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Researcher questions conventional wisdom about Chicano childraising
STANFORD -- When some researchers looked at the data, they saw proof that Chicana mothers' childrearing practices put their kids educationally "at risk." But what Robert Moreno saw instead was a strong cultural bias among Anglo researchers that predisposed them to see other parenting styles as "faulty."
What's more, he saw that these predispositions were pressuring Chicana mothers to alter parenting strategies which, if better understood, might be found to be the very thing that has helped Mexican- American families survive poverty, social stress and ethnic prejudice.
Moreno, who will receive his doctorate from Stanford University's School of Education this quarter, focused his dissertation research on the different ways Anglo and Mexican mothers teach their children - and found that earlier researchers have been too quick to make generalizations and judgments based on very sketchy data.
The work fits into Moreno's larger aim of studying how highly stressed minority families effectively teach their children to cope.
"What good social skills do inner-city families in poverty have? According to the research literature, none," said Moreno. "But if you flip that question around a bit - who lives in a more stressed environment than these families? They will perish if they don't have coping skills. But are they empirically documented? No."
When it comes to childrearing and parenting styles, said Moreno, "Asians and Mexican Americans and African Americans are more akin to each other. Middle-class Anglo families stand out as being different. For some reason, that hasn't been made salient in the literature."
"Asian Americans are more like Hispanic families - yet their academic achievement is beyond that of Anglo children. But you don't see middle Americans modeling family behavior on Asian families to boost academic success."
Moreno's dissertation notes that, "According to the research, a good maternal teacher is one who uses a large amount of verbal instruction, asks many questions, and utilizes abstract words and concepts in her instructions. She uses many positive and reinforcing statements and rarely makes negative, corrective or punitive statements. . . .
"In contrast, a bad maternal teacher uses fewer instructions, more non-verbal instructions, and is less verbal overall compared to the good mother. She also uses less positive reinforcement and higher levels of negative and punitive statements. She also tends to be more controlling, directive and intrusive. . . .
"As one surveys the literature and examines the comparisons across socio-cultural groups, one quickly realizes that 'good' or effective maternal instruction is exemplified in the teaching styles of the middle class, particularly Anglo middle class. The 'bad' or ineffective teaching style, on the other hand, is characteristic of low-status groups, that is, ethnic/racial minorities and low socioeconomic groups."
Moreno said these studies are "an indication of skewed assessments biased in favor of behaviors and values consistent with highly educated, middle-class researchers."
Does the child learn?
Moreno noted that researchers typically assume that the setting and context of the research had the same meaning for all the subjects. They also assumed that the maternal behavior researchers see in the lab is typical.
But Moreno suggests that Chicana mothers may feel uncomfortable in laboratories, and the status differences between them may lead the mothers to misinterpret the situation.
Such mothers assume that researchers are making a character assessment of them or their children, and hence they feel more pressure to get their children to comply, rather than to show researchers how they interact with their children. They are concerned that their child "behave" and not embarrass them in front of the "doctors."
"This is quite consistent with the data," Moreno writes, "and may partially account for the higher level of reported controlling, punitive and [other] behavior that has been reported."
Most surprising, however, Moreno noticed that researchers don't ask a fundamental question, "Did the kids learn?"
"Of the studies that do provide task performance assessment, virtually none provide pre- and post-instructional assessments. Without adequate assessment of child task performance, we are left to subjective interpretation of differences in instruction."
In other words, "Other researchers feel uncomfortable watching controlling, directive behavior. But not liking it is not empirical evidence that it is not effective."
Moreno's own study involved 29 sets of mothers and children (17 Chicano groups; 12 Anglo American). Videotaping occurred in the home, in whatever room the subjects felt most comfortable.
Families were trained to do their own videotaping so that researchers would intrude on the setting as little as possible.
Mothers were asked to teach their preschoolers to do a simple task - in this case, tying their shoes.
Moreno's research found that all the children, regardless of maternal instruction techniques, improved with instruction at about the same rate. There was no indication any particular kind of instruction increased the rate of improvement.
Moreno, too, found a correlation of high performance scores for women who used fewer commands, "modeling" and physical control in their instruction. However, these children also had higher performance scores before the instruction took place.
According to Moreno, these mothers may simply have children who perform better, or their instruction techniques may be a response to their child's better performance at the outset.
Moreno also found that looking at mothers' behavior for nine minutes instead of the researchers' more customary three made a huge difference in results.
Other research has agreed that Chicana mothers "use more commands" in instructing children. But breaking up his nine minutes into three three-minute periods, Moreno found that, in "Time 3," "Chicana mothers use less commands than Anglo mothers. Across time, their [Chicana mothers'] commands are loaded in Time 1."
The use of praise was also very different over time. While Anglo mothers "increased praise over time as performance increased," for Chicana mothers, "praise is constant." For both groups, the total amount of praise was about the same.
Time, patience, understanding needed
To further illustrate cultural differences in raising children, Moreno recalled two examples from his own observation: In one, an Anglo mother was sitting outside a car with her reluctant toddler. "She spent about 20 minutes talking to the 1-1/2-year-old about why he needed to wear a seat belt."
In the second example, parents of a 4- or 5-year-old Chicana girl were reprimanding her "for not looking after her sibling. Their attitude was, 'As a family, we constantly look out for each other - that's what we do, that's what a family is.' In this particular case, I don't think commands have the negative connotations they do in the mainstream culture."
"Some people look at the first mother and say, 'This woman's crazy. Just stick the kid in the car.' Others look at the second and say, 'Don't put all that responsibility on the kid!' " Others think the first mother is putting too much responsibility on the kid to understand - and that she should just deal with the situation.
"What's needed is time and patience and understanding of what's going on."
Moreno's own background makes him particularly sensitive to Anglo-Chicano differences.
Moreno remembers being "a young kid, working the fields in Stockton and Fresno with relatives, picking cucumbers." By age 12, he was working for pay as an auto mechanic.
Moreno is the first of his family to attend college - and the second of five children to finish high school.
He recalls the "culture shock" as a teen of moving from a predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles neighborhood to the predominantly white suburb of Cerritos - a move that was, perhaps, to foreshadow his later research interest in ethnic differences.
"I left a place where I knew everybody for one where I knew no one. Even changing from a person of average height [in a Chicano community] to suddenly being a short person [in an Anglo community] was a cultural transition," he says.
In Cerritos, too, his curriculum was downgraded to a "general" rather than "college prep" class.
Although he always wanted to go to UCLA, high school counselors nevertheless shuttled him toward junior colleges. Later, community college counselors assured Moreno he couldn't transfer and couldn't make it in a top-flight four-year institution. Eventually, he got his bachelor's from UCLA.
At Stanford, he earned his doctorate while supporting a family that includes four children. A fifth child, his only son, died in infancy of congenital heart trouble while Moreno was studying at Stanford.
For Moreno, this painful experience recalls another that reinforces the need for more understanding and compassion between classes and cultures: sharing the hospital room was a Chicana toddler in the intensive care unit with pneumonia. Her parents were Watsonville farmworkers who spoke little English. The critically ill girl spent most of her time alone.
"I remember hearing the nurses saying, 'Where are the parents? Don't they care? I guess not.' " But, he said, the parents had three other children and no paid time off from work. They had refused an opportunity to keep their child closer to home, thinking her chances of survival would be better at Stanford.
"The reality was the family was making an enormous sacrifice to keep her there. It was tearing them apart.
"But they were being penalized twice - first, by not having the resources to visit; second, by the way they were perceived as not caring.
"I feel both Chicano and Anglo families are trying to display a lot of affection for their children. I haven't run across anyone saying, 'No, I don't care for my children and I don't care about their education.' "
Moreno urges all researchers "first to try and have a full picture, try to really understand what's going on, before jumping to conclusions about what's better and what's not. People want to know what to do - but the risks are high for making a mistake.
"To say 'We know what's best' is a heavy responsibility, and should not be taken lightly."
Moreno has accepted a position as assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he will develop parent education programs for disadvantaged families in Chicago and East St. Louis.
"That's why I'm excited about the work I will be doing in Illinois - I want to identify these families' coping skills.
"Once you identify them, you can use the differences to build better parent training programs. All parents need training - a range of strategies and options. The larger, Anglo community can't just say, 'If you want your child to be successful, do it our way.' That alienates people. Nobody has developed a way that covers all the bases."
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