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Here’s What Happens When Kids Really Do Speak a Different Language

How children of Mexican immigrants respond to discipline depends on whether they share a common language with their parents.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: mrtgt/Flickr)

As if raising kids wasn’t hard enough, imagine being an immigrant parent who doesn’t speak the same language as your kids do. That language barrier is bound to be a challenge for families with growing children, especially when it comes to discipline. According to new research, positive approaches have special consequences for language-mixed families when it comes to discipline: Positive approaches to discipline only work when parents and children speak a common language, yet harsher approaches only inflict harm when they don’t.

“Based on the current results, an increased emphasis is needed on immigrant parents learning proficient English, or on children of immigrants becoming proficient in their parents’ language,” Thomas Schofield, a professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, and his colleagues write in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

That conclusion stems from a study of 674 Mexican-American families who took part in the California Families Project. Eighty-four percent of the mothers of those families were born in Mexico and spoke primarily Spanish, but had lived in the United States for an average of nearly 17 years. Only 29 percent of those mothers’ children were born in Mexico, however—on average, the kids were just shy of 11 years old—and even fewer spoke Spanish as their primary language. Schofield and his colleagues’ question whether that might affect the children’s behavior.

Children who don’t speak much of their immigrant parents’ language face more of an uphill battle than we thought.

The answer, in short, is yes—but with a complication. First, to get a sense of family dynamics, the researchers videotaped conversations about family activities and household rules between mothers and their children. Based on those videos, the team rated both mothers’ warmth toward their children as well as the mothers’ discipline styles—whether they were prone to yelling and spanking, or used more positive approaches, like promoting independence and finding child-centered solutions to problems. Mothers also rated their children’s self-control and tendency toward aggression, once during a conversation when the child was in fifth grade and again in seventh grade.

As you might expect, warmth and positive approaches to discipline did more to improve self-control and limit aggression. But there’s a caveat: Warmth and positive discipline increased self-control and curtailed aggression primarily when mothers and their children spoke the same language most of the time, whether it was Spanish or English. Similarly, harsh discipline tended to increase aggression, but for the most part only when mothers and their children did not share a common language.

The consequence, Schofield and co-authors write, is that children who don’t speak much of their immigrant parents’ language face even more of an uphill battle than we thought, particularly if language barriers and discipline problems begin feeding on themselves, driving an ever-deeper wedge between one generation and the next.