Mother and daughter kissing, Kenya copyright TheFairstart Foundation
Mother and daughter kissing, Kenya copyright © TheFairstart Foundation

February 21, 2024 – On February 21 each year, International Mother Language Day is observed in recognition that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion. Coordinated by UNESCO since 2000, this day promotes the use of multilingual education with the use of the mother tongue, or first language, to enhance learning. This approach offers the learner an introduction to education in the language best known to them, with other languages gradually introduced. In this way, understanding is facilitated, which boosts confidence and leads to further interaction and participation. Refugees, displaced people, and marginalized communities are particularly at risk of not receiving education in their mother tongue, compromising their learning. Globally, an estimated 40 percent of the population is not receiving education in their home language.

The 2024 theme to commemorate International Mother Language Day is: “Multilingual education is a pillar of intergenerational learning.” The acquisition of language skills and all learning starts at home with parents, grandparents, and other caregivers. This means that to facilitate learning by parents and caregivers, their mother tongue should also be considered. In this way, not only are parents and caregivers able to learn better and have their self-efficacy boosted, but they remain closely connected to their local culture and traditions.

GISP: How does parenting differ across cultures?

Rygaard: Across cultures, there’s no difference in parenting intentions offered by parents and other caregivers, neighbors, foster parents, or teachers. They aim to ensure their children’s survival and health, stimulate their children in order to ensure their social and cognitive development, and transmit culturally adapted values by giving guidelines to their children to enable them to fit into their society.

However, as populations have adapted and evolved to various local environments, they have absorbed different parenting values to ensure their children’s success in life. For example, Asian and African cultures tend to value obedience to group norms and the entire family’s hierarchy and authority much more than the individual child. These cultures also tend to have a much broader definition of parenting and community support, and all relatives participate in taking care of children. When working in Indonesia, we found a very strong and coherent collective village culture. For example, three girls, who were the only survivors after a tsunami flooded their small island, sailed to the mainland. The nearby villagers built a house for them in a few days, and later educated the girls in traditional dances so they could make a living. Many traditional villages even have their own “police” formed by elders, making official policemen unnecessary.

By contrast, the urban or Western family is defined as the nuclear or single parent unit, and the rights of the individual child are foregrounded. This individualization of parenting responsibilities is a major source of burnout for urban parents.

How do the different communities you work with view “children”? How does this influence parenting?

The major differences follow the evolution of family systems, from hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural villagers to the urbanized family. For example, in our work in Greenland’s Inuit culture, we witnessed little differentiation between members, as evidenced by language. There are no words for “parents,” “parenting,” or “childhood.” The essence of this is that “we are a group; everyone is an equal member.”

In agricultural villages, children are at the bottom of the hierarchy and taught to “be obedient and silent when you are with adults.” Children are considered full members of the community only after a ritual during puberty. Accepted gender roles for children also differ from strictly male or female in older cultures to include the broader LGBTQIA view in more Western and urbanized cultures. One possible reason for this may be that child survival depends on following tradition and behavior rules in older cultures, while survival in an unpredictable modern urban life requires more individual skills and independent decisions.

How do indigenous cultures preserve their culture through parenting?

In short, they don’t. Indigenous cultures are frequently traumatized by former colonization, missionaries, and exploitation of natural resources—and most indigenous parenting practices have shown a tendency to disappear.

In addition, it is expected that 80 percent of the world population will have migrated to cities by 2050. When moving to city life, people may try to uphold their traditions, but in the new environment, they are no longer connected with the environment they once adapted to, and the balance between nature and humans is lost.

Urbanization happens so fast that it often becomes a traumatic change in itself. For example, in Asia, breastfeeding is being replaced with artificial products; in Africa, more young men are leaving their pregnant partners and not taking on traditional responsibility for the family as a whole. Adapting to urban life usually takes three to four generations. Young third-generation people often overcome cultural trauma and combine myths and traditional care practices with modern parenting, thus creating a mixed parenting practice.

How can we recognize and respect the value of culture in caring for children while introducing new approaches and tools that may better support children’s development and growth?

The idea behind Fairstart’s intervention is to educate local staff in international research-based care practices while creating awareness of and including the best elements of traditional care. Our program to train caregivers is carefully adapted to language and cultural strengths, while being mindful of local challenges.

The strengths of traditional care have many aspects. For example, Inuit cultures had skilled midwives to ensure the survival of the newborn. Babies were breastfed. Children learned all skills in daily practices, with no division between labor and leisure. African and other cultures still have the traditional practice of relatives helping each other and taking in children whose parents died or were otherwise unable to care for them. Parenting was not performed only by one or two exhausted parents but by all village members. Above all, children were not separated from parents or friends as they are today in industrialized societies (day care and kindergarten, etc.). Science has shown that these traditional practices produce self-reliant adult citizens.

The local challenges we have encountered are dependent on the country in which our partner is working. For example, poverty may lead to child abandonment. Many children in Indonesian orphanages are not real orphans; instead, they were sent by poor parents. In Ethiopia, a major challenge is climate change, which is causing millions of rural residents to seek refuge in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Nowadays, many parents try to live up to Western parenting styles while being unaware of the strengths of their traditional care practices.

How does an intergenerational approach to parenting support children’s development?

Many indigenous cultures promote intergenerational parenting, whereby older generations take an active role in raising children. This is one asset of traditional culture, where parenting is more broadly defined. For example, in African cultures there is a broader definition of who can take charge of the family. The term “baba” (father) can be a parent, an older brother, or a relative who is head of the family. However, the intergenerational transmission of care is often broken by urbanization, and traditional care is often not relevant in modern life. This can cause disagreement and conflicts between family and community members; for example, young Muslim immigrant girls looking for education may cause conflict with the traditional gender views of their relatives.

Can you briefly provide examples of initiatives that have successfully promoted indigenous ways of parenting or fatherhood? For instance, are there any programs or projects that have led to positive outcomes for indigenous families and children?

In our work in nine African countries, we have seen the role of men as caregivers weaken, due to extreme levels of male unemployment. Traditionally, the value of men hinges on their ability to provide economically for their family, which has become impossible for many men in certain countries. We developed group training sessions to help fathers create a new identity as a family caregiver and take a more active role in parenting.

On February 21, we celebrate International Mother Language Day. This day highlights the importance of language in preserving and promoting culture. In the cultures of the populations you work with, how is language utilized in parenting?

The mother language is important because it reflects how people adapt care practices to their environment. When a language disappears, many good practices are also lost. For example, singing lullabies for babies is extremely good for brain development, and we have collected these songs in all the countries where we operate. However, they tend to be lost when people adapt to modern living.

How can we best respect local parenting culture?

The real question is how can we think globally and act locally? Our solution has been to train our partners’ staff in a six-month online classroom in English, and the staff then offer online group training programs in the local language. So for each module, the partners’ staff will prepare for training a parent or foster-parent group with a session in the local language. You can find group training sessions in 20 language versions on our website–each developed in partnership.

In Greenland, where fewer people speak English, we made an exception and designed both the education and the training sessions in Inuit and Danish. We also published a free and bilingual e-book about attachment-based care.

We have tried to make a program in Spanish for Latin American refugee and foster families, but the costs of developing a Spanish version have so far been too high for small partner NGOs, and foundations are not yet interested in funding it. The uprooting of families migrating to the United States is excessive in numbers, and many children are left behind and abandoned. The same is true for Middle Eastern families, based on what we saw when working with Turkish partners.

About the Fairstart Foundation

The Fairstart Foundation seeks to improve caregivers’ knowledge and skills using a training curriculum that is offered in caregivers’ local language. In particular, the training focuses on strengthening the skills of caregivers of vulnerable children and children without parental contact in high-quality caregiving. Often these caregivers have a high number of children to care for, and the children may have experienced previous trauma. Founded in 2012, the organization has trained more than 450 instructors and helped more than 30,000 children. Learn more at www.fairstartfoundation.com, and watch the video of three foster mothers reflecting on the outcomes of their Fairstart training.