One of the top reasons immigrants give for coming to the United States is a desire to provide better educational and economic opportunities to their families and children. Immigrants voice this sentiment regardless of their educational level, financial standing, or country of origin.
Numerous ethnographic studies demonstrate that the children in immigrant families are well aware of their parents' motivations for coming to the United States. By the time they reach adolescence, many children with foreign-born parents acknowledge their parents' efforts and cite their parents' sacrifices as sources of motivation for trying to succeed in American society.
Because children's sense of obligation to their immigrant parents can affect their adaptation and adjustment in the United States, several studies of children and adolescents from Asian and Latin American immigrant families have been conducted to gauge their level of obligation to the family.
Several general themes emerge from this research, including the children's strong sense of obligation, the contribution of that sense of obligation to their overall well-being, and obligation as a source of academic motivation as well as an important consideration in life decisions.
Definitions and Methodology
Family obligation refers to a collection of values and behaviors related to the children's provision of assistance, support, and respect to their parents, siblings, and extended family. Norms of children assisting the family exist within the cultural traditions of many immigrant groups in their native countries, and these traditions take on very real significance as immigrant families attempt to adapt to a new and different society.
In several different studies conducted between 1994 and 2006 that included anywhere from 150 to 1,000 participants, children and adolescents in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles completed various questionnaires assessing their sense of obligation to the family. Some of the study participants also were interviewed extensively, and some completed detailed diary checklists of their daily activities and experiences.
These children were recruited from schools in each metropolitan area that possessed large numbers of students from different immigrant backgrounds, predominantly from countries in Asia and Latin America (e.g., China, Philippines, and Mexico). The children's families varied greatly in terms of their educational levels and income. Collectively, approximately one-third of the children were foreign-born themselves, one-third were born in the United States of immigrant parents, and one-third were born in the United States of American-born parents.
The generational breakdown varied across groups, however, with the vast majority of those from Asian countries being either foreign-born or born in the United States of immigrant parents. The generational breakdown was more balanced among those from Mexico.
Finally, the implications of family obligation for other aspects of their adjustment were examined, such as their psychological well-being, academic motivation, and educational attainment.
A Strong Sense of Obligation
Children and adolescents from immigrant families expressed a strong sense of obligation to support, assist, and respect the family. In one study that took place in the San Francisco Bay Area, approximately 800 10th and 12th grade students used a scale that ranged from 1 ("not important at all") to 5 ("very important") to indicate how important it was that they engage in behaviors such as "help your parents financially in the future," "help take care of your brothers and sisters in the future," and "live or go to college near your parents." The students' responses to these items were averaged to produce an overall index of their sense of obligation to the family.
First-generation (i.e., foreign-born) adolescents from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Filipino, Chinese, and Latin American, reported the strongest sense of obligation to support their families in the future. On average, these adolescents came to the United States at approximately 7 years of age (see Figure 1). This sense of obligation declines only slightly across subsequent generations and remains higher than that of adolescents from the third generation or greater from European backgrounds (i.e., American-born adolescents with American-born parents), who represent the majority of young people in the United States.
Therefore, although second-generation children sometimes have a lower sense of obligation than the first generation, the value they place upon family assistance remains higher than that of the majority of American adolescents.
These students were tracked until they were 21 to 23 years old. Consistent with the values they expressed during high school, the first- and second-generation young adults were more likely than their peers to actually provide some financial support to their families.
In personal interviews with study participants, it was very clear many of those from immigrant families felt strongly about helping their families and believed it was an important aspect of their immigrant and cultural heritage. As one of the participants, the 21-year-old son of Chinese refugees who escaped Vietnam after the war, put it:
"Asian families just have to, like, they have more at stake. They are just more familial orientated than, I don't know, American families in general."
Variations exist among the children from immigrant families according to factors such as the families' socioeconomic resources and the children's gender. Adolescents from poorer immigrant families whose parents worked in low-wage occupations expressed a greater sense of obligation to the support the family and actually provided more financial support to the family when they reached young adulthood. Daughters possessed a somewhat greater sense of obligation to provide everyday assistance to their families, whereas sons were more likely to provide some financial support to their parents and siblings.
A Contributor to Well-Being
Given the emphasis on individuality and independence in American society, it might be assumed that family obligation would create undo stress and strain for children from immigrant families. Yet it is important to consider the function a sense of obligation to the family may serve for members of immigrant families.
One of the greatest challenges for immigrants is the disruption of longstanding social networks in their native countries and the need to find a place to belong in a new society. This sense of belongingness consists of not only having friends and social support but also of feeling one can make a meaningful contribution to others.
Although disruptions in social roles usually have been studied among adult immigrants, the same issues face many children in immigrant families. As suggested in studies by sociologists Nathan Caplan, Min Zhou and Carl Bankston, and Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, a sense of obligation to the family can provide an important sense of purpose and connection for the children of immigrant families, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood when children become mature enough to make substantial contributions to the family.
In the studies in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles that were described earlier, it has been consistently found that those with a greater sense of obligation to the family reported more positive psychological well-being and self-esteem. In addition, there was no evidence that family assistance by itself resulted in increased stress and anxiety for those from immigrant families. The reason: It occurred within the context of adolescents and young adults feeling that they played a valuable and important role in the family. This appears to be true for both the first- and second-generation children of immigrants.
Although there may be some children from immigrant families for whom high levels of family assistance can create psychological distress, there are likely to be other family difficulties going on that account for such an association. This possibility is being explored in ongoing research.
A Source of Academic Motivation
At the time of the previous great wave of immigration, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, secondary schooling was not widespread or freely available in the United States. High school attendance, therefore, was not a clearly established route toward obtaining gainful employment in order to help the family.
Current immigration, in contrast, takes place at a time when high school graduation and college attendance are mandatory requirements for a successful transition into the upper levels of the labor market. As shown by sociologists Grace Kao and Marta Tienda, most contemporary immigrant parents have high educational aspirations for their children and emphasize the importance of doing well and completing school.
As a result, family obligation is a critical source of the strong academic motivation of children from immigrant families. Earlier studies identified such a link, and in this research the connection was also explored. In addition to completing measures tapping their sense of obligation, participants responded to items that assessed the importance they placed upon schooling and educational success.
For example, in the San Francisco study, 10th and 12th grade students used a five-point scale of 1 ("not at all true of me") to 5 ("very true of me") to respond to items such as "going to college is necessary for what I want to do in the future," "I need to get good grades in school in order to get a good job as an adult," and "doing well in school is the best way for me to succeed as an adult." The students' responses to these items were averaged to produce an overall index of their belief in the utility of education.
As shown in Figure 2, adolescents who placed more importance upon providing assistance and support to their families also stressed the importance of doing well in school and pursuing their education beyond the high school years. Similar findings were obtained across virtually all of the study's measures of academic motivation, and the trends are similar for both first- and second-generation adolescents.
The links between family obligation and academic motivation continue to be explored in a study of high school students in the Los Angeles area. Across immigrant groups from a variety of countries and ethnic backgrounds, students indicate a desire to do well in school in order to help their families and support them in the future. For example, when asked about the sources of his motivation to achieve in school, one 14-year-old son of Mexican immigrants said:
“"...they [his parents] did so much for us, especially my dad. They worked so hard just to get where we are and I really appreciate that. And, I mean...the way I can pay them back right now is to get good grades. And by doing what I'm supposed to."
An Important Consideration in Life Decisions
By the time children in American society leave high school, they have to make important decisions that can shape their lives as adults. Recall that one aspect of family obligation among many immigrant groups is a value placed upon living with or near the family of origin during adulthood. As shown in Figure 3, young adults from immigrant Latin American and Filipino families were significantly more likely to live with their parents at age 21 compared with adolescents from American-born families with the same ethnic background.
The implications of family obligation are more complex for the postsecondary educational enrollment and attainment of children from immigrant families, as they can depend upon the economic resources of the students' families. On the one hand, as described earlier, a sense of obligation to support and assist the family is associated with a stronger value placed on education and a greater desire to pursue a college degree after high school. These educational values and aspirations, in turn, were found to be linked to a greater likelihood of enrolling and staying in college after high school.
One the other hand, family obligation also implies the very real need to provide assistance to the families. Upon leaving high school, the children from immigrant families are of the age at which they can pursue full-time employment in order to provide direct financial support to their families. This is particularly true for children from immigrant families with limited means who are under economic stress. As with many American-born families who face difficult economic circumstances, children and adolescents from poorer immigrant families need to provide extra support to their families in order to help them get by.
If the economic needs of the family are pressing enough, young adults from immigrant families may postpone college enrollment or only attend classes on a part-time basis so they can work. Unfortunately, these studies and those of others have shown that young adults who use these strategies to balance college and work have a more difficult time completing postsecondary degrees.
It is very clear from this research and that of others that children from immigrant families have a profound sense of obligation to support and assist their families as they attempt to adapt to the United States. This sense of obligation changes only slightly between the first and second generation and remains stronger than that of children and adolescents from the third-or-greater generation with European backgrounds, who represent the majority of the population of American children. Overall, this sense of obligation provides meaning to the children's lives as they attend school and adjust to American society. This meaning, in turn, facilitates their psychological well-being and provides motivation for them to work hard in school.
Although the sense of obligation can propel many adolescents from immigrant families into college, it also can make it difficult for those from families with fewer economic resources to make college their sole focus and activity.
Efforts to facilitate the postsecondary progress of students from immigrant families would need to take advantage of the strengths and motivation this sense of obligation provides these young adults. At the same time, such efforts would need to help students from families with limited means balance their desire to receive a college degree with their immediate need to provide support to their parents and siblings.
This article is part of a series on the second generation in the United States, supported in part by the Russell Sage Foundation.
The research summarized in this article was supported by the William T. Grant Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and was conducted in collaboration with a number of colleagues, including May Lam, Sarah Pedersen, Wendy Rivera, Vivian Tseng, and Melissa Witkow.
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