Parenting partnerships in culturally diverse child care settings
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Constructive partnerships between parents and child care providers (carers) lie at the heart of a 'family-centred' orientation towards the provision of early childhood services. Potential benefits of child care for child development may be undermined if parents and carers differ in what they hope to achieve in their interactions with children, especially if there is a lack of respect or understanding of alternative childrearing perspectives.
Differences between parents' and carers' childrearing perspectives are expected when children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are looked after in mainstream child care services, as an abundance of research has shown that culture plays a role in shaping the beliefs and behaviours of adult carers.
A family-centred approach to child care embraces cultural diversity and promotes an understanding of children's culture and home environment, the way in which parents raise their children, and the objectives of this care. Adjustments to children's day care regime that accommodate parents' cultural requirements also fit under the umbrella of family-centred practice.
Using information provided by 242 carers participating in the Australian Institute of Family Studies' Child Care in Cultural Context study, this paper focuses on the extent to which carers in centre care and family day care contexts work with parents to understand their perspectives on childrearing, their reports of parental childrearing practices that differ from their own, and the issues that they confront in managing these differences.
The Child Care in Cultural Context study
The Child Care in Cultural Context study was developed to improve our understanding of the experiences of young children from diverse cultural backgrounds in formal child care settings and the impacts of differences between home and child care on children's wellbeing.
Families and carers were sought from Anglo, Vietnamese and Somali backgrounds. Participants were recruited through child care centres and family day care schemes across metropolitan Melbourne and through the community networks of the Somali and Vietnamese research assistants employed for the study. Data were collected via parent and carer questionnaires and through direct observation of the children's child care environment.
Both qualitative and quantitative data from the completed carer surveys were used to explore the nature and extent of partnerships between parents and carers of children who were part of the study. Carers were asked questions about the extent to which they worked with parents to understand the parents' childrearing perspectives; ways in which they engage parents on parenting issues; the types of parenting issues they came into conflict over; and the difficulties they faced in trying to work with parents within a partnership framework.
Carer responses were analysed according to the type of care, as previous research suggests that differences between these settings may create differences in the ways partnerships between parents and carers are approached and/or experienced.
Carers' responses were also analysed according to their own cultural background and whether or not they were from the same cultural background as the study child in their care. Carers participating in the study were identified as coming from a range of cultural backgrounds - Somali, Vietnamese and Anglo/Diverse1 - and the proportion of carers from specific cultural backgrounds varied according to the type of care setting they worked in.
Almost all centre carers in the study were identified as being from Anglo/Diverse backgrounds (96 per cent). Family day carers were a more culturally diverse group - 45 per cent were from Somali backgrounds, 36 per cent were identified as Anglo/Diverse and 19 per cent were Vietnamese. Almost all carers in family day care settings were from the same cultural background as the study child in their care (that is, they were 'culturally matched'); however, only about half of carers in centre care settings were from the same cultural background as the study child in their care. That is, more than half of the children from Vietnamese and Somali background were looked after in day care centres by carers from Anglo/Diverse backgrounds.
These patterns are important to note, as findings that appear to be due to care type differences may actually be differences arising from carers' cultural backgrounds or the level of cultural match between parents and carers within different care settings.
This paper explores the nature of relationships between parents and carers in culturally diverse child care settings as reported by carers participating in the study. Firstly, the degree to which carers engage parents about childrearing practices and the barriers to doing so are discussed. Secondly, the carers' reports of the extent of differences between parents and carers in childrearing practices are considered, followed by a description of the types of differences that occur. Finally, the barriers reported by carers in accommodating parents' preferences when they differ from carers' beliefs are explored.
The key findings from this research are outlined below.
Working in partnership with parents
Overall, carers' responses indicated a high level of commitment to working with parents to understand their childrearing perspectives. Family day carers reported this to a slightly greater extent than centre carers. Post-hoc statistical tests, however, suggested this difference between different care settings was accounted for by Somali carers' responses. Almost half of family day care carers were from a Somali background and they reported working with parents to a greater extent than Anglo/Diverse and Vietnamese carers.
Carers were also asked to describe the ways in which they worked with parents to understand their childrearing perspectives. Most commonly, for both centre care and family day care, carers reported using informal interactions at the beginning and end of each day to communicate with parents. Both centre carer and family day carer groups also made appointments to talk to parents if specific issues arose.
Centre carers were more likely to report using more formal means of communicating with parents than family day care carers, such as newsletters and parent-teacher evenings, and also indicated that social events were helpful in getting to know parents. Centre carers also used recorded information about sleeping, nappy changes and feeds to help keep parents informed about their child's day.
Much of this information was 'one way' - that is, carers informing parents about their child's experience of care. However, some carers also indicated that they actively sought information from parents as a part of their day-to-day communication, or when the child commenced care.
Family day carers, particularly those from Somali backgrounds, described actively working with parents to understand their parenting practices and preferences and explicitly spoke of finding out 'how they want their children looked after'.
However, carers in both centre care and family day care settings indicated that some difficulties arose in trying to work with parents using a partnerships approach. Lack of time was a significant barrier to working with parents, especially when communication centred on informal contacts at the beginning and end of each day. Some carers also expressed a belief that some parents were not interested in engaging in discussions about childrearing. Centre carers also mentioned language as a barrier to working with parents from a different cultural background to their own.
Discovering and accommodating differences
Carers were asked to indicate whether or not they sought to find out about differences between parents' childrearing practices and their own. Seventy-seven per cent of centre carers and 45 per cent of family day carers reported finding out about such differences. Of those that sought this information, carers in both groups reported that they discovered actual differences with about one-third of parents.
The onset of toilet training and approaches to discipline were most often reported as differences and were commonly reported by carers from both centre and family day care, irrespective of whether carers and parents were from the same cultural background or not.
Some carers did attribute differences to culture. These differences were the value of 'messy' play (some parents were reported as not wishing their children to be involved in messy play), and also the degree to which carers and parents valued and encouraged children's independence.
Differences were also noted between parents and carers from the same cultural background. Some carers attributed these differences to 'normal' variation between individuals and stated it was unrealistic not to expect differences to occur. Others saw these differences occurring as a result of the carers' early childhood training or their need to comply with Australian child care guidelines.
Carers also identified a number of barriers to accommodating parents' preferences that were different to their own practices. Again, lack of time was a key barrier, as were language differences.
Carers also suggested that in the context of group care settings, it was not always possible to meet the requirements of all parents. The need to conform to child care legislation and accreditation requirements was also seen by some carers as a barrier to accommodating parents wishes. In addition, a number of carers noted that they found some parents' preferences to be 'inappropriate' in the context of their own training and childrearing beliefs and thus would not incorporate them into their practice.
These barriers were noted by both centre carers and family day carers and again occurred regardless of whether or not parents and carers were 'culturally matched'.
Conclusion and implications
Reports from carers participating in the Child Care in Cultural Context study suggest that accommodating parents' preferences in Australian child care services is not always straightforward.
Carers generally reported positive attitudes about understanding where their beliefs and practices departed from that of parents. Many carers actively sought this information through a variety of formal and informal modes of communication and knew where conflicts existed.
Carers in both centre care and family day care settings reported differences with parents in childrearing approaches and difficulties in working with parents to understand and accommodate their preferences. These differences were evident regardless of whether the carers and children had the same or different cultural backgrounds.
The barriers to working in partnership with parents identified by carers (such as a lack of time, language barriers and difficulties in engaging parents) suggest that a need for further training and support to enhance carers' capacities for communication and engagement may be indicated.
1 Care providers who were not Somali or Vietnamese were combined for analytic purposes and are referred to as 'Anglo/Diverse' carers, to provide a measure of cultural match with children from Anglo and Diverse backgrounds.