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Study: Latino Teens Benefit From Sharing Two Cultures With Parents

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Latino adolescents are happier and healthier if both they and their parents have one foot firmly planted in Latino culture and the other in U.S. culture, a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found. In other words, Latino adolescents are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as abusing alcohol or drugs or dropping out of school, if they take steps to stay involved in their culture of heritage and their parents also take steps at the same time to integrate into U.S. culture.

One example of how policymakers can support biculturalism, the study suggests, is by backing two-way immersion programs in schools (also called dual-immersion programs), in which students who are dominant in English and students who are dominant in Spanish learn both languages in the same classroom. The researchers write: "Based on our findings, it would be useful to evaluate whether dual-immersion programs connecting youth to culture of origin language and traditions would benefit the mental health, self-esteem, and aggressive behavior of U.S.-born Latino adolescents."

The longitudinal study of 281 Latino adolescents and one of their parents is described in a special issue of The Journal of Primary Prevention that focuses on the connections between cultural adaptation and Latino youth behavior (only abstracts are available to non-subscribers). Fifty-eight percent of the youths studied, all of whom now live in either Arizona or North Carolina, were from Mexico, 21 percent were born in the United States, and the rest were natives of Central American or South American countries.

The researchers found a link between the extent of parents' involvement in U.S. culture and a decrease in social problems, aggression, and anxiety among their teenagers. Also, adolescents' involvement in Latino culture had a positive correlation with the level of their self-esteem. If they were involved in their culture of heritage, teenagers were less likely to have feelings of hopelessness, social problems, and aggression.

One more thing: School bonding increased with time in the United States for Latino teenagers who had been born in other countries, but the same was not true for Latino youths born in the United States.

I've seen studies before that show it's good for immigrant youths' mental and physical well-being to maintain strong ties to their native culture. (See "Scholars Mull the Paradox of Immigrants" from EdWeek.) But this is the first study I've seen that also shows the importance of parents taking steps to adapt to the new culture.

2 Comments

Mary Ann, This study affirms what I have observed as a mother of two bicultural daughters and as a researcher of two-way immersion programs. In both cases, kids who grow up feeling proud of their two cultures seem to be much happier and better adjusted than those who are forced to give up their home culture to fit in.

The debate over cultural assimilation - similar to the one over English language acquisition - needs to change paradigms. This is not about making a choice between being "American" and being Salvadoran, or Haitian, or Vietnamese. It is about bringing up a whole child who knows how to move in both her worlds. These kids become such interesting people and have so much to give to society. They tend to become very creative and at the same time very sensitive to different points of view, with the ability to see new ways of looking at things.

One final point I think we should consider: Although two-way immersion programs are an outstanding model, they are not possible for every school in every situation. (Think, for example, about schools that enroll 60 or 70 different language groups.) That does not mean that we cannot learn from and apply the additive cultural approach used in TWI. I think it's quite possible to do this in any kind of program that enrolls culturally and linguistically diverse students - and it is imperative that we find ways to do so, for the good of all of us.

Thanks for sharing this study.

Very interesting information. I wonder what kind of programs or activities could be implemented in the schools to help parents acculturate to the US.

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