We Are a Unit

“American parents say, ‘Be independent.’ Mexican parents say, ‘You’re staying home.'”

Hold a Conversation

In addition to the questions below, please see How to use the questions for reflection.

Clarifying Questions
  • How does the speaker describe the difference between an American and a Mexican way of raising children?  Why does the speaker lean “towards the American side” with her kids?
  • The speaker also describes differences in the way that Americans and Mexicans think about responsibility and accountability.  What do you think she means when she says “neither is wrong” and “you could apply both cultural aspects and still be correct?”
Interpretive Questions
  • Do you agree with the speaker that “neither is wrong,” or are there reasons to defend one culture’s value system as the “right” value system?
  • When you have to choose between cultural values and behaviors, how do you decide?
Implication Questions
  • How would you help people from different cultural backgrounds negotiate their differences?  If it helps, imagine that you’re a principal and you are working with two families–one American, one Mexican–to determine consequences for a fight that occurred between their children on the playground.

Let us know how the conversation or self-reflection went. Email us or discuss the experience in our comment box.

Trascript for We Are A Unit

There’s a lot of trust. There’s a lot of, um, free… freedom, freedom, yes. So parents value freedom. Parents value their kid’s freedom and say, “Be independent. Go out and make your own good decisions. Make your own mistakes.” That kind of thing. Whereas, Mexican parents are like, “You’re staying home, not going anywhere, I, you know, I don’t trust those other people. I don’t trust you not to make mistakes.” So it’s whether to keep your kids close to you, and not let them go out or let them kind of roam free, and I think I’m much more probably towards the American side where I let my, my kids be a lot more independent.

My parents were really really strict, and um, they were very, um, they didn’t want us going out all the time. So, um, they thought, stay close to home and don’t go out late and that kind of thing. They were pretty extreme about it. Um, I think with my kids I’m a lot more aware of the fact that you can’t have such a strict code, and expect children to live with other kids who will have such an extreme opposite. Whereas, like that the kids are left to do basically almost whatever they want.

I think the US has a very individualistic view of, of people. So, you’re responsible for yourself, and you’re responsible for your actions, and your success, and your failures. So each person takes responsibility for their own actions, and I feel like in the Mexican culture while you sort of have some accountability for your actions you are also responsible for your family’s actions. So if my sister makes a big mistake, I have to answer for that mistake in a way. I have, she’s representing the whole family when she makes mistakes. So, as a part of the family I have to help her get out of the problem, or help her resolve the problem because it, it’s for a unit. We’re not just an individual. So it’s not like, well you made a mistake, you’re on your own. It’s more of like our family, this person in our family, our unit, made a mistake. We have to get her outta that trouble, and help her out of it.

Um, neither is wrong. I see the qualities of both, of being an individual, and taking responsibility for your own actions, but I also see the, um, kind of honor in, in saying, well you know what, you messed up, and even if you messed up twenty times we’re still going to accept you, and fix your problems, and, and I remember hearing things on the American side like well if you continue to help people with their problems they’re never going to be able to fix them on their own or they’re just gonna keep making the same mistakes over and over again, and to an extent maybe that might be true, but each situation is so unique and different that, that’s not always the case.

You could apply both cultural aspects and still be correct in my mind, but I thought they both have great points, and um, while they’re two different decisions you know I think if you were only immersed in American culture you would obviously see one as the right decision, and if you were only immersed in Mexican culture you would see one as obviously the correct decision. So for me I just thought I, I can see why both people would think, and I, you know, I think for those kinds of issues I would probably tend to be more Mexican, and there’s other ones that I’d probably be more American in.

  • John Linstrom

    Interesting video. There are some parallels here to the sort of old-school traditional Scandinavian family unit as well, I think (that being my family’s background). My Swedish dad’s family reminds me a lot of the typical Mexican family that this speaker describes, whereas my Norwegian mom’s family leaned maybe more toward laissez-faire. We were somewhere closer to the middle, I think. There were ways growing up that our parents could get on our nerves about the level of their involvement in our lives, but in other ways that I have appreciated that quality. I don’t know that it was necessarily typical among my other friends, some of whom didn’t even eat dinner together, etc.

    This must be a very difficult balance to weigh as a parent — it does seem like American culture pressures parents in the direction of what this speaker describes as the “American” style as opposed to the “Mexican” style of parenting, whereas I doubt that it actually comes naturally for nearly any parents to simply let go of their children and call them independent. I wonder how much of the pressure to individualize members of families comes from the consumerism at the back of our economy. Better for each family member straight down to high school kids to have their own car (in affluent areas) than for them to travel together, if you’re the car company talking.

    At the same time, there are ways in which I see American consumer culture as more sheltering and maybe overly protective of children than ever. Kids are sometimes expected to spend their weekends at the house, in their rooms, in front of screens, maybe in part because parents consider that safer than letting them go out to socialize and individualize themselves. Like I said, tricky balance. Seems like the harder you look at any kind of easy division, the more cracks it has, but the way this speaker portrays the two models does offer a good framework for discussion.

    • aschuet1

      Thanks, John, for this very thoughtful response. Liz and I used this story in a graduate Intercultural Communications class yesterday, and I found myself wondering less specifically about parenting and more about how one would make a choice when they feel pulled in two different directions by cultural expectations that they value equally. But maybe it’s “easier” to make such decisions in a particular context.

      Allison

      • John Linstrom

        That makes sense to me — certainly this conversation is relevant to more contexts than raising kids. (I’m probably just focused on that because I love kids, and even though I’m kid-less I still think about it pretty often.)

        And when two competing cultural contexts are also represented by different geographical regions that someone feels a split loyalty to, it must be a more acute tension than, say, my parents would have felt given the relative distance they have from what they’d consider their “old country” heritage. I know this was a source of some tension with my uncle and aunt, one of whom is Swedish and the other Mexican, both also American and my Mexican aunt being closer to her international roots than my Swedish uncle to his, and they’ve certainly had a lot of conversation about differing cultural contexts like the ones this speaker describes. I think she sounds like she has dwelt deeply with the question and probably has the advantage, in one sense and in the context of making parenting decisions, of having been forced to think about it in ways similar to how my uncle and aunt have been. So it seems to me that the clash of contexts comes with difficulty and sometimes pain, but also with the strength that that very diversity of perspective can bring? (This is the perspective my uncle and aunt have expressed, anyway.) Which may work at some level with my parents too, but not as much so given how their international heritage is a few generations distant. They’re not as good of an example. At some point I can really only speculate because I don’t think I’ve lived in a similarly contextually dynamic environment, and maybe that makes my experience a little less rich. It does seem like encounters with such contexts can be helpful, and I’m glad at least to have benefited from her story. I also bet that she’s a pretty awesome mom.

        • aschuet1

          Yes, I think this speaker feels enriched by her bicultural background. And, yes, I bet she’s a great mom!