O U T L I N E
Systems Theories and Family Differences
Ways in Which Families Are Different
Ethnicity, Race, and Culture
Economic Differences in Families
Gender Role Identity
Families and Religiosity
Application to Early Childhood Education Programs
Relating These Factors to Developmentally Appropriate Practice
Family Support Principles
26705 01 pp001-143 r3jm 11/18/99 5:19 PM Page 21
22 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
Summary and Conclusions
Chapter Two Applications
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
O B J E C T I V E S
After reading and reflecting on this chapter, the student should be able to:
Discuss ways in which the three guiding theories view family differences.
Relate how families differ in terms of ethnicity, race, culture, economics, gender roles, religiosity,
and geographic region.
Reflect on implications of family differences for early childhood educators.
S Y S T E M S T H E O R I E S A N D FA M I LY D I F F E R E N C E S
Bioecological theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) informs teachers that differences in children’s
microsystems will account for differences in children’s behavior and development. The social
environment provided to children by their families is directly driven by the family’s identification
with race, culture, and ethnicity. Other factors that influence the microsystem include economics,
gender, religion, and geographical region of residence.
Vygotsky’s contextual theory emphasizes the notion that knowledge derives from culture.
Teachers observe differences in behavior of children and their family members based on their
culture’s view of what is appropriate. Such knowledge cannot be disputed in favor of a
teacher’s or other dominant view. A child’s very definition and thus knowledge of family is
rooted in his culture.
Family systems theory (McGoldrick, 1989) places great importance on ethnicity and culture
as a factor in a family’s beliefs, practices, and values. Income level of a family is likely to
influence many aspects of family decisions and behaviors. For example, professional women
are often celebrating the arrival of their first child at about the same age (thirty-one to thirtyfive)
that some lower-income women are celebrating their first grandchild. Females and males
are likely to experience family quite differently, from everyday behaviors to rituals and celebrations.
“Religion also modifies or reinforces certain cultural values. Families . . . whose religion
reinforces ethnic values, are likely to maintain their ethnicity longer” (McGoldrick, 1989,
p. 70). Families who live in close proximity to others of the same ethnic, racial, and cultural
background are more likely to maintain the same norms; those who move away may become
more homogenized or more influenced by a dominant culture.
26705 01 pp001-143 r3jm 11/18/99 5:19 PM Page 22
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 23
WAY S I N W H I C H FA M I L I E S A R E D I F F E R E N T
Families define themselves as a family. Membership in a family can be decided only by each
member of that family. Thus, it is the role of early childhood educators to be aware of who constitutes
each child’s family. It is never the role of an early childhood educator to define the
child’s family for him. That is, teachers should not attempt to alter a particular family’s view
about membership in that family. Some factors that make families different from one another
include ethnicity, race, culture, economics, gender roles, religiosity, and geographic regionalism.
It is important that these differences are considered in order to increase understanding on
the part of early childhood teachers. It is common for each of us when we hear the word “family”
to think of our own familial experiences and to ignore differences.
Ethnicity, Race, and Culture
Ethnicity refers to a concept of a group’s “peoplehood” based on a combination of
race, religion, and cultural history, whether or not members realize their commonalities
with each other. It describes a commonality transmitted by the family over
generations . . . it is more than race, religion, or national and geographic origin . . .
It involves conscious and unconscious processes that fulfill a deep psychological
need for identity and historical continuity. (McGoldrick, 1989, p. 69)
Family ethnicity is sustained through “unique family customs, proverbs and stories, celebrations,
foods and religious ceremonies” (p. 110). Differences have been noted between the
notions of self-concept and ethnic identity. Families often find it difficult to instill ethnic pride
in their children in our pluralistic society (Stauss, 1995, citing Harriett McAdoo). Effects of
racism affect beliefs and practices in nonmajority ethnic groups (McDade, 1995).
This child’s knowledge of family is rooted in her culture.
24 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
It is this deep psychological need for identity that must be taken into
account by early childhood professionals. The degree to which ethnicity
is important to a given family varies. Understanding these differences
will help early childhood teachers to view each family’s
individuality as a strength and to support children’s sense of connection
to their ethnic group.
Chelsea is a three-year-old daughter of European-American parents.
Her family portrait includes a picture of her mother, Stacey; her father,
Jay; herself; and her five-month-old brother, Christopher. These family
members live together in the same home in a small town in eastern
Ohio. Living nearby, her paternal grandmother has almost daily contact
with Chelsea’s family. Her maternal grandparents live about fifteen
miles away and visits between them and Chelsea’s family occur
Jamal is the five-year-old son of Janice. They live in St. Louis with
Janice’s mother, Dianne, and her long-time partner, Samuel. Jamal’s
family portrait includes his mother; grandmother; Samuel; and Samuel’s
teenage daughter, Jalisa. Jamal calls his grandmother “Mamma”
and his mother “Janice.” Frequent family visitors include Dianne’s
mother and father who live in the same city and Samuel’s mother who
travels from Chicago twice a year for a monthlong stay.
Robin, seven years old, is the youngest child in her Japanese-American
family. She lives in Seattle with her parents, her maternal grandfather,
and two older brothers. Her family portrait includes her mother,
Marcia; her father, Paul; her grandfather, Ito; and thirteen-year-old twin
brothers, Rodger and Raymond. Last year,
Robin’s family traveled to Kyoto, Japan, to
visit her paternal grandparents.
For family events in early childhood
programs, teachers and other staff should
not only be prepared for a variety of family
members, not just parents and siblings, but
plan for and welcome them. Early childhood
educators must go beyond traditional
work with parent involvement to a more
timely approach of family involvement.
Welcoming grandparents, aunts and uncles,
and even family members who have no
official title based on bloodline can be a
critical factor for building successful family-
Teachers too often talk of children who
come from good homes and those who
have troublesome families. Often the meaning
of a “good home” is synonymous with
“The first thing to remember
about the American family is
that it doesn’t exist. Families
exist. All kinds of families in
all kinds of economic and
marital situations, as all of
us can see . . .The American
family? Just which American
family did you have in mind?
Black or white, large or small,
wealthy or poor, or somewhere
in between? Did
you mean a father-headed,
mother-headed, or childless
family? First or second time
around? Happy or miserable?
Your family or mine?”
—Louise Kapp Howe (1972)
Understanding ethnic differences will help early childhood teachers
support children’s sense of connection to their ethnic group.
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 25
the teacher’s own family and the meaning
of a less than good home is one that is different
from the teacher’s. Knowledge about
cultural differences is a key to changing
teacher perspectives about diverse families.
Is the idea of family values one that
is reasonable? Mellman, Lazarus, and
Rivlin (1990) found in their research a high
degree of consensus on the following: love
and emotional support, respect for others,
and taking responsibility for actions. Perhaps
these are the characteristics we should
look for to label a family as having a “good
Ethnic differences go beyond race.
The term race, based on physical differences,
is often noted to be scientific in
nature as opposed to the sociocultural nature
of ethnicity. In this regard, most sources
tell us that three races exist in the world: Negroid, Mongoloid, and Caucasoid. Each of the
three races is defined by very specific characteristics such as skin tone, facial structure, and
geographic origin. However, in authentic work with children and families, early childhood
educators often realize that emphasis on race alone is not very helpful. This is seen most clearly
in children of interracial families. The question of “What race are you?” is often both confusing
and irrelevant in the United States today. It is more helpful for early childhood educators to
understand individuality within diversity in families.
Wardle (1987) notes that we know little about interracial families. However, one point
made strongly is that children from interracial families cannot choose to identify with the race
of one parent rather than the other. This misconception has oversimplified attempts to understand
the unique difficulty that interracial children have with their need for identity. Wardle
suggests that teachers work closely with parents (or other family members) to “feature cultural
customs of both (or all) races represented in each interracial child, as well as create ongoing
experiences for all children in which multicultural diversity is celebrated” (p. 58).
Culture refers to the unique experiences and history of various ethnic groups. Cultural
differences often indicate differences in views on the family and the community, differences in
expectations of children, differences in child rearing, and differences in the value placed on
Carol Brunson Phillips (1995) notes that early educators need to have an understanding
about both how culture is transmitted and how it is not transmitted. She has formulated six concepts
to help with this understanding.
1. Culture is learned. Culture is not biological; teachers cannot identify a family’s culture
by how the family members look. Instead, each individual learns his culture’s
rules through daily living. Examples include table manners, interpersonal interactions,
and ways of demonstrating respect.
1.Draw a picture of your family at the time you were born.
2. Next, draw a picture of your family when you were a
preschooler.3.Draw your family when you were in elementary
school. 4.Draw your family during your middle
school or junior high years. 5.Draw your family as it was
when you graduated high school. 6.Draw your family as it
is today. 7.Draw your family as you expect it to be five
years from now. Reflect on the following:How did your
family change over time? How do you define family? On
what did you base your expectations of your family in the
future? Compare and contrast your drawings and reflections
with others in your class.
26 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
2. Culture is characteristic of groups. An individual’s characteristics are both cultural
and individual. Unique personality traits are not culturally based. Cultural behaviors
are rooted in groups. Some cultures may place greater emphasis on individuality or
conformity than others.
3. Culture is a set of rules for behavior. “The essence of culture is in the rules that produce
the behaviors, not the behaviors themselves” (Phillips, 1995, p. 5). So, culture is
an influence on behavior, often a sweeping influence, but the behaviors alone are not
culture. Behaviors commonly influenced by culture include types of clothing and flavors
4. Individuals are embedded to different degrees within a culture. Some families and
individuals place more emphasis on cultural traditions than do others. Some Irish families
may “act” more Irish than others; some Vietnamese families may “act” more Vietnamese
than others; some African families may “act” more African than others. These
are individual variations within cultures. Teachers should not expect all people of one
culture to be equally involved with their cultural rules. Understanding of both cultural
rules and individual differences in people of the same or similar culture is important.
5. Cultures borrow and share rules. Over time, cultures have influenced one another.
Culture is not stagnant. As people from two or more cultures interact, cultures are
affected and may undergo transformations.
6. Members of a cultural group may be proficient in cultural behavior but unable to
describe the rules. Because young children begin to learn their culture in their own home
environments, behaviors seem natural to them. Not only can they not tell you why they
engage in these behaviors, it is also likely they are not conscious of all of the behaviors
they have learned from their culture. The first Thanksgiving one northerner spent in
the deep South, she asked the cook, “Why do you put boiled eggs in the gravy?” Certain
that there must be some interesting story or superstition related to this practice,
she was surprised at the response, “I don’t know. That’s the way my mother did it.”
In their work to include families, teachers of young children would find it more profitable
to consider not only race, but also ethnicity and culture. It is more likely that knowledge of
sociocultural factors would provide greater understanding to teachers than information about
physical differences noted in definitions of race. Thus,
including understanding of racial differences is most useful
in the context of cultural and ethnic differences as
According to systems theories, the roles that nuclear
familes, extended families, and communities play vary.
One important factor in these variations is related to culture
and ethnicity. It is frequently noted that in the United
States, ethnic groups that are not dominant in the culture
are more strongly influenced by extended families
(McDade, 1995). Further, the macrosystem and chronosystem
for cultural groups differ. Figure 2–1 illuminates
differences in parenting characteristics and value placed
on education for a variety of cultural groups.
Consider each of the six
concepts for understanding
culture. Share an example of
a behavior or expectation in
your culture that relates to
each concept. Reflect about
how your actions or thoughts
may be culturally based.
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 27
PARENTING: Discipline often appears to be
severe and punitive. Parents emphasize high
achievement and a strong work ethic. Boys
and girls are socialized similarly, with emphasis
on adaptive coping ability and emotional
strength necessary for dealing with hostile
environments (McDade, 1995).
EDUCATION: Traditional educational strategies
may not meet the needs of some children in
this culture. Research suggests that males are
particularly not well-served through the feminine
orientation of most elementary classrooms
(Hale, 1986). Many African-American
parents emphasize education as the way to
greater economic success.
Pacific Islander Americans
PARENTING: Typically, children are encouraged
to be independent and to respect authority.
It is expected that they will be unquestionably
obedient to their parents and often
they are expected to put the needs of their
parents before their own. Parents desire children
to be emotionally controlled, self-disciplined,
and logical thinkers (McDade, 1995).
EDUCATION: These families typically emphasize
education and high levels of achievement
in their children (Hamner & Turner,
1996). The emphasis on the value of conformity
may help children to adapt to expectations
in U.S. schools.
PARENTING: Families take precedence over
individuals and expect to be self-reliant.
However, individual achievement or responsibility
is not valued. Parents are protective
of children and teach them to conform to
expectations. Further, social skills are given
a high priority.
EDUCATION: Hispanics as a group are increasing
their educational achievement. Mexican-
Americans are less likely to complete
high school, however, than other Hispanic
populations, with 56 percent of Mexican-
Americans having less than a high school
education (Hamner & Turner, 1996).
PARENTING: Although there are differences
by tribe, some common values are found
related to parenting. Children are valued by
adults, and this is shown in their inclusion in
all social events as well as in very gentle
styles of discipline. Important characteristics
to foster in children include loyalty, humility,
respect for elders, reticence, and diminished
emphasis on personal gain and private
ownership (McDade, 1995).
EDUCATION: Few Anglo teachers seem to
understand tribal culture, and often Native
American children and families see a lack of
cultural relevance in schools. Because silence
is valued in tribes, children are comfortable
with not answering questions in class, especially
avoiding the risk of an incorrect answer
and taunting by classmates. There is some
movement to have education under tribal
control (Hamner & Turner, 1996).
Figure 2–1 VARIATIONS IN PARENTING AND EDUCATIONAL VALUES.
28 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
Sometimes teachers unintentionally emphasize differences among groups of people and
the effect is assaultive rather than respectful toward diversity. One step to avoid this with
preschool-age children is to “focus on the people in the child’s world of today, not a historical
world. The goal with preschoolers is not to teach history, but to inoculate them against racism”
(Clark, DeWolf, & Clark, 1992, p. 8).
Economic Differences in Families
In the contemporary United States, children and families have vastly different experiences
related to income and other resources. The Children’s Defense Fund has reported that in 1998,
22.7 percent of children under age six in the United States lived in poverty. For various ethnic
groups, this proportion is even higher. See Figure 2–2 for more information.
In 1996, federal legislation was passed that included time limits for which adults could
receive aid. Under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), parents must go to
work after receiving welfare for a maximum of two years, and families are limited to a lifetime
total of five years’ cash assistance. States may exempt up to 20 percent of their cases from
the five-year limit. Because this legislation gave states the responsibility for implementing the
mandates, a variety of designs have been put into place. Marian Wright Edelman, head of the
Children’s Defense Fund, notes that Minnesota stands out because it has “made it a goal to
move families with children not just off welfare but out of poverty” (CDF Reports, 1997, p. 3).
Further, Edelman writes, “There is no mystery about how to help families off welfare and out
of poverty. States must provide the education, training, and work experience that parents need
to compete for jobs with decent wages. States also need to remove the obstacles that often prevent
parents from leaving welfare for work: lack of health care, transportation and child care”
Percent of Children Living in Poverty
White . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11.1
Black . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39.9
Hispanic. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40.3
Asian/Pacific Islander . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19.5
Mother-only families. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49.3
Of All Poor Children
62.5% are White
31.2% are Black
68.8% are in working families
Figure 2–2 RATES OF CHILD POVERTY.
(Source: Children’s Defense Fund, CDF Reports, January 1998.)
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 29
Early childhood teachers often take on the role of advocating for children and families
with young children. Advocates understand that families must be able to earn a living wage;
have access to health care; have reliable transportation; and have access to affordable, quality
care for their children during the hours that they are required to work.
Frequently educators’ understanding of diversity does not include differences by family
income or the traditional term, social class. Yet, financial resources have a tremendous impact
on families, their practices, and their values. All parents are aware that poverty is a threat to
children. Families living with scarce resources have had to learn the importance of meeting
children’s most basic needs.
Cheal (1996) notes that as a society, we have several reasons for concern about families
and their risk for poverty. He highlights three reasons:
1. The risk of poverty is highest in early childhood.
2. Families with children do not reap enough benefits from government redistribution of
3. Current political views about the role of government do not allow for assisting poor
families in meaningful ways.
Even after President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, into the 1980s and 1990s
young children continued to have the highest risk of living in poverty. This has been especially
true for those children living in families headed by women. The economic picture for these
families remains bleak. Even when women are employed, they typically do not make enough
money to provide reliable transportation to their jobs, pay for high-quality child care for their
children, and maintain a safe and healthy home environment. “The risk of poverty among
women has often depended heavily on the nature of their relationships with men” (Cheal, 1996,
p. 55). Further, traditional gender roles have been discarded for these single mothers. Often,
mothers have not been expected to be employed, but rather it has been socially desirable for
them to stay home and raise their children. This belief is no longer held in regard for women on
welfare (Cheal, 1996).
The American dream for modern times included the notion that children should not have
to rely on “the luck of the draw”; that is, their happiness and productivity should not rely simply
on being born into one economic level of family versus another one. With this view came
the political notion that government would make an attempt to redistribute societal resources
so that all children might benefit. However, from 1978 to 1987, government expenditures on
children decreased by 4 percent while those for the elderly increased by 52 percent (Danziger
& Weinberg as cited in Cheal, 1996). Public school was one way of attempting to even out children’s
lives. The notion that all children would have equal access to good, effective education
was one way of equalizing the chances for poor children (Cheal, 1996). One issue that faces
education today involves seeking strategies for parity to those school districts having fewer
The predominant political view about poor families is that they must be moved from welfare
to work, and, for the most part, they must do it on their own. Individual responsibility is
valued and expected. However, in the 1930s at the time of the Great Depression, it was understood
that poverty was not the result of individual failings, but rather the economic structure of
society played a very large part in family financial losses. Few policy makers today are willing
30 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
to include societal explanations or responsibilities in their views on the poor (Cheal, 1996).
Some child and family advocates believe that these political views contain hints of both racism
and sexism. Because many poor families are composed of women and children, and because a
huge majority of policy makers are white and male, this is a very real possibility. In his extensive
analysis about systemic causes of poverty, David Cheal (1996) notes that “the poverty of
children is not accidental. It is the fixed position of children in a carefully graded system, in
which the youngest children have the highest risk of poverty” (p. 182). He is correct when he
refers to this planned system as “perverse.”
Early childhood professionals often criticize families for lack of interest in their children’s
education or a reluctance to volunteer in the education program. A complete understanding
or appreciation of the minute-to-minute stresses of families living in poverty may not be
possible. However, an effort by the teacher to accept each family must be visible. Further, early
childhood educators must support all families at the place they are. Wishing away family stress
caused by a lack of resources does not work. Helping to meet their pressing needs is the first
step to forming partnerships with some families. Sometimes teachers of young children feel
frustration when families do not send money or notes back to school as the teacher requested.
Rather than assuming that the parents or responsible family members are apathetic or hostile, it
is helpful to keep in mind that the family may be dealing with other needs that were more
pressing, such as calling to keep the heat turned on or for a medical appointment. In such
instances, teachers must call on their own compassion and understanding. Use of gentle
reminders and a call of concern will be much more fruitful than accusations.
Many studies have shown that economic hardship is a very high risk for many children in
the United States. Negative oucomes for children include difficult peer relationships, school
problems, and low self-esteem (Bolger, Patterson, & Thompson, 1995; Brooks-Gunn, Klebanov,
& Duncan, 1996). The stress of poverty makes parenting more difficult. The threat of
violence in immediate neighborhoods is increasing in some communities. Involvement in children’s
lives seems to be impossible for some parents living in such desperate circumstances.
Families who live in poverty are often called on to pool their resources throughout their
extended families and neighborhoods. Their very survival may depend on sharing child-care
arrangements and meals as well as lending money. Addresses may change frequently as families
move in with others and, when finances get a little better, attempt to move out on their own.
In this need for mutual support, some rely on friendship networks as much as on extended family
(Zinn & Eitzen, 1987).
Prejudice against families who receive “welfare” abounds. “For most Americans, the
words welfare recipient evoke the image of a good-for-nothing freeloader who drives a Cadillac,
uses food stamps to buy sirloin steak, or watches soap operas all day. It is a classic icon of
American culture, routinely projected upon all who are receiving public assistance” (Rank,
1994, p. 2). In an effort to describe the lives of welfare recipients, including their strengths and
their problems, Rank’s research includes information from interviews with people about their
lives. What he found is, “. . . like most families, the parents in my sample want what is best for
their children. Their frustration comes from not being able to provide it” (Rank, 1994, p. 70).
Planning for the future is not something that poor families can easily do, whether the reference
is to the immediate future or months or years from now. Unplanned or unexpected
events such as illness, unreliable transportation, or requests from children’s school for field trip
money often have a serious consequence on a family’s financial plans.
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 31
Working-class families often rely heavily on extended family. Siblings, parents, aunts,
uncles, and cousins make up the primary social network in working-class families (Zinn &
Eitzen, 1987). When adults in these families have economic stability, their lifestyles may
appear much more like the middle class; however, when jobs are not stable, these families
teeter on the brink of poverty. Many of these families are one or two paychecks away from the
welfare rolls. A married mother of two children relates her feelings about applying for welfare:
We felt like it was a shameful thing to be doing, basically. And I remember when
the in-take worker was going over our form and wanted to know what our income
had been for the previous month, and we said, it was something like two hundred
and fifty dollars. And she looked at us and she said, “Uhh, this can’t be right, you
couldn’t live on this.” And we said, “That’s right, that’s why we’re here!” (Laughter.)
I think we felt grateful that it was there. But it was a real blow to our pride. We
had all kinds of . . . I mean . . . the way the public generally views welfare people,
we had a lot of those same views. And it was really a hard thing for our pride to put
ourselves in that position, and join that category of people. (Rank, 1994, p. 40)
People in the working class who are most likely to be affected by poverty are adults of
childbearing age (twenty-five to forty-four years), the elderly (sixty-five years and over) and
children, especially under one year of age. The following percentages relate the likelihood that
various age groups in the working class are living in poverty (Cheal, 1996):
Children, under 1 year 53%
Children, 1–4 years 50%
Elderly, 65+ years 48%
Adults, 25–44 years 29%
Young adults, 15–24 years 24%
Middle-aged adults, 45–64 years 21%
On the other end of the spectrum, affluent, professional, or middle-class families with
young children may supply children with basic needs and amenities. But these families, too,
may fall prey to situations that may be harmful to their young children. From concern for their
progeny’s success, parents may get caught up in the “superkid syndrome.” David Elkind has
written about “the hurried child” and those who are “miseducated.” “Parents today believe that
they can make a difference in their children’s lives, that they can give them an edge that will
make them brighter and abler than the competition” (Elkind, 1987, p. xiii). Families with this
goal for children pose another kind of challenge to early childhood teachers who try to plan for
a developmentally appropriate educational experience for children but are often confronted
with parental requests to move their child up a grade or place them in accelerated groups.
Gender Role Identity
An individual’s gender role is “a set of expectations that prescribe how females or males
should think, act, and feel” (Santrock, 1994). People’s understanding of themselves as male or
female and what that means in their particular environment is influenced by biological, social,
and cognitive factors. Within any given family, the roles specified for males and females may
32 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
be rigid or fluid. Families with rigid stereotypes are likely to view males as independent,
aggressive, and power-oriented whereas females are seen as dependent, nurturant, and uninterested
in power. Research regarding the interaction of ethnicity and gender on traditional gender
roles has shown that expectations for males and females vary according to ethnicity
(McGoldrick, 1989). See Figure 2–3 for more information.
In the pluralistic culture of the United States, many
variations on gender roles exist. A feminist perspective
on gender indicates that women and girls are competent
in their own right. This conflicts with the traditional view
of female existence as important only in relation to
Because early childhood teachers work with both
female and male family members, it will be important
that the teacher is aware of his own views about gender
roles. It may be a challenge to accept and support the
role, whether it be traditional or feminist, that a particular
parent has taken. For example, how would you react
to the following situations, noting your own biases and
• In Suzanne’s (age four years) family, Mr. Jaworski
stays home with Suzanne and her younger brother,
Tucker. Suzanne’s mother, Dr. Stoner, who kept her
father’s last name, has a very successful career and
travels on business at least six times a year.
• In Peter’s (age seven years) family, Mrs. Jordan is a
full-time homemaker. Peter and his two older brothers
Black Double jeopardy High poverty,
of racism and incarceration,
Asian Take care of home, Heads of family,
males, and serve breadwinners
Mexican- Homemakers, Providers,
American caretakers, protectors
Figure 2–3 GENDER ROLE IDENTITY DIFFERS BY ETHNICITY.
“Women have always played a central role in
families, but the idea that they have a life
cycle apart from their roles as wife and
mother is a relatively recent one, and still is
not widely accepted in our culture.The
expectation for women has been that they
would take care of the needs of others, first
men, then children, then the elderly. Until
very recently ‘human development’ referred
to male development and women’s development
was defined by the men in their lives.
They went from being daughter, to wife, to
mother,with their status defined by the
male in the relationship . . .”
—Monica McGoldrick (1989)
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 33
are enrolled in the elementary school in which you teach. Mr. Jordan has been in danger
of losing his job because of cutbacks in his corporation.
• Debra’s (age two-and-a-half years) mother, Ms. Meyer is employed as an administrative
staff member on a local university campus. She has insisted that you not call her
“Mrs. Meyer.” Debra and her mother live with Ms. Kennedy who works on the
grounds crew at the same campus.
Mother-headed families often have very different needs than father-headed, single-parent
families. First of all, there are many more of them in existence. It is estimated that as many as
one-half of all children will spend some of their childhood years in a family headed by a single
woman (Garfinkel & McLanahan, 1989). Single-parent families headed by women are much
more likely to be poor than are those headed by men. Reasons for the poverty include little or
no support from fathers, limited earning capacity of mothers, and the difficulties that come
with trying to juggle the roles of sole breadwinner and sole caregiver (Burns & Scott, 1994).
As social and economic climates change, women have been increasingly able to get reasonable
employment. But comparisons with a number of other countries, most notably Sweden,
show that in addition to access to employment that pays a living wage, mothers must also
have access to affordable, high-quality child care as well as other family support services and
must be able to collect child support from the noncustodial parent (Burns & Scott, 1994). One
mother who attempted to leave public assistance noted how crucial good child care is:
Well, I had two little bitty babies. And I was working at the time I got pregnant. So
I tried going back to work when Stacy was about—say two months old. And the
lady that I got to babysit for me just didn’t come up to par for me. And with me
having the two babies, one was just walking and one was an arm baby, I made the
decision that it’s best for me to try to be here with them. And I know they were
taken care of like I would have wanted them to be taken care of. So that’s when I
applied for aid. (Rank, 1994, p. 42)
Many educators have concerns about children of lesbian families. However, existing literature
gives no support that these children are worse off than other children (Burns & Scott,
1994). The common view that children will suffer from the lack of a father is not substantiated
when children have relationships with multiple adults who have somewhat of a parenting role:
friends, grandparents, and/or biological father. When lesbian mothers have social, economic,
and personal resources, “chosen, father-free parenthood” can meet children’s needs (McGuire
& Alexander, 1985). Further, comparisons of characteristics of lesbian mothers with women in
general show the following for lesbian mothers. (See figure 2–4 for additional commentary.)
• higher levels of education and professional training
• scored as more normal on psychological tests
• had more support and practical help from cohabiting partners than wives receive from
• mother-child relationships were closer
• cognitive and social competence was normal or high
• sex role behavior was normal
34 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
Until just recently, the existence of lesbian
and gay parents went almost unrecognized
in our culture. Much of our society simply
believed that being a gay or lesbian parent
was a contradiction in terms, and numerous
negative myths promulgated that position.
Heterosexist laws denied the possibility of
parenting for openly gay/lesbian people, and
penalized anyone with children from a prior
heterosexual relationship with loss of visitation
The last ten years have changed this
landscape dramatically. We now find ourselves
in the middle of a “gayby boom” as
countless thousands of lesbians and gay men
choose to become parents. We have countered
the Radical Right’s argument that a
family consists only of a heterosexual father,
mother and children, with our community’s
family values of love, diversity, respect, caring
and pride. We have proudly stated to
the world that “love makes a family.”
But is love enough? What happens
when the “love” between a lesbian couple
fades or sours? In recent years we have experienced
a threat to our community’s families
as alarming as the Radical Right’s hate campaign.
In surging numbers, we have seen an
insidious increase in the number of custody
battles within the community involving lesbian
couples, as biological mothers deny
visitation to their former partners.
No one is at their best when a couple
splits up. It is a time of serious emotional crisis.
It is a time when it is easy to rationalize
that a former partner’s behavior is a reflection
of a poor parenting bond with the child.
Friends and family may feel protective and
support the biological mom in her dismissal
of her former partner. In the absence of
laws to the contrary, it is tempting to redraw
the family construction around heterosexist
laws, take the child and cut the partner out
of the family picture forever.
But can we use the heterosexist, antigay
laws to assure that a former partner is
denied the right to see her child and simultaneously
demand that others recognize our
family commitments? While together, a couple
may have lamented the fact that their
family was discriminated against by IRS laws,
insurance regulations, social security policies
and numerous laws that denied the legal
recognition of their family. Sadly, after dissolution
of the relationship, the biological
mother can use those very laws to deny that
the other parent was EVER a “real” parent.
In the legal world of non-gay married
couples, an elaborate court system is ready
to decide custody and visitation issues when
the parents cannot do so. Even if one parent
was only marginally involved the court nevertheless
recognizes their status as parent. In
the absence of identified harm to the child,
even the less involved or marginal parent is
granted some visitation. The community and
court standards reflect the parental rights
and obligations of both parents.
When a lesbian couple breaks up, without
a legally sanctioned relationship or legal
recognition of their family, who decides
Figure 2–4 COMMENTARY OF LESBIAN AND GAY PARENTING.
(With permission from C. Ray Drew and Kate Kendell. Mother’s day guest commentary [On-line].)
FAMILY PRIDE COALITION
Mother’s Day Guest Commentary
by C. Ray Drew and Kate Kendell
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 35
• daughters chose more prestigious/masculine careers
• daughters reported higher popularity (McGuire & Alexander, 1985)
Concern about lack of father involvement in families or specifically with their very young children
does not exist only when fathers are living out of the home. A British study by Jane
Ribbens (1994) shows that contemporary child rearing remains in the domain of women:
. . . issues of childcare, presumptions about the needs of children, and decisionmaking
about how to deal with and relate to children are major preoccupations in
women’s everyday lives. Furthermore, a consideration of how women perceive,
understand and resolve some of these issues around childrearing is essential to any
analysis of gender relationships, divisions of labour and distributions of resources
within households. (Ribbens, 1994, p. 29)
Further, Ribbens notes that it is generally the responsibility of the mother to create “the
family.” In this task, two processes are involved: (1) work on internal cohesion, making certain
what is in a child’s best interests? Couples,
who had a clear, unambiguous agreement
that they would be equal parents to this
child, suddenly become very unequal in the
face of divorce. The biological mother has
absolute power in these cases to determine
the fate of the child and the privileges of
the non-biological mother. In case after case,
the biological mother has denied that her
former partner is even a parent. Some courts
have agreed, denying the non-biological
mother’s right to her day in court to seek
any legal redress, much less be granted visitation
with her child.
Are legal protections important? Of
course they are. We need the protection for
our families that legally sanctioned marriage
provides. We need the protection of second-
parent adoptions in the absence of
But more important than these legal
protections we need to honor our agreements
and our intentions with one another.
Family is a social construction as much as a
legal entity. If we are to truly have permanent
parental and family relationships, we
need a social ethic that says they are permanent.
We need a consistent community
value, which says that a commitment to parenting
is lifelong. If we want our children to
grow up secure in who they are and who
their family is, they need to see a community
with a strong sense of family, a community
that maintains that standard even when
couples break up.
Does love make a family? You bet. And
when love doesn’t last forever, the “family”
still does. It is our commitment that will signal
to society and our children just how seriously
we take our own families.
Kate Kendell is the Executive Director of the National
Center for Lesbian Rights, a legal resource
and advocacy public interest law firm. C. Ray
Drew is the Executive Director of the Family Pride
Coalition International, an international LGBT
family advocacy organization. Kendell can be contacted
at NCLRsf@aol.com and Drew can be contacted
Figure 2–4 (continued)
36 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
that the family members form a meaningful unit, and (2) work on external boundaries, making
certain that there are clear separations of the family from other social units.
Within the apparently “conventional” families in my own study, images of family
togetherness did not always correspond to how things worked out in everyday
interactions. While the women living with their husbands were quick to tell me
their good qualities as fathers, in the details of their accounts strains could also
become apparent in constructing “the family” with an involved father. Much of the
care of pre-school children occurs in women’s worlds, either within or outside the
home, and men are marginal to these worlds. (Ribbens, 1994, p. 64)
After analyzing the information provided by the mothers in her study, Ribbens goes on to say
that much of the mother-child time together did not occur within families at all, but rather in
variations of networks of other women and their children. This finding brings the researcher to
the conclusion that observational studies are needed of mothers and their young children as
they participate in “semipublic” settings such as play groups.
Within families, fathers play very different roles from mothers. It is only since the mid-
1970s that much attention has been given to research on fathering. Contemporary society sees
fathers essentially in two ways, either as increasing their involvement with their children or as
absent with little emotional or financial responsibility for their children. Furstenberg (1988)
refers to this as the “two faces of fatherhood.” Early childhood teachers may observe these vast
differences in fathers of children in their care. Sometimes, fathers are so removed that children
have not met them or barely know them. Adults are often under the mistaken assumption, then,
that the children’s closeness to another adult male, grandfather or uncle, simply replaces their
relationship with fathers.
Erna Furman (1992) writes about young children who have been “deeply affected by the
loss of their father through death or family break-up” (p. 36). She notes that even though the
loss of a father may cause long-term hardship, those children who never had relationships with
their fathers should also be our concern. She tells of two such children. Felicity, at three-and-ahalf
years, had never met her father. Her mother never talked about him and was certain that
Felicity at this young age did not even think about her father. Felicity’s behaviors such as
thumbsucking and unceasing demands, however, were determined by a therapist to be related
to her desire to know her father. With this information, Felicity’s mother tried to prepare her for
possible disappointment and contacted her father to let him know of their daughter’s wishes. In
this case, the father responded and came to spend some time with his daughter. Even though
their contact was sporadic, the trust between mother and daughter was seen as a very positive
outcome in this situation.
In a second scenario, Ben had not met his father. When his toddler class was planning visits
by their fathers, his mother asked the teacher if Ben’s beloved grandfather might come with
him instead. When the teacher suggested that Mom ask Ben his opinion, Mom was surprised.
And when she asked Ben, she was surprised again. Ben initially refused to have his grandfather
go to school with him. Because he had never mentioned his absent father, Ben’s mother
assumed that meant he never thought about who his father might be. Once it was revealed that
Ben did have questions about his own dad, his mother was able to explain that he lived far away
and could not visit. Ben, then, was willing to have Grandfather accompany him to school.
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 37
So many teachers assume that because it is now common for
children to live in homes without their fathers, that children accept
it or do not even notice it. Furman (1992) points out that when
teachers observe carefully, they report situations with children that
contradict this viewpoint. She says “there are no easy answers to
these human dilemmas, but respecting our children’s thoughts and
feelings has much to do with respecting ourselves and with building
a community in which we all learn to respect one another.
Respect, like charity, begins at home” (p. 37).
In his review of the research literature related to fathers and
families, Parke (1995) notes that a great deal of research supports
the fact that fathers spend less time with their children than do
mothers. This is true from infancy through adolescence. Other
consistent findings from research are that fathers are competent
caregivers of their children when they need to be, and fathers interact
in qualitatively different ways with children than do mothers.
Whereas mothers are more verbal and directed and use toys in their
interactions, fathers are more physical and tactile with children. It
seems reasonable to believe that both styles of interaction will
stimulate children and that children will benefit from such differences.
What is it that determines how involved fathers are in their
children’s lives? A variety of factors have been shown to contribute
to any given father’s interaction with his children. Parke (1995)
uses empirical data to demonstrate that the following considerations
are related to father involvement. It is evident that father
involvement is based on a complex system of in-home and out-of-home variations:
• Fathers’ relationships with their own parents. Those men who had positive interactions
with their own fathers may model those with their children. However, there is also
some evidence that men who view their relationships with their fathers as negative
sometimes make an effort with their own children to increase positive feelings and
• Fathers’ belief systems about the roles of mothers and fathers. Some men have more
stereotypic ideas about what each parent should do with children. Others are more
willing to be flexible in meeting their children’s needs.
• Attitudes of the mother. Some mothers believe that they are the more important and
competent parent and restrict father involvement in various ways. As more mothers
enter the workforce full time, they may be more willing to encourage a greater level of
father involvement with their children.
• Marital relationships. When mothers provide support to fathers in their caregiving
roles, fathers gain competence and confidence in relating to their children.
• Timing of fatherhood. Males who become fathers when they are adolescents tend not
to be highly involved in their children’s lives. Sometimes these fathers rarely even visit
their children. Men who become fathers later in their lives often appreciate their chil-
Fathers can be competent caregivers of
38 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
dren more and have greater self-confidence in their parenting. On the other hand, men
who became fathers “on time” were more likely than older fathers to be physical with
• Family employment patterns. Fathers typically spend a greater amount of time with their
children when mothers are employed outside the home. It may be also that the quality
of father-child relationships changes when mothers are employed outside the home.
• Work quality. Difficult or stressful work conditions may cause fathers to be more disengaged
with their children when they are at home. It is also believed that positive
workplaces can enhance the quality of the father-child relationship.
Those who advocate for higher levels of father involvement do so in part because they
believe there will be positive outcomes for children. Parke (1995) also discusses the research
related to this area of interest. Following are some of the findings related to children whose
fathers do not live with them:
• little effect of father contact on well-being of children eleven to sixteen years
• no relation between father contact and children’s social and cognitive development for
children five to nine years
These findings are somewhat surprising in light of the emphasis on father involvement in
children’s lives. One explanation, however, is that father presence during the first three years
may be the most important time. Several studies seem to support this point of view. Further,
quality of interaction seems to be important to father-child relationships, not just quantity of
time spent together.
One way that quality has been observed is related to fathers’ physical play and positive
affect with their children. Young children whose fathers exhibit these two characteristics have
been found to be more popular and have a higher degree of social acceptance from other children
As with mothers, individuals in our society typically assume that all fathers are heterosexual.
This is obviously not true. It is difficult to obtain a count of the number of gay fathers in the
United States today. The primary reason for this is that the prejudice and discrimination against
these fathers threaten their relationships with their children. It is believed that the largest group
of children of gay fathers today are those who were born in heterosexual relationships of their
biological parents before one or the other parent had identified as lesbian or gay. It is common
that gay fathers do not have custody of their children nor do they often live in the same home as
their children. There remains a great deal of bias in the legal system against gay fathers getting
custody of their children. At times, they may even be denied visitation rights based on the
notion that they are negative influences on their children (Patterson, 1995).
Research on gay fathers is sparse. Patterson (1995), in her review of the literature on gay
fathers, notes that they report differences in their parenting in comparison to heterosexual
fathers. Gay fathers reported both greater warmth and responsiveness to their children and
more limit setting. Some attention has been given to comparisons between gay fathers and gay
men who are not fathers. These fathers reported higher levels of self-esteem and fewer negative
attitudes about homosexuality than did the nonfathers.
One of the concerns that is sometimes stated, and sometimes not, is whether the sexual
identity of gay fathers’ children will be affected. At this time, there is no research evidence to
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 39
support the notion that children of gay fathers will necessarily be homosexual in their orientation
As early childhood educators, our greatest concern for children from gay or lesbian families
may be for their psychological and physical safety. However, this concern is not created
within the family, but rather from the bigotry and hate that these families may receive from
Families and Religiosity
Due in part to the legal aspects of the separation of church and state, much of education has
been silenced about religion. But ignoring the understanding of the importance of religiosity in
families is as erroneous as ignoring culture or economic status. It is true that some teachers and
schools place religion within a family’s culture, but because there has been so little attention
given to family and individual differences related to religion in education, the authors have
chosen to accent it in this chapter.
Religiosity refers to the amount of emphasis religion has in families. With differences in
various religious practices, it is not always evident to early childhood professionals just how
religious a family is or is not. Some families may discuss their religion with teachers due to
specific classroom practices, such as holiday celebrations. Others may have unexpressed concerns
and still others may have no need to be open with their child’s teacher about their religious
Black churches have historically provided a great deal of family support. Because members
of these churches were often denied access to other forms of family support in the United
States, church members intervened to assist with survival. Caldwell, Greene, and Billingsley
(1994) note that Black churches have had a social service role since their inception in the late
1700s. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Black churches took on a political
activist role. In the 1980s, when drastic cuts were made in public funding for social programs,
these churches once again reached out to their communities to provide support to families. It is
believed that family and church are “strong interactive institutions that are mutually enhancing
in their influence on African American communities” (p. 142). Further, “Black churches are
mediators that buffer and enhance the relationship between the family’s informal social network
and the larger formal societal network” (p. 143). One aspect of this “larger formal societal
network” is the educational institution.
Janice Hale, a scholar in the area of African-American child development, speaks about
the differences in Black churches and Anglo churches. She notes that from very early ages,
Black children are active during church services. The expectation is not to sit still and quiet as
so often happens in Anglo churches. Imagine the shock when these children come to school
where they are inappropriately expected to be still and quiet!
Variations in religious beliefs and practices must be respected, just as teachers respect differences
in culture, ethnicity, gender, and abilities. One source that helps to explain the differences
is How to Be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious
Ceremonies (Magida, 1996). Knowledge about these differences is often the first step to understanding.
(See figure 2–5 for additional commentary.)
Recently, Marian Wright Edelman has voiced a call to all communities of faith to “Stand
for Children.” On June 1, 1996, more than 300,000 child advocates attended a rally at the
40 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
Forget the home-run race. Litigation has now
surpassed baseball as America’s favorite national
The latest example of how quick we are
to “call a lawyer” comes from Ohio, where a
school district may face a lawsuit for closing
school on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur
(Sept. 21. and Sept. 30 respectively).
School officials argue that absenteeism
is too high on those days to hold classes in
any meaningful way. Some 15% of the students
in the district are Jewish and most of
them stay home or attend synagogue for two
of Judaism’s most significant holy days. In
some schools, absences ran as high as 21%.
A group of parents—with the ironic
name of Parents for Fairness—objects, claiming
that closing the schools these two days
would favor the Jewish faith over other faiths
in violation of the First Amendment.
It’s true that the First Amendment’s
establishment clause requires that public
school officials be neutral among religions
and between religion and nonreligion. The
school board can’t close the schools on
Jewish holy days because it wants to favor
But school officials have a good civic (or
secular) purpose for their action: Too many
students would be absent those days to
conduct a normal school day. The closings
are meant to serve the educational needs of
all the students, not to advance a particular
religion. Just because the policy also benefits
Jewish kids doesn’t make it unconstitutional.
It would be different if the district had a
much smaller Jewish population. In that case,
the best approach would be to allow Jewish
students to be excused for services and require
them to make up the missed work.
Beyond the legal issues, Parents for
Fairness might want to think more about
what they mean by “fairness.” After all, the
school calendar already favors the majority
faith since no classes are held on Sunday
and Christmas is a national holiday. Most
Christians don’t need to worry about the
By contrast, minority faiths have to work
around the existing calendar. Jews who observe
the Sabbath have a problem participating
in Friday night ball games and Saturday
activities. Muslim students who wish to attend
community prayer mid-day on Fridays
sometimes have a hard time getting released
This built-in advantage should be all the
more reason for school officials to be sensitive
to the religious needs of students from
minority faiths. Of course, that rarely means
closing school. But it does mean finding ways
to accommodate requests where possible.
Rosh Hashana, by the way, is the Jewish
New Year, a time of celebration but also of
judgment. According to Jewish tradition,
during the 10 days following Rosh Hashana,
God examines the deeds of the people. For
Jews, this is a time of profound self-examination
At the end of this period, on Yom Kippur—
the Day of Atonement—God makes a
final judgment and forgives those who have
truly repented. Many Jews fast for 25 hours
and spend much of the day in the synagogue,
praying for forgiveness.
Repentance, judgment, forgiveness.
Nowadays a little time off for these things
seems like a very good idea.
Figure 2–5 ALL FAITHS SHOULD BE FAIRLY TREATED IN SCHOOLS.
(With permission from Charles C. Haynes, Senior Scholar, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. Public
Opinion, Chambersburg, PA, September 1998.)
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 41
Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Since that time, June 1 continues to be a day to “Stand
for Children.” Many religious communities use materials provided by this division of the Children’s
Some individuals have tried very hard to identify what it means to be an American family. Perhaps
those who have relocated to another geographic region can understand best some of the
differences that exist in families even of similar ethnicity, culture, economic class, and religiosity.
Regional differences even affect expectations by gender (Figure 2–6).
Family poverty rates for the nine Census geographic divisions for 1994 demonstrate
regional differences (Triest, 1997). The highest rate was 15.8 percent in the West South Central
region. Others above the national average of 11.6 percent include East South Central, California,
and New York. The lowest family poverty rate was in New England, 8.2 percent, with
others below the national average: North Central, Middle Atlantic, South Atlantic, Mountain,
Consider some of the notions
you have about the people
from one or two of the following
Northwest, and Pacific.
On what are your ideas
based? What experiences
have you had with people
from regions other than
Figure 2–6 ALL OF THESE PIECES INTERACT FOR INDIVIDUALITY.
Culture and Ethnicity
42 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
Various stereotypes exist about people from different regions of the United States. Terms
such as “salty New Englander,” “southern belle” and “southern gentleman,” “hillbilly,” “farmer’s
daughter,” and so on reflect images held by many living in other parts of the country. As with
other stereotypes, a small part of the image may be based on reality, but the picture is far too
narrow and limits our real understanding of differences in people. The differences we experience
from one region to the next are based on many factors, including climate, terrain, proximity
to waterways, economy, industry, and history.
Sometimes differences in dialect, slang, or variations in manners will lead to degrading
others. Understanding expectations from various regional groups can help in having positive
interactions with them. One child moved from the Northeast part of the country to the South.
He soon learned that his teachers expected him not to reply with his standard “Yes” or “No” but
with “Yes, ma’am” or “No, sir.” The child explained that this was difficult for him to learn
because typically when “ma’am” or “sir” was added to his speech in the past, it was not considered
good manners, but rather sarcasm. Although teachers can expect respectful interaction
from their students, it will be important to understand such regional differences, especially in
terms of one’s intent.
In examining characteristics of Appalachian mountain families, Klein (1995) noted that
connections between generations are critical for these families. Further, spirituality is emphasized
over financial success. Because of an emphasis on humility, people of the Appalachians
are often viewed as “dull” and lacking self-esteem. After discussing a number of characteristics
that set this group apart from others, the author notes that educators must consider not only
racial and ethnic differences but also those related to community and cultural heritage.
A P P L I C AT I O N T O E A R LY C H I L D H O O D
EDUCAT I O N P R O G R A M S
People celebrate for many different reasons. Some people celebrate the same holiday but do it
quite differently. Others celebrate completely different holidays. Celebrations and rituals are
an important part of the human experience. One way
to share about differences in the way we celebrate is
to have families come to early childhood programs
to share their particular ways of celebrating. In an
effort to move to anti-bias approaches, some early
childhood educators have done away with all celebrations.
This is not necessary and may not even be desirable.
Instead, be sensitive to all ways of celebrating
and consider creating some celebrations unique to
your classroom for special events such as new siblings,
lost teeth, and other common developmental
occurrences in families with young children (Figures
2–7 and 2–8).
“When we make choices about what to celebrate,
let us be very conscious of who we are
doing it for . . .If we are doing it for the children,
let us be conscious of all the subtle messages
inherent in what we do and choose
things to celebrate that are meaningful, developmentally
appropriate, and healthy for them.”
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 43
The goal for understanding diversity in early childhood education is ultimately to provide an
inclusive environment, one in which each child and family can feel a sense of belonging, no
matter what commonalities or differences they have with others in the group. This is quite a
lofty goal, and because of many societal factors, it may not be easy to achieve.
As teachers plan for their groups of children and as they set their classroom rules and
policies, checking for inclusiveness must be a part of the process. Even the most sensitive and
knowledgeable teacher may err in this process; however, the important act is what teachers do
when they realize that their classrooms are not inclusive. A compassionate, effective early child-
Eastern Orthodox Church in America
Calendar of Liturgical Cycles
Figure 2–7 VARIOUS RELIGIOUS CELEBRATIONS
AND TRADITIONS—SELECTED WEB SITES.
Kwanzaa is celebrated by many African-Americans
between December 26 and January 1. It is
meant to be a time of reaffirming for African-
American people, for focusing on their ancestors
and culture. Traditions include the following:
Nguzo Saba: 7 guiding principles
Kinara: candleholder for 7 candles
Mkeka: straw or cloth place mat
Vibunzi: ears of corn, one for each child in
One guiding principle is applied to each of the
seven days of celebration:
• Umoja (OO-MO-JAH): Unity of family and
• Kujichagulia (KOO-GEE-CHA-GOO-LEEYAH):
• Ujima (OO-GEE-MAH): Collective work and
• Umjamaa (OO-JAH-MAH): Cooperative
• Nia (NEE-YAH): Purpose (to set personal
goals to benefit community)
• Kuumba (KOO-OOM-BAH): Creativity
• Imani (EE-MAH-NEE): Faith
Figure 2–8 KWANZAA.
44 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
hood teacher will collect information, ask for guidance, and make changes so that the sense of
E T H I C A L C O N S I D E R AT I O N S
Relating These Factors to Developmentally Appropriate
The DAP handbook (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) includes the two primary components for
approriate practices in forming reciprocal relationships with families:
• Caregivers form partnerships with parents through daily communication, building
mutual trust, working to understand parents’ preferences, and respecting cultural and
• Members of each child’s family are encouraged to be involved in ways in which they
Criteria from the accreditation guidelines compiled by the National Academy of Early Childhood
Programs related to family involvement are:
• The goal for staff-parent interaction is that parents are well-informed about and welcome
observers and contributors to the program.
• The staff will respect cultural diversity.
• The staff will include all children in all opportunities, speaking
favorably about variations in physical characteristics and cultural
The Code of Ethical Conduct for Early Childhood Education
includes the following in the category of ethical responsibilities to
• to respect the dignity of each family and its culture, customs,
• to provide the community with high-quality, culturally sensitive
early childhood programs and services
Family Support Principles
The family support principles that are particular to the information
in this chapter include the following:
• to promote family health and well-being
• to respond to family cultural preferences and values
• to provide concrete help for real-life problems
• to give information tailored to parental needs
Early childhood education staff should
respect, encourage, and foster cultural
diversity in the classroom.
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 45
SUMMARY A N D C O N C L U S I O N S
Families are different in many ways. It is crucial that early childhood teachers work to increase
their understanding of differences in families and interact sensitively with these differences in
mind. Lifelong learning is a requirement for teachers in this regard. For as society changes, so
will families change.
Celebration of diversity leads to inclusive practices in early childhood education. Teachers’
acceptance of differences in families is essential for each child to feel a sense of belonging
in early education programs. Welcoming all families is a prerequisite for effective family
involvement. Family members who view themselves as very different from teachers and other
school personnel are less likely than other families to be involved in their children’s education.
It is the responsibility of early childhood teachers to foster a climate that encourages various
types of family involvement so that all children may reap the benefits known to occur from
home and school partnerships.
ethnicity gender role
Temporary Assistance for
Needy Families (TANF)
Chapter Two Applications
1. A primary grade teacher, your colleague, tells you that because she has only one child
who does not celebrate Christmas in her classroom and twenty-three who do that she
goes with the majority and for most of December the class is involved in projects
related to Christmas. How do you respond?
2. A mother of one of your kindergarten children tells you that you must not celebrate
her son’s birthday. Additionally, he may not attend any birthday celebrations because
of religious beliefs. What do you do about your tradition to celebrate each child’s
3. When you request photos of each of your preschoolers’ families for your bulletin
board project, one child brings a picture of herself and two men. The child tells you
that this is her with Daddy and Daddy’s roommate, Ron, when they were on vacation
at the beach. What do you do with the picture?
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Consider the various forms of diversity discussed in this chapter. Discuss your experiences
with each type of diversity.
46 PART I UNDERSTANDING FAMILIES
2. Give an example of an experience from your past when you did not feel a sense of
belonging, or included in the situation. What do you think were the factors related to
you feeling excluded?
3. Recall some common celebrations that you have observed in early childhood settings,
either when you were a child or more recently. Identify some situations that
were not inclusive. What are some ideas that you have for making the celebrations
1. Interview a Head Start director or family coordinator about the benefits that quality
early education has for low-income families.
2. Observe in a child-care center, preschool program, kindergarten, or primary grade
classroom. Note situations that you feel were examples of a good understanding of
diversity in families. Also, note situations that were exclusive for some children or
3. Interview a staff member of a religious community. Ask about programs that are
offered that support families.
Bolger, K. E., Patterson, C. J., & Thompson, W. W. (1995). Psychosocial adjustment among
children experiencing persistent and intermittent family economic hardship. Child Development,
Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood
programs (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and
design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Brooks-Gunn, J., Klebanov, P. K., & Duncan, G. J. (1996). Ethnic differences in children’s
intelligence test scores: Role of economic deprivation, home environment, and maternal
characteristics. Child Development, 67, 396–408.
Burns, A., & Scott, C. (1994). Mother-headed families and why they have increased. Hillsdale,
Caldwell, C. H., Greene, A. D., & Billingsley, A. (1994). Family support programs in Black
churches: A new look at old functions. In S. L. Kagan & B. Weissbourd (Eds.), Putting families
first: America’s family support movement and the challenge of change. San Francisco:
Cheal, D. (1996). New poverty: Families in postmodern society.Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Clark, L., DeWolf, S., & Clark, C. (1992). Teaching teachers to avoid having culturally
assaultive classrooms. Young Children, 47 (5), 4–9.
Elkind, D. (1987). Miseducation: Preschoolers at risk. New York: Knopf.
Furman, E. (1992, May). Thinking about fathers. Young Children, 47(4), 36–37.
Furstenberg, F. F., Jr. (1988). Good dads—bad dads: Two faces of fatherhood. In A. J. Cherlin
(Ed.), The changing American family and public policy (pp. 193–218). Washington, DC:
Urban Institute Press.
CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING FAMILY DIVERSITY 47
Garfinkel, I., & McLanahan, S. (1989). Single mothers and their children: A new American
dilemma.Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.
Hale, J. (1986). Black children: Their roots, culture, and learning styles (Rev. ed.). Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hamner, T. J., & Turner, P. H. (1996). Parenting in contemporary society. Needham Heights,
MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Howe, L. K. (1972). The future of the family. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Klein, H. A. (1995). Urban Appalachian children in northern schools: A study in diversity.
Young Children, 50 (3), 10–16.
Magida, A. (Ed.). (1996). How to be a perfect stranger: A guide to etiquette in other people’s
religious ceremonies.Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights.
McDade, K. (1995). How we parent: Race and ethnic differences. In C. K. Jacobson (Ed.),
American families: Issues in race and ethnicity. New York: Garland.
McGoldrick, M. (1989). Ethnicity and the family life cycle. In B. Carter & M. McGoldrick
(Eds.), The changing family life cycle (2nd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
McGuire, M., & Alexander, N. J. (1985). Artificial insemination of single women. Fertility and
Sterility, 43, 182–184.
Mellman, M., Lazarus, E., & Rivlin, A. (1990). Family time, family values. In D. Blankenhorn,
S. Bayme, & B. Elshtain (Eds.), Rebuilding the nest: A new commitment to the American
family. Milwaukee, WI: Family Service America.
National Academy of Early Childhood Programs. (1991). Accreditation criteria and procedures.
Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Neugebauer, B. (1990). Going one step further—No traditional holidays. Child Care Information
Parke, R. (1995). Fathers and families. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting, volume
3: Status and social conditions of parenting (pp. 27–63). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Patterson, C. J. (1995). Lesbian and gay parenthood. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of
parenting, volume 3: Status and social conditions of parenting (pp. 255–274). Mahwah, NJ:
Phillips, C. B. (1995). Culture: A process that empowers. In P. L. Mangione (Ed.), Infant/toddler
caregiving: A guide to culturally sensitive care (pp. 2–9). Sacramento, CA: California
Department of Education.
Rank, M. R. (1994). Living on the edge: The realities of welfare in America. New York: Columbia
Ribbens, J. (1994). Mothers and their children: A feminist sociology of childrearing. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Sage.
Santrock, J. W. (1994). Child development. Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark.
Stauss, J. H. (1995). Reframing and refocusing American Indian family strengths. In C. K.
Jacobson (Ed.), American families: Issues in race and ethnicity. New York: Garland.
Triest, R. K. (1997, January-February). Regional differences in family poverty. New England
Economic Review, 3–18.
Wardle, F. (1987). Are you sensitive to interracial children’s special identity needs? Young
Children, 42 (2), 53–59.
Zinn, M. B., & Eitzen, D. S. (1987). Diversity in American families. New York: Harper & Row.
O U T L I N E