“I have come to believe that in order to thrive, a child must have at least one adult in her life who shows her unconditional love, respect, and confidence. For me, it was Abuelita [my grandmother].” —Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World
If you are a parent to little ones, you have likely enjoyed Disney’s Encanto (maybe on repeat). The movie tells the story of La Familia Madrigal, a tight-knit Colombian family in which everyone (well, almost everyone) has a special gift that they use for the benefit of those around them. In the movie, Abuela (the grandmother) underscores this point as she sings, “We swear to always help those around us and earn the miracle that somehow found us.”
This emphasis on extending help toward others can be found across Latinx groups and is reflective of traditional cultural beliefs and attitudes. Latinx communities, like other primarily agrarian-based and collectivist-oriented societies, thrive by doing what is best for the family and the broader community, and promote cooperation, empathy, and helpfulness toward others. Indeed, there is substantive evidence that youth from Latin American heritage (like Brazil and Mexico) show higher cooperation and lower competitiveness than youth of white, European American heritage.
Despite pressures that Latinx immigrant youth may feel to conform to European American culture, research suggests that their own culture’s cooperative beliefs and attitudes are important for their health and well-being. By supporting children in cultivating these values, we as caregivers can help them grow up into kind, well-adjusted adults and community members.
Core cultural values for Latinx families
Abuela in Encanto and Abuelita for Judge Sotomayor were central figures in the family, and each passed down family traditions to the upcoming generations. Translating traditional cultural values and supporting children is an important task for Latinx caregivers, including parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other kin.
Although values and behaviors are first taught and encouraged in the context of the family, they can result in habits that generalize toward people outside the family. Central values of traditional Latinx cultures include the following:
Familism (or familismo) underscores an affinity and obligation toward one’s family, and to view oneself as part of the family system. A key component of familism includes a family member’s obligation to fulfill their role in the family by providing emotional and material support to others. For example, older children may be encouraged to provide caregiving to grandparents or younger siblings.
Another aspect of familism values includes reciprocity, or the give and take within relationships. In accordance with this belief, children may be encouraged to share with others and be less possessive of their things.
Finally, familism includes the subjugation of the self, in which children are encouraged to put aside their own needs and wants and consider the needs of others. Children are taught to consider and weigh others’ perspectives and needs when making decisions.
Respeto or respect for others encourages individuals to recognize hierarchy within relationships and defer to the wisdom of those with more experience. Children are expected to act with courtesy toward their elders and those in positions of authority, such as teachers and parents.
Unlike with familism, there are no relational boundaries that dictate the expression of these values. In one study, when discussing respect for others, a Latinx mother emphasized this point: “I always tell my children that you need to respect even the youngest children . . . show respect with everyone.” Children are encouraged to treat todos or everyone they encounter with dignity, to not talk back to those in authority over them, and to not make fun of others, including teachers and peers.
The belief that children should be bien educado/a/x or well-educated does not simply refer to being formally educated in the academic sense. Rather, it also means that children should demonstrate good, upstanding qualities. Children’s behavior reflects on the family and, thus, children should act in responsible and moral ways toward all others. Children should always try to be warm, honest, polite, respectful, and responsible. They are expected to be obedient and act in accordance with their social role within the broader family and their community.
The benefits of a strong cultural identity
These cultural values, and traditional Latinx values such as religiosity and humility, are intrinsically other-oriented and have strong elements of prosociality (acting in ways that benefit others). As a result, it may not be surprising that Latinx youth with a strong ethnic/racial identity tend to act more prosocially (and also experience greater well-being).
For example, research suggests that youth who report strong familism values are more willing to serve as a caregiver for siblings and have more positive sibling relationships overall.
Latinx children receive strong lessons in empathy. A recent qualitative study found that when Latinx mothers talk to their children about sibling conflicts, they use other-oriented language to present the other sibling’s perspective. For example, one mother in the study communicated to her child: “What happens is that your brother is much younger, and he always wants to know what you’re doing. If you give him a bad example, he will do it. . . . Because he is learning from you. You are his example.”
This mother, as well as others in the study, promoted perspective taking by reminding their child that a sibling’s bothersome behavior may stem from them looking up to the focal child as a role model, wanting to spend time together, or wanting to be included in play. These perspective-taking skills seem to translate beyond the family, as youth who more strongly endorse familism show greater perspective taking and helpfulness in general—which can help them form other positive relationships.
Additionally, Latinx values promote the capacity for youth to regulate their own behavior and emotions. Familism values require children to consider others’ needs before acting on their own. Instead of being driven by their personal feelings or desires, youth must take the time to account for the group’s needs.
Latinx mothers encourage children to reassess their feelings toward their siblings by engaging in self-reflection, a skill that is needed to appraise and regulate emotions. For instance, in the recent qualitative study, one mother encouraged reflection when speaking with her child by saying, “When the day ends do you think, ‘Wow, I’m not going to fight with my little sister. We really fight too much’? Do you have feelings like, ‘She’s my sister and I love her very much’?” Similarly, values of respeto and bien educado encourage youth to act respectfully and obediently around others, which requires monitoring their own behavior.
These values further promote well-being in youth—including immigrant youth, who are faced with the challenge of navigating two cultures. Latinx values can conflict with those of primarily individualistic societies, like competition, personal ambition and achievement, and materialism. But youth who adopt a bicultural identity (a self-concept that encompasses both their ethnic/racial minority and majority culture) and those who report strong ethnic/racial identity show better health, academic success, and behavior.
When experiencing the stressors and pressures to acculturate to the mainstream society, some immigrant youth may rely on strong familism values. Familism can decrease youth’s engagement in delinquent behaviors (such as substance use, breaking rules, or aggression) by sustaining strong parent-child relationships.
Familism can also improve youths’ academic life. In fact, youth who endorse familism are more engaged in school, have fewer academic difficulties, have fewer absences from school, and spend more time on homework, perhaps thanks to encouragement from their parents to perform well in school. Scholars also suggest that Latinx youth who are expected to take an active, responsible role in the family are also more likely to take an active role in their school environment.
Practices for caregivers
Teaching children to adopt traditional cultural values, embrace their ethnic/racial heritage, and engage in prosocial behaviors are the primary goals of many Latinx caregivers. Researchers suggest intentional caregiving approaches you can use to help you achieve these goals.
1. Clearly communicate cultural and behavioral expectations. These expectations emphasize the role of the child in contributing to the greater good of their community or family. You can further underscore personal and social responsibility by assigning family and household chores and by emphasizing your child’s role in the broader family. For example, you may assign the responsibilities of sibling caregiving to older children.
2. Reinforce good behaviors (such as helping others) by using social rewards such as praise, affection, or acknowledgement. Social rewards are more effective in promoting positive behavior change than giving material rewards such as money or toys. Social rewards can be especially effective when you connect your children’s positive behaviors to their own sense of self and identity. For example, you may comment on children’s positive behaviors by saying, “You are such a thoughtful person” or “You make a difference for those around you.”
3. When a child transgresses, offer clear, thoughtful explanations of behavioral expectations and the reasons for those expectations. For instance, if a child is misbehaving in school, you can emphasize the importance of them meeting your moral standards and expectations, that teachers are important authority figures who usually have the child’s best interest in mind, and the beneficial consequences of behaving well for themselves and others. When paired with examples of how to behave appropriately in difficult situations, these conversations can help children understand your moral rules and expectations and teach them what to do rather than what not to do.
4. Substitute harsh punishments like physical discipline for alternate forms of discipline that promote self-regulation and self-reflection. For example, you can implement time-outs or grounding, wherein children are encouraged to engage in self-reflection around natural feelings of guilt for transgressions and consider alternate ways of behaving that might achieve their goals.
Furthermore, you should refrain from harsh punitive practices and from inducing shame by criticizing your child’s character. Shame and harsh punishment frequently induce fear, disrupt open caregiver-child communication, undermine close and warm caregiver-child relationships, and model aggressive behaviors. Consequently, children may deem verbal and physical aggression as acceptable to resolve conflict and disagreements.
Setting appropriate rules and expectations and using non-harsh disciplinary strategies are most effective when paired with warmth from caregivers. This warmth communicates to children that discipline or directives for behavior come from a place of care and love and that, though they may make mistakes, they are still accepted. When children receive clear moral messages paired with warmth and acceptance, they are more likely to internalize your cultural and moral values that can lead to positive growth.
These recommendations should always be considered in light of the specific social and personal circumstances of your family and child. But in general, they are practices and experiences that can prove useful and constructive for raising another generation of children who are bien educado/a/x.