed in my school’s progressive approach, I was conflicted when the practices I learned to use through coursework and at professional development meetings didn’t work for some of my students, particularly the students of color.

The more familiar I became with the notion of culturally relevant practices, the easier it became to consider ways to teach and interact with the diverse students in my class in a manner they understood.

During clean-up time you might have heard me ask some children if they wanted to pick up blocks or playdough, but then I would direct another group to put the puzzles away on the shelf. I often had a few children who needed me to place a toy in their hands, point to the area where it belonged, and then smile to them when it was accomplished, letting them know I was pleased with their efforts.

Our cultural patterns also show up when we are learning strategies and approaches to solving school-related problems, interacting with others, and functioning in classroom settings. Field-independent and field-dependent learners are terms that describe a cognitive style of learning. European Americans tend to be field-independent learners who like individual recognition, are comfortable approaching tasks without the need to consult with others, and are self-reliant.

On the other hand, students of color (African American, Arab American, Latino/a, Native American, and many Asian American students) tend to be field-dependent learners. These students generally prefer to work with others to achieve a collective or common goal, are greatly influenced by the teacher, and make sense of details in relationship to surrounding information.

Other differences in learning styles include a relative preference for working in silence versus vocal interactions and physical movement while engaging in tasks; working on a project independently versus sharing work and answers; how the student understands and uses time; and comfort asking questions in class.

Re-consider the approaches used to get the child to the table to eat lunch through a culturally relevant perspective.

“Would you like to eat now?” may work for field-independent learners and children steeped in an individualistic approach. So might leaving the food at the table, ignoring the child, and moving onto other things because you feel confident that the child will eat when she is ready.

Other children are more familiar with a direct approach, where options are limited or not even offered. “Come sit down and eat” and “I need you to come to the table; it is time for you to eat” offer clarity from the adult and makes her feel safe because she knows what the adult expects.

Many students need modeling until they become familiar with the expectations of the classroom. This is most true for the field-dependent student in a classroom or school that celebrates individual work. Taking the child by the hand, leading her to the table, sitting her down, and telling her to begin eating shapes the story for the child about what is to happen, when it is to happen, and how. Reprimanding the child for disobeying indicates who is in charge. In my progressive classroom, I might say to a child who is used to this approach, “That is not okay to do. When I ask you to come to the table, I need you to come to the table.”

Teachers should consider ways to help all students thrive in school. This requires work on the part of educators to understand the culture of each student because the cultural beliefs and patterns used at home will influence the student’s behavior and interactions at school. Teachers should welcome families as partners in their students’ learning; they know their children best.

Resources for Educators and Parents

  • Ben Jelloun, T., Racism Explained to My Daughter
  • Derman Sparks, L., & ABC Task Force, Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children
  • Derman Sparks, L., & Olsen Edwards, J., Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves
  • Reddy, M. T. (Ed.)., Everyday Acts Against Racism: Raising Children in a Multiracial World
  • Whelan Ariza, E. N., Not for ESOL Teachers: What Every Classroom Teacher Needs to Know About the Linguistically, Culturally, and Ethnically Diverse Student
  • York, S., Roots & Wings: Affirming Culture in Early Childhood Programs

EmbraceRace is a community of support for raising resilient kids of color and nurturing healthy racial sensibilities in all kids.

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