Recently, I participated in a podcast where we've discussed the importance of nurturing during a child's early years to foster trust and autonomy, and to build stronger teenagers and adults. To Americans, this idea is very similar to Attachment Parenting, a term coined and defended by the American pediatrician Dr. William Sanders. But to me and other Latin American cultures, this is the typical way of raising a child, which is why fostering so much autonomy and independence from an early age sounds so curious to me.
In the face of the differences between the "American way" and the "Latino way" to raise kids, I put on my investigative hat and did some research on both. That is when I learned that there is a scientific term to the way we (and most Latin American countries) raise our children. It is called "Familism."
Even though it is now common mostly among Latinos, back when the term was first used, in 1945, it was defined as a value common to the social structure of traditional, modern peasant-based societies. On the other end of the spectrum was what was called "Individualism," then identified as a characteristic way to raise children among modern urban societies.
To allow us a clear understanding of Familism, here are some of its key aspects:
- Familial obligations (to provide material and emotional support)
- Perceived support from the family
- The use of family as referents to behaviors and attitudes
- Family reciprocity and interconnectedness
- The subjugation of self for the family.
Put together, these result in a closer relationship to the nuclear family (parents and siblings), more participation of the extended family in the raising of the family's children, and a reduced focus on what is good for the self in exchange for what is favorable for the group.
Familism x Individualism
The Familism's model of raising a child within a familiar community has emotional and psychological benefits. For example, the child feels that they have an extended support network, which likely impacts their openness to new challenges, increasing their self-confidence and sense of trust, and easing their adaptation to new situations. Feeling that they are part of a group of people with similar values and behaviors may also strengthen their sense of identity, boost their self-esteem and reduce any feeling of loneliness. Plus, growing up with cousins and relatives nearby allow the child to create friends within the family group, reducing their dependence on peers and problems related to peer-orientation. On the other hand, Individualism fosters independence and autonomy from an early age, teaching the child to fend for themselves, which are also essential skills. In this process, however, the child nurturing tends to be compromised, in favor of skills such as self-soothing, among others.
However, recent studies show that adequate nurturing in early years is more effective in promoting later independence and self-sufficiency than the encouragement of individualism. The idea is that presenting progressive challenges to children as they age is more efficient than demanding more than they can psychologically and emotionally handle at an early age.
There is an internal maturation process that must take place before we can successfully encourage autonomy and independence. Doing it too early may create those very things that we have been trying so hard to combat in our society: anger issues, selfishness, difficulty "adulting," anxiety problems, fear of facing the simplest challenges in life, bullying, addiction, etc. We believe that by trying to "push" nature, we are helping our children to grow. But the truth is that nature can't be pushed. It follows its own course at its own pace, regardless of how much effort we put into speeding things up.
So, what should we do?
The biggest problem, though, is how our society is structured. Our current environment doesn't encourage the adequate early nurturing we've been talking about. The government does not put in place policies to make companies consider the importance of the early years in a baby's life when a mother gives birth. On the other hand, companies are focused on profits, and won't cut off on theirs when they are not obligated to. Women these days need (and want) to have a career. As such, they are more present at the marketplace, as they should. But they shouldn't have to choose between being a mother and having a career. Neither should their children have to pay for that.
To change our current mental health scenario, we need a structural change in our society. Unfortunately, that comes at a price for big corporations and, as the ones who hold power, no one dares to change the rules for them. Then, we are led to believe that what creates the current issues with our kids and teens is the fact that we overprotect them, we don't give them enough responsibilities, and we coddle them too much. We say that our parents started working much earlier and were much better at managing their lives.
Indeed, our parents and grandparents were much stronger and resilient than our kids. However, it may not be because they were pushed harder and the expectations for them were higher. It may be because, back then, they had the familial support and presence that our kids can't rely on these days. It may be because they were nurtured adequately in the early years, which in turn made them stronger teenagers, who were able to handle challenges much greater than our kids ever would.
If we don't rethink the way we are structured economically and as a society, our kids will continue to "fail" at the task of "growing up" and at becoming functional adults. The mental health issues among them will continue to grow at an alarming rate. These numbers are evidence that something is very wrong. Our kids are asking for help, and we have been unable to decipher the message for too long. It's time to do something.