Culture And The Art Of Helping

First Things First


Culture is a lot of things. It is art and music. It is history and architecture. Culture is how people dress and what they like to eat. It is science and literature. It is all that defines a group of people. Here, however, our main interest is in the behavior, attitudes, and adjustment of children. It is what makes one group seem different from another. For example, how can you tell English people from North Carolinians? 'It's easy,' you say? Of course it is. English people drink their tea hot and usually in the afternoon. North Carolinians drink their tea iced, sweet, and whenever they get the urge.

What's that? Isn't that the difference you had in mind? OK, let's try again. People from North Carolina talk normal English. Those people from over there have funny accents. There you go. Now you know how to tell the difference. Look for people who drink sweet, ice tea anytime and talk right. They are the North Carolinians. Everyone else is English.

Drink preferences and language are cultural elements. They also may be cultural differences. They can help you tell English people from North Carolinians.

Of course, the example has some problems. First, it makes a big deal out of something that is not very important. Whether you like your tea hot or iced does not matter much. Drinking hot or ice tea has more to do with the weather than culture. Summers can get very hot in North Carolina.

Is language a more important difference? English people talk fine with each other. North Carolinians have no trouble talking to North Carolinians. The truth is that English people and North Carolinians also have no trouble talking with each other. Language is not an important cultural difference for these two groups.

The problem with the example is in the attitudes. People from England have funny accents. They are from over there. Having a funny accent is not good. Being from over there is not good either.

People from North Carolina talk normal English. They know how to drink tea right too. They are right and people from England are wrong. The better folks are from North Carolina. The worse folks are from England. You are either one of us or you are one of those less desirable English people.

Yes, the problem is prejudice. Phrases like 'funny accents,' being from 'over there,' and 'those people' are nothing but ugly prejudice.

If you and the child have the same culture, things are fine. Problems only come up when your cultures are different. That's when prejudice gets in the way. Do you think your people are better than hers? Does she think hers are better than yours? In short, are either of you being judgmental and putting the other's culture down? You need to be non-judgmental and accepting of the child and her cultural heritage. She needs to learn to accept you and yours.

Prejudice is never good but is even worse and more destructive if it thrives in a helping environment. Each child with whom you work will have her prejudices. This means you and she have some work to do. You too will have your prejudices. This means you have more work to do to be sure they are not interfering as you work with the child.

Here is another idea. You know about cultural elements and cultural differences. Some are more important than others. You also need to know that some are more dominate than others. What does this mean?

Aggressiveness can be a cultural element. Some people are more aggressive than others. For example, boys are more aggressive than girls. It works like this. If you observed a thousand boys and a thousand girls, the boys would be more aggressive than the girls. The difference would be very little, though. Aggressiveness is not a very dominate element. If you took out the few most aggressive boys, there would be no difference. You could not use aggressiveness to tell the boys from the girls. It was only a few very aggressive boys that made it look like there was a difference to begin with.

Here is the point. When you think about a cultural element or see a cultural difference, ask yourself these questions. Is it important? Does it matter? For example, children from the South talk a little more slowly than children from the North. This is a cultural difference but does not matter. It is not important.

Does it hold for everyone in the group? Is everyone in the group like that? For example, do all North Carolinians drink ice tea or are all boys aggressive?

Also ask if there is really all that much difference. For example, Italians are more emotionally expressive than Germans. How much difference is there? Not much. Italians are only slightly more emotionally expressive than Germans.

Not every cultural element is important. But some are very important. These are the ones that are dominate in the child's culture. Dominate elements need your caring attention.

Ingredients And Outcomes



The idea of ingredients and outcomes is important. If you make a cake, the flour, sugar, and other things are the ingredients. The flavor, texture, and aroma are outcomes. The same is true for culture. Some elements are ingredients and others are outcomes.

For example, inner-city children see more violence than suburban children. They see people use violence to solve problems. They can easily learn to value violence. Violence is then an ingredient in their culture. It is something that gets added to who they are.

Inner-city children also are more likely to get into trouble with the police. For example, violent behavior can get them into trouble. Getting into trouble is an outcome and not an ingredient. The difference is important.

Think about the cake again. There could be a problem with the ingredients. The flour or sugar might be bad. The same is true for culture. For example, violence is a bad ingredient. What do you learn from this? Just because an ingredient is cultural does not mean it is good or desirable. It usually is but may not be. The same holds for outcomes. Some cultural outcomes are not good. Sometimes cultural ingredients lead to things no one wants or thinks is acceptable.

You will see culturally significant behavior in children with whom you work. Usually, you will want to support and nurture the behavior and the child's cultural heritage. At times, though, what you see is neither good nor acceptable. It is a bad cultural outcome. At those times, you need to discuss the behavior with the child and deal with it as a problem needing solved.

Evaluating ingredients and outcomes



Here are some ingredients and outcomes you might see in children with whom you work. For each of the seven groups of children, we have included five elements for you to evaluate.

Is the element actually a cultural element for the group? The research included people across the United States who work regularly with children. At least some of the participants in the research for this article have said that each element listed is an important cultural element for the specific group. You need to use your judgement and experience to evaluate this. What do you think? In the chart below the element, you are asked, Y/N Cultural element? Circle Y (Yes) if you think it is a cultural element for the group. Circle N (No) if you do not think it is. Remember that it is only included here because someone in the research group thought it belonged.

Is the element a cultural ingredient or an outcome? Circle I for Ingredient or O for outcome. If it is not a cultural element for the group, skip this question.

Is the element desirable or undesirable? Circle D for Desirable or U for Undesirable.

If you see the element in a child with whom you are working, will you support and nurture the element or manage it as a problem? Circle S for Support or P for Problem.

If the element is a problem, how will you manage it and still be supportive and nurturing with the child? Try to make a direct statement. 'I will (do this).'

All Maltreated Children



At least some participants in the research suggested that maltreated children should be thought of as a cultural group. They have more things in common than most other groups of children. These elements are purported by some participants to apply to all maltreated children.

Have health problems and are often ill.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Have very low self-esteem.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Have difficulty dealing with day-to-day stresses and pressures.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Have learning problems.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Do not talk with adults about important things.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

What other cultural elements belong on the list for this group? Add them here.

Minority Children




(Again, these views were held by some research participants.)

Have difficulty experiencing and expressing their sexuality.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Have difficulty with language, ideas, and communication.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Feel most adults have it in for them.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Do not stick-up for themselves.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Feel depressed and alienated.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

What other cultural elements belong on the list for this group? Add them here.

Inner-city and Other Poor Children



Consider it a virtue to be tough.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Do not place value on education.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Feel that people cause bad things to happen to them.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

See violence as necessary for survival.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

See themselves as outside society's laws.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

What other cultural elements belong on the list for this group? Add them here.

African American Children



Get bad grades.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Value their independence so much that they do not accept help.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Feel powerless in a white-ruled society.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Have to obey the law closer than others to stay out of trouble.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

See a lot of violence, homicide, and family separation.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

What other cultural elements belong on the list for this group? Add them here.

Hispanic Children



Are very non-verbal.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Do not see crying as bad, even for adult males.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Are quick to get angry but just as quick to get over it.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Are loose about time and do not value doing things on time.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Have macho personalities (males).

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

What other cultural elements belong on the list for this group? Add them here.

Asian and Refugee Children



Are very perfectionistic.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Stress 'success' over everything else.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Are loyal and honest mostly only with their own kind.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Easily feel a loss of honor and become embarrassed.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Are real no-touchers and avoid touching or being touched.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

What other cultural elements belong on the list for this group? Add them here.

Native American Children



Do everything in their power not to cry.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Have been conditioned to be passive.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Value experiential learning above directed learning.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Think about time in a different way from the dominant culture.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

Do not accept the authority of teachers and other adults.

Y/N Cultural element? I/O Ingredient or Outcome? D/U Desirable or Undesirable?

S/P Support or Problem? What will you do?

What other cultural elements belong on the list for this group? Add them here.

Finding Out About a specific Child's Culture



The child with whom you are working today is from a distant planet. His homeland is called World Six. People from there are known as Sixites. Your first task is to understand Sixite culture. You want to know enough to support the best cultural elements in the Sixite child. What do you need to know about World Six and about Sixites to have a good cultural perspective?

You are in trouble right off the bat. You do not know anyone else from World Six. You cannot visit the planet and you know nothing about Sixite culture. If you had grown up on World Six, you would know. If you were a Sixite you would know. If you could talk to some experts on Sixite culture you would know. The Sixite child is here today and you need to be culturally appropriate today. You will need to learn everything you can from him.

You discover that the child came with a certification tag. It certifies that he is a bona fide human child. He has the same needs, problems, and growing pains that any other child would have. So far, you are not much better off. All of the children with whom you work have the same certification. To be culturally appropriate, you need to look further.

You can only learn about the child's culture by observing him and asking questions. You want to know the positive things about being a Sixite. You must make sure you support and nurture these positive cultural elements in the child. Also, you want him to adjust well in the community and to learn about your culture. You want to respect and affirm his culture and expect him to reciprocate.

Culture And Development



A child's development has several dimensions. His culture can be understood by seeing what is important within each dimension. The first is the physical dimension.

From birth to about three-years-old or so, development focuses mainly on growing and developing physical skills. Children learn to walk and talk, run and play, eat and go to the bathroom. They will get stronger, better coordinated, bigger, and will keep on growing and developing. But for now, life for the little folks is mostly a physical kind of thing.

Sure, they have emotions. They are rather basic. Little children get angry and afraid. They are loving and happy. They also are becoming social. They like some people and are uncomfortable with others. They know they belong with some people and not with others. They like to play, especially with other children their age. Nonetheless, the developmental emphasis is on physical kinds of things.

Even at this very young age, culture is influencing and shaping the growing child. He learns about touching and being touched, eating and food preferences, playing and interacting physically. He also learns physical skills and endless things about people and his environment. Cultural learning includes boy stuff and girl stuff, kid stuff and adult stuff. The foundation for his behavior, skills, and sense of where he fits into the physical world is being laid; and culture is the primary teacher.

Culture and development begin to blend even more with each other when children are about three-years-old or so. From then until about five or six, children are in the emotional dimension. Culture becomes increasingly important. Their physical development continues; but emotions take center stage.

During these preschool years, children learn about their emotions and how to manage them. To effectively work with them, you certainly need to understand what they are doing. You need to understand how they feel about it as well. They are now two-dimensional. You need to consider both dimensions.

Emotional management is an important part of cultural learning. If the child gets angry, how does he let people know? When does he do this and where is it acceptable to get angry? He cannot behave however he feels, whenever he feels it, wherever he happens to be. There are rules and expectations about those types of things. His culture begins to shape who he is and who he will become.

At about six or so, the moral dimension becomes central. Cultural learning is even more important. Within the moral dimension, children learn about moral and spiritual things. They learn about right and wrong, good and bad, what they should do and what they should avoid. They learn about what is important and unimportant. They learn about nature and other powers and influences beyond people and day-to-day events. They learn why people value what they value and believe what they believe. Culture is more-and-more defining who they are and who they will become.

By six or so, understanding and working with children requires a three-dimensional approach. You need to understand what they are doing. Additionally, you need to understand how they feel about it and what it means to them in a moral sense. Once children get into school, this three-dimensional perspective becomes four-dimensional. The social dimension starts to dominate. Culture becomes the primary influence on the child's adjustment.

Within the social dimension, children learn many new things but also need to use everything they have already learned. They use behavior and physical skills they already have. They need to manage their emotions in ways they have learned. They take their moral values and beliefs into the social arena. They will learn more and experience more; but their cultural foundation has been laid.

What happens within the social dimension? Children learn about relationships, groups, and everything social. Here is where they learn to associate with some people and not others. They learn about managing work and play. Responsibility and how others see them become ingredients in their development. They learn where they fit into the scheme of things and who they can and cannot become. They are members of some groups and not others. And culture is leading this development.

There are two more developmental dimensions that rest almost totally on the four that have come before. These two new dimensions are the sexual and intellectual dimensions. Children learn how to manage themselves sexually. They also learn who they are and how to function as intellectually autonomous adults. By late adolescence, children are fully products of their culture.

Conclusion



The conclusion here is not complex. Culture is characteristic of groups of people with shared heritage and life experience. There are elements that do characterize the group. Even so, those elements only more or less apply to any specific member of the group. Additionally, members of the group may, in many important respects, have less in common with each other than with members of other groups. Finally, characteristics may be attributed to the group or to its members that do not characterize the group or any specific group member.

When working with a specific child or group of children, then, it is important to avoid attributing group characteristics to the children. The characteristics may or may not apply. Helping children starts with getting to know them, one child at a time. Part of that process is getting to understand the childís culture, life experiences, and development. Only when all three elements are combined into an accurate picture of the specific child can you truly understand the child and be in a position to really help. Culture is an element of the childís experience but isnít who the child is. Being able to understand and getting to know this child, today is perhaps the most significant element in the art of helping children.


For more information and additional foster care resources, visit American Foster Care Resources (AFCR)




By Gary A. Crow, Ph.D.; Letha I. Crow, MSW April 2, 2017