Journal Issue: Children of Immigrant Families Volume 14 Number 2 Summer 2004
Strategies for the Future
Although immigrant parents are generally optimistic about the many opportunities this country offers to them and their children, they also fear the possible dangers of their children becoming Americanized--that is, alienated from the culture of their country of origin, and more likely to become involved in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, early sexual intercourse, and delinquent or violent activity. Especially among immigrant families with few economic resources, assimilating into American culture can have negative consequences for their children's health and well-being. While children of immigrants may start out with better health and higher educational aspirations, these strengths can dissipate over time. As adolescents, children of immigrants are more likely to report involvement in risky behaviors the longer they have lived in the United States.34 At each stage of development, further efforts are needed to ensure that children in immigrant families have access to the resources they need to help them stay on positive pathways to success.
Young Children Ages Birth to Eight
For disadvantaged young children, early learning experiences can be especially important to leveling the playing field as children enter school, as noted in the article by Takanishi in this journal issue. When programs are extended into kindergarten and the early elementary grades, positive outcomes are even further enhanced. Special education classes are another important vehicle for providing supports to children experiencing difficulties in school. Yet, despite high levels of disadvantage and difficulties, children in immigrant families tend not to participate in these programs. Understanding how early education and special education programs fit with immigrant parent beliefs and values regarding early socialization will be crucial to improving access to these programs and other services that support young children's development and well-being.
During middle childhood, the development of positive attitudes toward school, academic achievement, and aspirations for the future can have major implications for children's success as adults. As discussed in the article by GarcÃa Coll and Szalacha, in order to provide appropriate supports to children in immigrant families, it is critical to understand how experiences with racism and discrimination and perceptions of diminished life opportunities can influence their pathways through middle childhood. The unique strengths of immigrant families, as well as their added sources of risk, must be acknowledged and incorporated into strategies to counteract the negative messages children of immigrants may be receiving about themselves during this critical stage of development.
Moreover, the research suggests that maintaining respect for parental authority is linked to children's ability to stay on positive developmental pathways, and that for children in immigrant families, preserving connections to their cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining parental authority.35 Yang notes that community-based organizations can play a useful role in reinforcing cultural ties and fostering healthy communication between students, parents, and teachers, but unfortunately, most communities lack such programs.
For adolescents to transition successfully to adulthood, several elements are key: finishing school, acquiring work skills, postponing parenthood, and being physically and mentally healthy. In particular, as noted in the articles by Fuligni and Hardway, by Nightingale and Fix, and in the commentary by Miller, acquiring strong skills in math, science, and technology will be increasingly important to securing well-paying jobs in the future, as well as to maintaining the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.
Overall, youth from immigrant families appear to be doing just as well, or even better, than their peers from U.S.-born families in terms of their physical and mental health, and avoidance of high risk behaviors. However, there is evidence that adolescent well-being declines the longer families have lived in the United States.36 Also, while the vast majority of teens in immigrant families attend school, they are more likely than those in U.S.-born families to be behind grade and not to graduate--especially those in immigrant families with origins in Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Indochina, who account for over half of all children in immigrant families.
To improve the educational prospects of youth in immigrant families, Fuligni and Hardway chronicle the barriers to access and use of high quality institutions and programs that must be overcome, including poor school quality, lack of financial supports and health insurance, and lack of outreach to immigrant and limited-English proficient families. All society suffers when youth fail to reach their potential. For example, as cited by Pe´rez in this journal issue, increasing the college completion rate of today's Hispanic 18-year-olds by as little as three percentage points would increase their lifetime contributions to social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare by about $600 million.37 Given that a large number of older Hispanic youth have never attended U.S. schools, special outreach programs may be needed to bring this group into the educational system.