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Some Thoughts for Cross-Cultural Stepfamilies

When I was counseling stepfamilies, I had clients from different cultures come to see me with an abundance of difficulties in their stepfamilies. In those cases the spouses came from different countries. They had different cultures, different first languages and different religions. Each of these families wanted to stay in their stepfamilies but they were unsure how to manage all the problems. They were overwhelmed to say the least.

Of course it is important to know that you don’t have to come from different countries to be considered a cross-cultural stepfamily. Most people come from different cultural backgrounds. We are all raised in different ways and learn different cultures and traditions growing up. Cultural differences can include different socio- economic classes as well as different belief and values. For example, my husband eats with his fork upside down English style. I put my fork down and change hands when I eat. We both learned this way of eating from our families.

OK, so what should these partners in a cross-cultural stepfamily do other than hang on for a bit of a ride and trust they love each other enough to make their family work?

Let’s start with the suggested idea of talk, talk, and talk. Many of my clients have talked a lot and tried to understand each other. But here is the thing… all this takes time. When a partner or her/his children do something the others in the family don’t understand, they need to be open enough to ask questions and be able to listen well enough to try to understand. Every time a conflict arises it is a learning experience for the members of the family. “ Oh, that is why you turned your back on me.” Unfortunately, not all family members want to discover what those different behaviors are all about. The partners might make this effort but not all the children have the ability or the desire to try. Children need to be encouraged to try and understand each other’s differences.

So here are some thoughts:

1. Take the time to ask yourself what your own thoughts are regarding a different culture. Know your own beliefs and values because these values will influence how you perceive others. And.. don’t assume you know how someone is feeling or why they act the way they do. If you aren’t sure, ask.

2. Keep your empathy close to your heart. Being part of a new culture isn’t easy for anyone or for you. Try to be kind.

3. Be patient. Keep your angst in check and be as calm as you can. Take time to really understand what just happened.

4. Flexibility is a must because it allows you to let go of certain expectations, you might have had and just go with it. Everything doesn’t have to be done your way. It is ok to try new things.

5. Be respectful of each other’s culture. Learn about another culture by reading and watching videos or movies. Children love this method of learning and will usually get involved in discussions afterwards. Children can be very insightful.

6. Look for the good intentions in people’s actions. Be forgiving when mistakes are made due to misinterpretations or naivety.

Learning about another culture will broaden your children’s minds. Therefore, talking about these differences leads to understanding. Remember that differences are not good or bad but just different ways to see the world. Different ways of doing things that is all.

As soon as we understand why our partner and his/her children do things a certain way, it will start to make sense. For example, in some people’s culture kissing on both cheeks is how they great people, while others bow when they meet you. That is an easy one. But what happens when you are introduced to someone and they don’t look you in the eye out of respect for you. That might make you feel that they don’t want to meet you, or don’t like you. Once you understand a custom, it helps to put things in perspective.

Here are 10 topics to share with each other and your children. You can decide how to compromise within your stepfamily. There is no right or wrong on how you chose to mange your stepfamily. It is up to the partners to decide which healthy traditions work best for their family.

Remember, parents are role models for their children.

1.Food - What foods do you like? What foods are served at special holidays or during special traditions? When are they a sacrament? Cook for each other and make sure the children try the different types of food from each culture. Trying different ethnic restaurants can be fun and an education into different cultural foods at the same time.

Also, are their restrictions when it comes to food? For example, Muslim people don’t eat pork. Serving them pork would be disrespectful. Sometimes you might need to make two meals each dinner if someone is a vegetarian in the family. Mutual respect is not over rated. Children often like to help make different meals. Try to make meals fun whenever you can.

2.Personal space – Many cultures don’t like people standing too close.

Some cultures like to walk arm in arm, some children walk behind their elders, some hug each other in public. What is normal in each of your different cultures?

3. Family – What does “family” mean to each of you? In some countries extended family like cousins, aunts and uncles are considered part of a family. Grandparents often live with family members. While other cultures think it is important for children to leave home in there twenties and fend for them selves.

4. Religion and Religious Celebrations – Will each person in the family chose their own religion or follow the biological parent’s choice? Some people celebrate both religions in one family. For example, I know a stepfamily that celebrates the Christmas holiday and Hanukkah. Some children in the same family go to the Synagogue with their parent while the other parent takes their children to the local church.

There are also interfaith classes and groups if you need help deciding what to do.

5. Finances – This is a big topic for all couples from all cultures before they get married. Do you save your money or like to spend it regularly? Is it customary to talk about money? What are the priorities around money? For example, some people believe saving for the children’s educations is most important while others think saving for retirement comes first.

6. Music and Dance – Now this can be really fun. If you have teenagers in the house they have their own taste in music. Which is normal. However, introducing your music from your own culture is important. Everyone is entitled to share and enjoy their own music. My three–year-old grandson dances just as happily to his Muslim grandparent’s music as he does to his fathers rap music. House dance parties are in style these days.

7. Holidays – You will want to include all family members when deciding on what holidays to take and when to take them. For example, one partner always took his/her children south to a warm country to see relatives each year and the other parent always had a ski holiday. A compromise might be needed here because both are important. Maybe one year going south and the next year going skiing would work. Compromise is essential.

You will have to talk about religious holidays and decide what will work for everyone. Invite your stepfamily to join you in some of your rituals.

8. Raising children – What is the norm for both cultures? The differences could be obvious and so with time respect for each other’s methods could happen. This is true unless of course one of the partners believes in punishing their children physically. In Canada we have laws against that form of discipline.

I believe the best way to deal with discipline is to use consequences that fit the actions. It is important that each parent finds consequences for his/her own children. I can’t stress this enough.

9. Non-verbal queues – The partners need to teach each other the different appropriate ways to deal with different situations. For example, some cultures don’t understand teasing. When you tease them they think you are being critical. In some cultures touching a child’s head is not acceptable, and in other cultures not removing your shoes entering a home is disrespectable. Starting to eat a meal before everyone is seated and ready can be unacceptable, and staring at a person will make him or her uncomfortable.

10. Language - When people of different cultures live together they are subjected to another language. You won’t believe how fast children can absorb another language! Teaching some basic words will surely help. And learning some basic words will show that you care. There are all sorts of helpful ways to learn these days. My sister picked up Spanish by using a language app on her phone for 10 minutes a day.

Personal stories tell a great deal about a person and his/her culture. Hearing where you grew up and what you experienced in your life will help the family members to understand you better. Explain the meaning behind the customs and values you have kept from your ancestors. For example, Jim lived in a small Inuit village growing up. He explained how he ate raw whale meat and hunted seal with the other villagers. He also could play the ancient wedding drums. His teenage stepchildren were fascinated and asked if he would teach them to hunt some day. Meanwhile, they all learned to play the drums.

There is nothing more interesting than listening to someone talk about their past life experiences. Even though children tend to say your experiences are from the “ olden days,” they are still listening. Family members will have a different perspective of who you are once they hear about your past and your struggles. I, for one, could relate better to my father once I heard his stories about his times teaching others to fly in the war.

Unfortunately, there will be times when your cross- cultural family will need to stick together when facing judgment from people outside the family and within their extended families. Racial bias is often a lack of education. Teach your children whenever you can. Be a united front with your partner against racism and any unwanted pressures from your extended families. Help your children to learn how to deal with racism in their community. Friendships with other intercultural families can be very helpful.

If you live in a cross- cultural family you will learn a lot of valuable life skills. You will soon learn to listen more carefully. You will learn to speak more slowly and to repeat what you just said until you see that look of understanding on the other person’s face. You will learn early to accept other people’s differences. Your knowledge of another culture will give you a “sense of mutual understanding” of others in different parts of the world. Travelling to other countries is a wonderful education and can be a lot of fun.

Luckily, this world is changing for the better. People are travelling more and learning about other counties and other cultures. There are many more cross-cultural first families and stepfamilies now. Cross-cultural families enrich our country and they are becoming an increasingly important part of our cultural fabric.

Let’s celebrate that!!!!



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