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Myths and realities about Somali parental support for education

By Joanna Tzenis

According to a recent student survey, Minnesota youth of Somali heritage report high levels of family support for education. But what does this support look like? Scholars, practitioners, and humans in general agree that parental support is important, but there’s no consensus on how it should be offered.

Should parents help with homework at home? Should they volunteer at the school? Sign their kids up for extracurriculars? Let them relax with unstructured time when not in school? Should parents be cheerleaders or task masters? 

My point is that there are many ways parents can support their children’s development. I've blogged before about educational strategies that are informed by cultural world views. What gets tricky is when parents’ approaches for supporting their kids differs from the expectations of the cultural majority.

Studies on cultural and social resources of immigrant youth show how challenging it is to navigate different value systems around education. This suggests that all learning environments (formal and nonformal) ought to consider and accept the different kinds of parental support and cultural assets that youth bring to their learning environment.

My research with Somali youth and families surfaced ways in which parent support among parents from Somalia was strategic and steadfast. But it didn't always align with western conceptions of parental support. Here are some examples.

"[In Somalia, it was] teacher and kid, no parent in between."

The misperception: Parents shirk their responsibilities. They expect too much from teachers and refuse to be involved in their child’s education.

The reality: Parents have great trust and respect for teachers because of their educational training and credentials. Mothers in my study traveled all over the Twin Cities seeking experts to tutor their children. They identified this as the primary way they helped their children do well in school. A study of Somali parents in Great Britain framed this strategy as vigilance – parents stood guard and made sure the expert could fulfill their duty as teachers. One study participant said, “They [teachers] are the professionals . . . so they don’t need parents to be at school.” Parents believed that allowing teachers and tutors to do their jobs was the best way to help their children thrive.

"These [American] kids’ first priority is playing. In Somalia you have to fight to be number 1."

The misperception: Parents are being too hard on their kids. They don’t let them have any fun or explore non-academic interests.

The reality: The parents in my study grew up in Somalia, where youth had to compete for a limited number of spots in school. If a young person failed to earn a spot, their educational career was over. American youth need not compete to stay in school, but Somali-born parents retain the emphasis on academic rigor. Sports, elective coursework and extracurriculars were at best tolerated by most parents in my study. They worried about their children being “distracted” from the important task of excelling in school. Some even criticized lunch and recess for encouraging laziness. They structured youths’ out-of-school time activities to prioritize tutoring and religious education. The connection between extracurriculars and success in life was not clear to them. They pressed for rigor because they wanted their children to have the very best life possible.

Not everyone approaches education in the same way, but parents almost always want their children to thrive in education and in life.

I invite you to consider your perceptions of foreign-born parents. Might there be a different reality behind it? Might your misperception be keeping youth in your programs from thriving? What do you think?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Thank you for sharing your insight. Parents from different cultures do indeed look at parental involvement differently. Chinese and Latino parents are also reluctant to be in the classroom, looking at it as a sign of disrespect or mistrust of the teacher to do their job. The emphasis of how to spend "down time" is also different in different cultures. I find that the emphasis on extracurricular activity is more prevalent than even when I grew up. There is more pressure on kids to be "productive" with their time, to achieve in multiple ways.

  2. Joanna, I love how you set this blog up specifically to help us examine our cultural assumptions and explore other meanings that are behind people's decisions. Your findings are very consistent with my own experiences with the Somali families I know. I have been humbled by how deeply committed the parents are to education, even those parents who were never able to get their own formal education because of the war. I also am reminded of Josey Landrieu's research with Latino youth about the fact that there are many kinds of education, and the formal education in the school is only one of them. The Somali families I know have a deep dedication to education of the whole person--to be spiritually grounded, to visit ill people when they are in the hospital, to take care of people in need. Thank you for this wonderful blog post.

  3. Great Post! I think you should write more on this topic. Thanks for sharing this information with us.


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