Marrying into a Latin Family
So my nephew asked me to write a blog post for Family Bridges about marrying into a Latino family.
I’m not sure where to begin with an assignment like that. It almost seems to beg me to invoke some politically incorrect stereotypes about Latinos and Gringos. I suppose the desired effect is a lightly humorous pastry of a fluff piece sprinkled with anecdotes that might remind the reader of an episode of “Modern Family,” injected with some sort of jelly filling extolling the virtues of humble Latino family values over soulless American greed and isolationism.
Having said that, I suppose it isn’t terribly far from my experience. I have been making some attempts recently to understand why my three kids seem so much more well adjusted than I was (or am). My 23-year-old daughter has been happily married and living far away in Chicago (I’m in South Florida) for several years now, and she never really did exhibit much of the drama that popular culture has conditioned us to expect from teenage girls. My boys (currently 15, and 12), are also already old enough for me to realize that they lack in certain rebellious and/or resentful attitudes toward me and my generation that most of my peers and I exhibited at that age toward our parents and teachers.
Although I have developed an instinctual aversion to sweeping generalizations and easy answers to complex questions, I have been toying with the notion that some of the difference may involve the general paradigm of discipline I received growing up versus the way my kids are being reared. My recollection of my own upbringing is that it involved a pattern of rewards and punishments. My parents made a fairly consistent effort to communicate what was expected of me at any given age, and what I could expect in return in the form of consequences for fulfilling or failing to fulfill those expectations.
It wasn’t the kind of harsh humorless militant discipline we often see in movies where upper-class parents mercilessly push their toddlers to high levels of achievement so they can earn a place at the most prestigious preparatory schools. We were too low of a tax bracket for that. But the behavior/consequence paradigm was always present. As far as I can tell, this was the way most of my peers were being raised as well. I suppose every approach has its benefits and drawbacks, and I certainly can’t say this one was necessarily all bad. I don’t know how much of it my parents’ generation received from their own parents, and how much came from the emergence of popular parenting psychology in the ’60s and ’70s, such as Doctor Spock and his ilk (not to be confused with Mr. Spock the Star Trek character). I guess, in the end, it felt a little too much to me like a negotiation. Although it probably wasn’t intended to, from the child’s point of view it can seem like all these rules are designed to protect the parent’s interests, ensuring that the child doesn’t overly inconvenience them.
Whether as a result of this or due to some other pattern of genetic or environmental influences on my life, I emerged into adulthood without a particularly strong sense of identity or purpose and found myself without much of an idea how to live my life, much less raise my own kids. So my approach to life and to child-rearing has been to keep my head down and avoid any more involvement than is strictly necessary, with a view toward minimizing the damage to myself, my kids and to others around me. This means that I have generally deferred to my Latina wife for the most part when it comes to raising the kids.
Bear in mind; I am not recommending this as a strategy for fatherhood (or life). I wish I could say I was the kind of dad who shares his interests and activities with his kids and teaches them lots of life lessons in the process, but I never really developed many interests and hadn’t really learned many of those life lessons myself. Perhaps this is one of the unpleasant side effects of the prevalence of television and other entertainment media in our lives. Too many of us have become spectators in our own lives rather than participants.
Looking back, it seems like my wife managed to raise the kids without resorting to very much in terms of rewards or punishments. We’ve never “grounded” any of the kids, nor have they ever done any of the things that I had done in my youth which might have merited such discipline. Needless to say, corporal punishment hasn’t been necessary, beyond a smack on the wrist when they were very small to discourage them from reaching out to hot stoves and the like. Maybe we’ve just been lucky, but I think it has a lot to do with the way she loves the kids. I grew up thinking of love as a way someone feels about someone else, or perhaps a level of desire for their well being. But for my wife, it seems to be more of a transitive verb; it’s something she does to them and for them.
I’m not sure words are capable of articulating such things clearly. It never ceases to astound me how much meaning people expect to be able to encapsulate and communicate through a string of multi-syllabic utterances. But I think the way my wife loves the kids has something to do with being constantly mindful of what they are experiencing and feeling. It involves a lot of listening and frequent/constant interaction and providing them a consistently calm and comforting presence in which to express themselves. They do learn about actions and consequences in the process, not because we’re laying out a structured list for them, but because she is gently guiding them as they encounter the consequences of their actions in their daily lives.
Returning to the intended theme of this post, I suppose some of that parenting magic may be a part of her Latino culture. She would certainly give a lot of credit to her faith as well. My wife’s own close connections with her sisters and their families have provided another benefit for my kids which I lacked, which is a sense of a broader yet still closely-knit extended family. I would speculate these benefits aren’t necessarily more prevalent in Latino culture as opposed to other cultures in the world, but perhaps that they are less prevalent in American culture today. Perhaps most other cultures are just a generation or two behind the USA on the path to cultural destruction. For my part, it has been some comfort to step back from the cliff a bit and at least get to see my kids experience some values of an older culture which perhaps we have been losing sight of in ours.