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How Does Role Reversal Hurt the Hispanic Family?

Dec 24, 2007
You are an eleventh-grade teacher. Rosa, a normally successful Hispanic student in your class, has been absent for several days. She finally shows up, but is consistently withdrawn and unmotivated.

After a week you ask her, "What's wrong Rosa? What is going on?"

She replies, "My mama has cancer. I found out when I translated for her when the doctor gave the test results."

Rosa's mother can't speak English and depends on her daughter for almost everything that requires translation. Rosa is stressed about her mother's welfare. She will have to assume a leading role in her mother's fight against cancer. The mother's lack of English has made her dependent on Rosa.

This is an example of role reversal that often occurs in families who are not fluent in English when they immigrate to the U.S. It impacts many immigrant families.

The process of role reversal.

Role reversal occurs when the parents become dependent on their children and lose significant ground in their function as leaders within their homes. When roles are reversed children are often exposed to information and take over responsibilities that should be the domain of their parents.

The discrepancy in the ability to use English, to understand and navigate American culture or institutions, as well as, widening gaps in educational levels between parents and their children often cause role reversal. The difference in the ability to function in English is probably the most significant of the factors.

The gap results in premature empowerment of children and diminished parental authority. Often, children are not emotionally mature enough to cope with the responsibility.

Role reversal may not happen immediately upon immigration. Instead it happens at a pace parallel to the rate at which the children become functional in English or the need for a translator occurs in the family.

All Hispanic families do not experience role reversal the same.

Not all Hispanic eat tacos nor dance Salsa! Role reversal does not take place in every Hispanic family that immigrates. Hispanic families have characteristics that vary a great deal from family to family. They vary in their countries of origin, educational background, language proficiency, etc.
Not all Hispanic experience. immigration the same way. They do not all experience role reversal to the same degree, if at all.

However, when they do experience it, it can be very damaging to the social structure and relationships in their families. Hispanics generally place a very high value on family relationships and often have specific definition of roles and authority system within the family. It is a cultural architecture that has existed for generations. When role reversal occurs, it is like an earthquake shaking the family structure.

The process of learning English.

If you were a Hispanic immigrant parent, and your family does not speak English,what would you experience? Well, as soon as you immigrate, you have to enroll your children in school. It is the law. Your children begin to move rapidly through the different stages of language acquisition.

The first stages, known as the "silent period", usually lasts less than a year. In this stage your children mostly listen while working hard to make sense of English. Your children then move through stages of: early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency and then into age-appropriate fluency or proficiency.

Eventually, after some years, they may prefer English. They may even reach a point where speaking Spanish requires mental work. While your children are moving up the ladder towards English proficiency, it is different for you.

If you are like many Hispanic immigrant parents, you are too busy working; often more than one job to make ends meet. You have employment that does not require strong English. You prefer Spanish media. You speak Spanish at home, watch Hispanic channels and only connect socially with Spanish-speaking individuals.

You are embarrassed by the mistakes you make and so, you avoid interactions in English. You are intimidated to engage in activities that you need improve your English skills. Do you see how the linguistic gap begins to form? The gap creates two problems.

First, it makes communication at home more difficult. It challenges you as a parent to effectively communicate with your children when their preferred language is different from your own. They prefer English because of educational and social pressure to use it.

Second, it often forces premature responsibility upon your child. They need to help you as a parent to function in an English speaking society. Many students at an early age become the parent's interpreters during doctor's appointments, parent-teacher conferences, shopping, and other activities. Your children don't have the maturity to handle the information exchangedd in the adult world. It should not be the role of the child to become an interpreter.

Strategies to prevent role reversal.

Role reversal can be prevented or lessened with the right kind of strategies:

1. Help Hispanic parents recognize that role reversal exists. Awareness prepares them to avoid the consequences of it. If you know there is a a severe storm coming you will probably lose power, you stock up on batteries, and candles. You prepare.

To be forewarned is be forearmed. Information is a powerful armament. Public schools, churches, social service agencies, and other community service organizations are logical providers for that information.

2. Provide services. Develop community initiatives that encourage and sponsor enrollment of immigrants in programs where they can learn English, and in activities that encourage them to interact with fluent speakers of English such as parental involvement at school.

When my skill in English was weak, I started attending church services in English instead of Spanish. At church I could interact with people who spoke English as their first language and listen to public speaking and singing in English.

3. Encourage Hispanic families to engage with English media. Watching a DVD of a movie that is in English with Spanish subtitles is an entertaining way to learn English words and language structure I used get tapes of the English church service and practice saying the sentences in the car as I traveled in the car.

4. Encourage Hispanic families to practice speaking English with their children in the home - not to lose the Spanish language; and not to abandon Hispanic culture, but as a family working toward a common goal.

5. Make service providers aware of the emotional harm that children may experience as a result of role reversal. Hospitals, schools, large businesses, and other providers often have employees who can interpret. Help service providers develop the sensitivity to not utilize clients' children as

I have experienced what I am talking about.

I know that I have primarily discussed role reversal in the Hispanic family. That is because I am a Hispanic and immigrated here with my three children. We experienced many of the processes that I have discussed here.

Using these strategies I believe the serious results role reversal can be reduced. You may find that these strategies work for other non-Hispanic immigrants.
About the Author
Dr. Lourdes Ferrer is an leader in education. She is a consultant to school systems regarding Hispanic issues including parental involvement, assessment, the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). She is a motivational speaker and seminar presenter.Visit her Website
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