Religious Parent, Secular Child: What We Can Learn From Immigrant Families

Religious Parent, Secular Child: What We Can Learn From Immigrant Families June 24, 2016

I was quoted in the New York Times Magazine’s Sixth Floor Blog a couple of weeks ago, which, admittedly, is not the same as being quoted in the New York Times — but, hey, I’ll take it where I can get it.

The writer singled me out because she liked my term “first-generation secular,” which she read in the Psychology Today piece I told you about here.

The NYTMSFB’s mention has me thinking about that term — “first-generation secular” — and what makes it so appealing. I think it’s because so many of us in America are experiencing or observing a generational split in our families — a culture clash between our parents’ religious generation and our more secularized one. As if the generation gaps caused by age weren’t enough to handle, religious divisions are often painful, even devastating, especially when a family’s identity has been shaped around a specific set of beliefs or doctrine. It’s not unlike the culture clashes that occur when families immigrate to new lands.

Consider this:

Some 35 years ago, Long Beach, Calif., received an influx of Cambodian refugees — all fleeing the Khmer Rouge. Every one of these refugees had lost family members (sometimes entire families) to the murderous reign of Pol Pot and came to America both desperate and  traumatized — yet deeply grateful for their rescue.

In time, the Cambodians were able to put down roots here; they formed new families; they had children. All seemed to be going as well as possible — until the children became teenagers, and the generation gaps in these families opened up like the Grand Canyon. It was understandable. The refugees had escaped their worst nightmare only 10 or 15 years before, and yet here they were with children who had no real concept of their struggles or sacrifices. The parents couldn’t help but see the children as spoiled and insensitive, disrespectful, out of control. But in actuality, most of the teens were simply acting like normal American teenagers, which is, of course, what they were.

In this particular situation, it’s so easy to understand both sides, isn’t it? And, in so many ways, the issues are the same in families where we secularists clash with our religious elders.

So what can we learn from these immigrant families? How can we be honest with our family members without dismissing our heritage, disrespecting their beliefs, and fracturing our relationships?

Mike Hardcastle writes for teens at Recently, he published a column to help young people traverse cultural barriers within their own families. It’s amazing how much great advice is here for secularists if you simple replace “culture” with “religion.”

“Being from a different culture,” Hardcastle writes, “even a very rigid or strictly indoctrinated one, does not mean that your parents are closed minded. Give your parents the benefit of the doubt and assume that they will at least listen to what you have to say, even if they won’t accept it. But also be very aware of what the cultural reaction to your words may be and know exactly what risks you are taking by speaking up.”

Hardcastle offers this advice:

Before opening any dialogue it is essential that you do a risk assessment. You must have a realistic grasp on what your parents’ culturally based reaction may be. You must know and be prepared to deal with any and all possible consequences, and where necessary have back up support in place. Although you may not adhere to the cultural practices of your parents, they do follow them and it is extremely important that you know what the worst case scenario may be. Don’t assume that parental bonds are stronger than cultural pressures, this is not always the case.

Here are some of his tips:

1. Do not be confrontational in your behaviour. Do not go on the offensive. This conversation is going to be hard enough without giving your parents a good reason to justify being defensive.

2. Know and respect the rules of your parents’ culture and follow them to the very best of your ability when talking to them about your conflicts. For instance, if contradicting the wishes of ones parents is frowned upon in their culture open your conversation with something like this;

“I know that you see my bringing this up as disrespectful but that is not at all what I am trying to be, I just really need you to know what is going on in my life and how I feel about a few things.”

Make the issue more about you and your feelings than about culture.

3.  Before telling them what it is about their culture that you don’t want in your life, list all of the things you embrace and/or respect. Make clear that your criticisms are not a blanket rejection of your heritage or of them.

4. Remain calm throughout the entire conversation even if it takes a turn you don’t like. If they start to get angry or shut off and stop listening, it is very important that you not punctuate this behavior with your own anger. Instead, stay calm and stop talking. Let them know that your feelings won’t change but that you can wait until later to discuss it further. Then wait until things have calmed down before you approach the topic again.

5. Do not attack your parents’ culture or practices, only express why they are not right for you or why you can’t embrace them as your own.

Thank you, Mike, for your great advice — and especially for this:

Even the most horrendous practice is usually rooted in a parent’s love and concern for their child’s survival within the culture. Different cultural pressures determine what practices a parent considers ‘essential’ and which fates they fear most for their child… Chances are good that they love you very much and want nothing more than to see you happy.

Well said.


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