Parenting Across Cultures: Challenges in Naming, Discipline, and Food

Intercultural couples have the potential to experience double jeopardy in their communication [see the previous column], which often underscores different cultural values that remain dormant until couples have children.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When children arrive, the question of which values and traditions to transmit becomes an investment rather than a source of curious difference between individuals. [/perfectpullquote]

From my interviews with intercultural parents (who were raised in different countries), seven substantive areas of conflict over child-rearing practices emerged of which I will discuss three here: The Name Game, Discipline, and Food. The others will be discussed in future columns. 

The Name Game

The choice of a name for a child is one of the first occasions for cultural differences to emerge between new parents.  The differences extend to various aspects of naming a child such as how and when to select a name; the importance and significance of first, middle, and surnames; and who is involved in the naming process. 

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Well, if it’s a boy we’re naming it after you or my grandfather.” [And I thought], “Please not Akhbar because it’s old and it means Almighty One. And it’s hard to pronounce, hard to spell.”[/perfectpullquote] 

Lucia: Oh, it was awful. And I realized it was the influence of his Persian father, especially with the boys. I remember my husband saying to his dad, “Well, if it’s a boy we’re naming it after you or my grandfather.” [And I thought], “Please not Akhbar because it’s old and it means Almighty One. And it’s hard to pronounce, hard to spell.”  And so, it’s like here we go again… because my first son was nameless for the first three months. He left the hospital as “baby boy [last name].” For three months, they kept calling us and we were battling. And his mother was like, “You better name him Ali,” [after the baby’s father and uncles]. I really didn’t have a say, which is not how it’s done in my family.

My first son was nameless for the first three months. Naming challenges. Click To Tweet

Charlotte: I remember we had a conversation about names…I was having a hard time pronouncing my husband’s last name, Olowakandi, and he still says I don’t pronounce it properly with my British accent. Before we had children, I said, “If I had kids, I’m not calling them by your last name.”  And he got totally offended.  He wouldn’t speak to me.  It was like, “They are my kids, they have to have my culture; they have to have my name.”  It wouldn’t be a subject for debate, that’s just the way it was.  And I was like, “Wow! Not even a discussion.” 

If I have kids, I’m not calling them by your last name. My husband was offended. Click To Tweet

To Discipline or Not to Discipline

The process of raising children highlights divergent childrearing goals and beliefs for any couple, and this is amplified for intercultural couples with different cultural assumptions of the meaning and purpose of discipline.

Daniel: Most of Japanese discipline comes with negative discipline and the use of shame, which is a relational thing: Our relationship is bad because you are bad. Or you messed up so I am really disappointed. And my [White American] wife believes, “It was a bad thing, the behavior was bad, and it needs to be corrected.” And there is a consequence rather than, “now you need to feel bad about it,” or there’s kind of a break in our relationship or anything like that.  To her, it is almost like breaking the law. There’s a law, you broke it, and it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a relationally bad thing. And for me, it’s “You hurt me.” 

Parenting Across Cultures: Challenges in Naming, Discipline, and Food Click To Tweet

Kimberly: My son had a Game Boy and he had given it to this little boy who was supposed to be doing something for his sister, and his mother got really cross and sent his sister to get a stick to beat him with.  And I said, “No, no, no, this was [my son’s] fault, we had given the game to him, don’t do it.” And she beat the kid and I just lost it…it was pretty intense, and that really upset me, because I don’t believe in hitting kids and I don’t feel that he had done anything. And she [my sister-in-law] said all along, “This is what we do in Uganda, we discipline our kids.”…

But she happily beat this little kid and the kid was screaming and I felt terrible and I was in tears and I ran to get my husband and said, “Tell your sister not to beat this kid,” since I don’t speak Luganda. So he comes back to me and he says, “There are two sides to every story.”  And, I thought, “Not in this case!”  And his mother came to me and said, “Don’t be upset…this is how we do things, we know you don’t do things this way.” I was really upset.

My Ugandan sister-in-law beat this little kid and he was screaming. I was in tears. Click To Tweet

Food Rules and Rituals

Food as a general theme repeatedly emerges as a source of both joy and contention for intercultural couples, in relation to individual preferences, adjustment to the norms in extended families and also between parents as they negotiate rules and rituals of mealtimes in their intercultural households.

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Abigail: One thing that I never pushed with the kids is having to eat everything on their plate. My [Mexican] husband started doing that, and I was like, “No way… I’m not going to teach my kids to overeat!”  My parents didn’t. Yet my mother-in-law would always say to eat everything on the plate, maybe because she came from a culture where food was relatively scarcer?  So, I tell the kids to eat everything on their plate the times that they see her, but that’s the only time!

My Mexican husband insisted on clean plates. I said no way I'm teaching my kids to overeat! Click To Tweet

Ola: [In my Nigerian culture] we have certain understandings such as not letting food go bad, eating everything that you cook. Whereas Charlotte’s [British] culture, her parents and her cousins and everybody, they would make this huge meal, take very little bits of it, eat half of what is on the plate, drop the rest out, and go put the rest in here. Basically, food for us, food was a survival thing.  There was much more value.  For them, food is like air.  They enjoy it, it’s just they have no problems chucking it away! For us, you don’t do that. If there’s mold, you remove it. That caused a great deal of problems for us at my family home [in Nigeria], as this is seen as ingratitude, that it isn’t good enough.

Food for Nigerians was survival. If there is mold, you remove it. For Brits, food is like air. Click To Tweet

Samantha: There’s not a flexibility in what to eat or how to eat it. For example, if I were to tell my [Spanish] mother-in-law that I occasionally fry eggs for breakfast, she would faint. Eggs are eaten in the evening. You DO NOT have eggs in the morning. Likewise, my mother-in-law had a fit that I drank water in the morning. You DO NOT drink water before the midday meal, ever.

If I were to tell my Spanish mother-in-law that I fry eggs for breakfast, she would faint. Click To Tweet

Zinzi: But the food, I do cook some African food [from my home country, Zaire]. My daughter loves it, my [White American] husband hates it. And my daughter is like, “I Love African food!” So we will eat African food, I think because I exposed it to her when she was so young. I do cook different foods, but I miss having it the way my mother prepared it in Africa.  It’s not quite the same. And I really can’t find most of the food or bread or spices here [in the Midwest]. And my husband HATES it anyway.

I cook food from my country, Zaire. Daughter loves it. White American husband hates it. Click To Tweet

Rituals of naming, discipline, and food are important rituals of childrearing and sources of bonding for the couple, yet these can also serve as flashpoints for cultural conflicts. Over the next few months, I will present other areas of child-rearing conflicts for intercultural parents followed by opportunities in cross-cultural parenting for couples who navigate these challenges.

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What cultural challenges in naming, discipline, and food have you encountered in your relationship? Do write to us or comment below?

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0 Comments on “Parenting Across Cultures: Challenges in Naming, Discipline, and Food”

  1. Oh yes!!

    I agreed to give my son a Hindi name, but my husband and I were actually on the same page that it needed to be simple and easy to pronounce (I guess my husband knows the pain of having to repeat and spell his name every single time he introduces himself!). Turns out even a 3-letter name is difficult for people here, but at least my 3-year-old son can already spell it himself.

    As for food, turns out my husband (who grew up in Africa) and I (of Western culture) have the opposite behaviour of what is described here: I am the one who is completely obsessed with not wasting a single grain of rice, while he doesn’t care (I won’t force my son to finish his plate, though; I’ll either eat it myself or put it away in the fridge as leftovers). Maybe because I grew up poor and he didn’t? But one thing we disagree on, and that I know is cultural, is feeding our child vs letting him learn by himself. Apparently that’s an Indian thing, feeding people, esp. children, as a gesture of love. I guess I’m more worried about him being autonomous and doing okay at daycare!

    1. Hi Jeanne!
      Thanks for sharing your experiences–food/meals seems to be one of the most common topics of cultural difference. You make a great point about the experience of scarcity/abundance as a factor that influences our perceptions of waste. I’m fascinated by the range of meaning of our feeding rituals, such as gesture of love/connection vs. nourishment/facilitating self-reliance. Thank you for joining the conversation!

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