As contributing authors to a recent ANNALs volume Investing in Latino Children and Youth, scholars Natasha Cabrera, Julie Mendez-Smith, Claudia Galindo, and Krista Perreira reflect on the strengths of Latinx families as they navigate parenting; work and child care; and their children’s learning, education, schooling, and health.
Start with acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of Latinx families and communities
The past 20 years have seen dramatic shifts in the location of Latinx communities, stretching beyond traditional jurisdictions in California, Texas, and New York into areas that are much less familiar with their needs and cultures. Indeed, the label “Latinx” does not capture the diversity of Latinx-identifying families and individuals born and raised in the United States versus recent and earlier arrivals who hail from different countries of origin and heritages, and who are fluent in different Spanish dialects and indigenous languages. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term used in the United States to refer to Latino/Hispanic individuals of Latin American or Caribbean heritage.)
This diversity can sometimes overwhelm rigid and unfamiliar systems, which can contribute to frustration, confusion, and tensions in receiving communities. Correspondingly, fear and distrust among Latinx populations and between Latinx populations and other groups can escalate. What may actually be misinformation or confusion among Latinx parents can be internalized as failure. In reality, Latinx parents bring with them hope, optimism, a sense of family cohesion, and a strong work ethic, which are key strengths that support children’s success.
Three key strengths: Optimism, work ethic, and family cohesion
It is hard to overstate the optimism that Latinx immigrants have today and have always had when they arrive in the United States. They feel they have had to risk everything, leaving behind family and the life they knew to move to a better life, one filled with hope of economic opportunity and promise for their children’s futures. This optimism carries them through difficult times. Such positivity protects their well-being and mental health and drives success.
Service and public infrastructure such as transportation, internet access, and schools can be extended in ways that capitalize on co-location of community organizations and neighborhoods that parents trust.
Optimism is just one of many strengths Latinx families bring with them, whether they are born in the United States or are recent immigrants. Their capacities include a strong work ethic, with many Latinx parents working long hours and producing high-quality output, rarely missing work or calling in sick, often at the risk of losing earned income and with no mechanism for recourse in case of injury or emergency.
This strong work ethic goes hand in hand with an equally strong commitment to their children, ensuring that they receive proper nutrition and feel safe, and attending to their children’s learning and education. As in all families, Latinx parents balance the competing demands of being a worker and a parent, and ensure that their children get not only resources but also their time.
Family cohesion is the hallmark of adapting and thriving in the United States. Latinx families provide love and support for each other in the form of social and financial capital. The strong family bond can protect them from adversity and provides a personal safety net that helps the family not only survive, but in many cases, thrive. An integral part of the family is the belief that children thrive when raised by two parents—mothers and fathers.
Fathers’ role is not only to provide financially for their children, but also to be there for them and be involved in day-to-day parenting. Latinx fathers have a strong commitment to their family and their children, and their involvement in their lives matters for the development of children’s basic language and social skills. Fathers and mothers also co-parent and combine resources to ensure that their children have more opportunities than they had.
Celebrating learning and education
The value placed on education and learning is infused throughout stages of child development, as demonstrated during children’s earliest years. Both Latinx mothers and fathers engage in active storytelling which is sustained through support of formal schooling.
Investments in early education in the United States have yielded high enrollment in programs serving preschool-age Latinx children, and the benefits to Latinx children, including dual language learners, sometimes outpace those of other groups of children. Families also benefit from the role early education and care play in supporting parenting, access to other resources in the community, and connections to social networks.
The strong Latino parent work ethic goes hand in hand with an equally strong commitment to their children. As in all families, Latinx parents balance the competing demands of being a worker and a parent, and ensure that their children get not only resources but also their time.
Indeed, Latinx fourth and fifth graders’ math and reading achievement has increased over time, as have Latinx high school graduation rates and subsequent enrolment in post-secondary education programs. When researchers visit Latinx homes, parents ask about where and how they can purchase the educational toys used to observe children’s play. It is not unusual for young children to ask their teachers for more books to bring home from school, declaring: “One is for me, and one is for Mom.” Modelling good behavior is a tool parents use to inculcate in their children a love of learning, with many parents “doing homework” with their children. Family members, and sometimes entire communities, come together to participate in and witness schooling milestones, such as graduations.
Educational preparedness for many Latinx children includes fluency in two languages, mastering English and Spanish. Schools that embrace equity-oriented practices – including strategies to facilitate family engagement and family-school partnerships, and extended learning opportunities – have reduced disparities in Latinx students’ school progress compared to peers.
A foundation of good health
Across many metrics of children’s health, Latinx children fare well, notably in low rates of infant mortality. Latinx parents care deeply about the health of their children and the foundation that good health provides for their children’s educational attainment and economic opportunities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Latinx families, like many other families, expressed concern about the social isolation and mental health of their children. They also experienced high rates of economic, food, and housing insecurities, which threatened the well-being of their children.
Yet their abilities to meet the physical and mental health needs of their children are often hindered by structural barriers to medical care, public services, and other resources needed to support children’s well-being. As one example, 12 states, many in the U.S. South, have chosen not to expand Medicaid, a health insurance program for low-income persons. Even with insurance, Latinx families can face a variety of barriers to care, including limited time off from work to obtain medical care, limited access to transportation, and a lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services in the communities in which they live.
Optimism can wear thin when families are faced with health risks and economic uncertainty over a prolonged period. During the first few months of the pandemic, the mental health of Latinx parents was initially buoyed by their optimism and strong co-parenting support, but high rates of unemployment, especially among Latina parents, reduced household income. Not all eligible Latinx families received pandemic-related government assistance.
Although most Latinx families did their best to keep children engaged in learning activities at home, Latinx children’s learning suffered because they did not receive the support they needed for education transmitted remotely or online. Latinx children did not have consistent access to technology or equipment, such as extra iPads or laptops. In some cases, children missed online testing because digitally accessible equipment, including a smart phone, was shared by an entire household.
As Latinx parents struggled to cope with extra demands, Latinx teens and young adults were expected to help their younger siblings with learning.
Opportunity for policy investment and the price of policy failure
These and other stories speak to Latinx family strengths. How can these strengths of optimism, work ethic, and family cohesion be harnessed – and not undermined – by investments in education, health care, and child care policy?
Latinx children arrive at formal schooling curious and eager to learn. Although Latinx children quickly catch up to their peers in some academic domains, lack of support for their home language and cultural barriers contribute to dashed hopes and disillusionment with educational opportunities. As economic pressures on the family, youth are forced to disengage from the educational system as they face competing demands, including working to financially support their family or sharing in the responsibility of raising younger siblings. This path can lead to lost years of formal education.
Child care providers have difficulty accommodating the complexities of work schedules among some Latinx parents, and early education and care arrangements are not always culturally responsive, lacking support for Spanish-speaking or dual-language parents and children and failing to adequately accommodate children with special needs. The supply of child care slots is low, resulting in fewer options to reconcile work and parenting commitments.
Many Latinx families with children are left out of health insurance because of discrimination against individuals whose immigration status is not regularized. Latina adolescents have some of the highest rates of depression and suicide attempts in the United States. Longer-term consequences are documented in poor cardiovascular health, diabetes, and suboptimal functioning in adulthood.
When family cohesion faces such stressors, how far can the safety net it provides its members be stretched before it snaps? It is hard to know precisely. Low-wage work is deeply problematic, setting tight limits on what parents can do for their children. When a mother works two or three jobs, who cares for her children? When can a mother or father engage with the school if they are both working long hours? When is there time to navigate the health care system?
How can parents ensure that child care is good? If work is unreliable and unstable, with no benefits and few hours required on short notice, children may have to be placed in three or four different child care arrangements. Typically, there is no formal child care on weekends, so low-paid Latinx families are forced into an informal network of supports, some of which are not of very high quality.
How do parents square the circle of wanting to spend loving time with their children and earning enough money to feed their family? One father we know works three jobs, getting home at 11 pm every night. His two-year-old naps until 10:30 pm, then is wakened so she can play with her father for half an hour – but she is tired the next day.
A manifesto for change
It is time for public programs and services to re-envision their engagement with Latinx families and support Latinx children’s paths to success. They must also respect the rights of Latinx individuals: Most young children of immigrants are U.S.-born, thus have rights and privileges equal to all other U.S. citizens such that their parents’ immigration status is not a barrier.
Service and public infrastructure more generally—including transportation, internet access and schools—can also be extended in ways that capitalize on co-location of community organizations and neighborhoods that parents trust. Community schools have proven their worth in, for example, improving access to children’s health care and reducing the administrative burden on hard-pressed parents of accessing other services.
Latinx families bring such strengths – so much energy, skill, and commitment – to raising their children well. A public commitment to policies and practices that harness and align with these strengths can go a long way to recouping returns to investments.