Children Lead the Way in Immigrant Families
Researcher studies 'brokering' role a child plays in helping parents adapt to new culture
Tania Guaman was just 15 when she was thrust into a role that is foreign to most American-born kids her age. She talked to doctors when someone in her family had a medical emergency, made payment arrangements for overdue bills, filled out insurance forms, and acted as the intermediary between her Ecuadorian-born parents and their new country.
“I didn’t think about it much, it was just something I did,” says Guaman, a Rutgers junior majoring in Public Health at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
When she migrated to the United States at the age of 13, Guaman did not speak a word of English. “My mom was taking English classes when she could and trying to understand the language. But being in school, I learned more quickly and she would come to me to make sure things were right.”
Guaman works as a research assistant to Vikki Katz, an assistant professor in the School of Communications and Information, who has spent the last four years researching how children from immigrant Latino families become brokers, or advocates, for their parents and contribute to their family’s adaptation and integration into the community.
“These kids end up doing more to help their families than the average child,” says Katz. “But when I ask these families about their children’s brokering they are usually surprised by my interest, since they consider these responsibilities to be part of family functioning like making their beds or doing laundry.”
There are more than 16 million children living in America's immigrant families, the vast majority U.S. citizens born in the United States to foreign-born parents, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Nearly half of these children speak English well but live in families where parents have difficulty speaking English.
The roles children play in the adaptation of immigrant parents has not been fully explored. Traditionally, Katz says, it was thought that immigrants who successfully adapt to new surroundings help their children instead of the other way around.
“What we are finding out, however, is that the parents who remain as the authority figures and work with their children as a team, are the most successful,” Katz. says “These child brokers spend a lot more time at home interacting with and for their parents than other kids their own age.”
Andres Pulido, a sophomore on his way to earning a degree in finance from Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick, was born in the United States in 1991, eight years after his parents migrated from Colombia with his two older brothers. He remembers reading the mail to his mother when he was just 8 years old and translating for her while grocery shopping or at a doctor’s appointment.
“She would be the one to make the decisions. She just needed me to help interpret for her so she could understand,” Pulido says.
Katz says children of immigrants take on increased amounts of responsibility from an early age with the most intense period of brokering for their parents occurring after age 11 and up until 19. Studies indicate that older children often take the lead, that girls are more apt to be broker advocates than boys, and that personality often plays a role.
While many middle class teenagers have the latest information technologies at their fingertips and may be asked by their parents to program TiVo or show them how to set up a Facebook page, Katz says children of less advantaged immigrant families often don’t even have the internet access they need at home to link their parents to vital social or health care services crucial for assimilation.
Still, despite limited technological tools and community and school-based support, research indicates that children of immigrants have a greater influence and contribute more to overall family decision-making than they would have if they had not migrated.
Catherine Lee, 39, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, immigrated to the United States from Korea at the age of 6. Even though her parents were considered upper middle class they still relied on Lee and her siblings to help them fill out government documents, naturalization papers and insurance forms.
Even today, more than 30 years after first settling in Texas, Lee’s father still turns to her when he has a question or problem.
“I was the most affable one in the family,” she says. “Just a few months ago my dad, who gets regular cancer check-ups called me to help him understand a CT scan. The funny thing is that he is calling me when my sister is a radiation oncologist.”