Creating a space for the village to be heard: The CHAI Parenting Initiative

By Neha Navsaria, PhD

I stand in the observation room looking through the two-way mirror.  A child makes a series of designs using colored blocks.  My task is to observe how the parent would guide the child in this task.  Would the mother be too directive?  Will she praise him as he completes a task?  Will she grant him autonomy as he problem-solves?  How will she walk him through the process of making each design?  All of the answers to the these questions help me understand the bigger question: how does she parent her child?  As I make these observations, my mind always wanders. I think about parenting in different cultures.  I wonder what it would be like to observe my Indian parents with a five-year-old version of myself.  And what it would be like to see other South Asian parents as they approach this task with their children.   The ideas about culture and parenting always seem to percolate in my mind.

momFast forward, one year later.  I am eagerly awaiting the guest lecturer for the Saint Louis County Library author series.  While waiting, I have a chance to observe the arrival of other audience members.  There are many East and South Asian mothers with their daughters.  I overhear the librarians organizing the event.  They comment on the increased diversity present at this particular talk.  The audience quiets down as the guest speaker, the woman who put the term “Tiger Mom” on the map, Amy Chua, walks in the room.  During her talk, Chua takes us through lessons learned in strict parenting and the controversy associated with her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.   The talk ends and she is met by a flurry of questions from the captivated audience.  And then came the questions on parenting.  Chua prefaces her response by stating that she does not consider herself to be a “parenting guru” and then provides her perspective on the question.  At this time, I will admit that I am having my own personal reactions to this exchange.  Here I am, a child psychologist who specializes in Asian-American psychology and parenting, listening to parents in the Asian-American community ask a professor in law and economics for advice on parenting.  As I moved past my irritation, I gained a clear picture of what was unfolding in front of me. While I personally may not agree with all aspects of Chua’s perspective, all of these Asian parents came here for something. Was this a place of validation?  Was this a place for answers on bicultural child-rearing?  Did they see themselves in Chua?  What did they want their daughters to take away from this experience?

On my way home from the talk, a rush of ideas came over me.  They consisted of Tiger Mom, culture and the parenting of future generations.  It all made me wonder, what really defines South Asian parenting?  While I don’t think Amy Chua’s book thoroughly answered these questions, the reactions to the book told a greater story.  Some readers talk about how Asian parenting made them successful and others spoke about how it was a burden they carried with them.  Many in the community are quick to admonish South Asian parents for their “Tiger Mom” ways.  And then there are the jokes.  I’m sure everyone has seen the “You know you have an Indian parent when…” lists.  When it comes to Asian parenting, there seems to be a greater emphasis on the negativity and the jokes, without any identification of the positive aspects or ways to overcome the challenges.  At that moment, I realized we needed to create this space for South Asian parents.

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From left to right: Neha Navsaria, PhD., Anna Lau, PhD., Vice President, AAPA Executive Board, Richard Lee, PhD., President, AAPA Executive Board, Razia Kosi, LCSW-C, Executive Director, CHAI,Inc.

Fortunately, at the same time all these ideas floated around my head,  a call for proposals for the Okura Mental Health Foundation Fellowship was issued by the Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA) and American Psychological Foundation (APF).  This grant was created to support research, training and service programs that will benefit the Asian American community.  I called up my friend and colleague, Razia Kosi, Executive Director of Counselors Helping Asian Indians (CHAI).  Drawing from Razia’s successful experience of creating CHAI resource booklets for the South Asian community and interactions with immigrant parents in the school system, combined with my pilot data on South Asian parenting we developed a proposal to create resources for South Asian parents.  In 2012 we found out that we received the grant and the CHAI Parenting Initiative was born.  We are so grateful to AAPA and APF for giving us this opportunity!  As most Asian-American researchers and clinicians know, it is difficult to come across funding to help our community.  We feel blessed.

Our goal with this project is get our community thinking and talking about South Asian parenting.  We conducted a Parenting Needs Assessment survey in 2012 with 100 South Asian parents.  The voices of South Asian parents were heard loud and clear.  They wanted information, especially when it pertained to the delicate intersection of culture and parenting.  And if we had thoughts about not being on the right track with our project goal, it’s comments like this that are validating and keep us excited and motivated:

“I appreciate getting this survey and knowing that my parenting experience is being considered somewhere by someone.”

6Our next phase uses the information from the survey to help launch regional focus groups on South Asian parenting across the U.S.  Our first stop was in our nation’s capital at the 2013 National South Asian Summit 1coordinated by SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) in April.   Our session was attended by 25 community organization leaders representing a diverse group of South Asians.  Like any nervous facilitator, I wondered if people would be interested and what issues would be discussed.  But those worries disappeared as soon as the floor was open for discussion.  There was much to be said by attendees.  It was as if this was a game show where the host said, “Tell me as many of your thoughts on South Asian parenting, you have 50 minutes, Go.”  I felt a similar energy to the day of Amy Chua’s talk, but the difference was that we provided a forum for this discussion, identified challenges and made a plan of action.   Participants talked about the idea of the village: raising children without the village, creating a new village, the pros and cons of the village, the influence of the village.  The topic of transitions and parenting stress was raised. We also discussed how parents don’t have a roadmap and children often pave their own way.  This was just the tip of the iceberg.  There was so much more discussed and of course, we ran out of time.

We often say that children, especially children of immigrants, do not come with a manual. In March, we cloudissued a call for articles on various parenting topics to create a parenting resource booklet.  In the past two months we’ve received a number of submissions addressing a variety of parenting topics from a cultural lens. Our South Asian parenting manual is coming to life!  It is a work in progress, but we cannot wait until we can share this valuable information with parents and community groups!  Razia and I definitely don’t feel like we have all the answers, but I think we have our fingers on the pulse of something that’s been brewing in our community for some time.  All we know is that we are taking this show on the road.  Stay tuned for CHAI Parenting focus groups in Baltimore/Washington DC areas, Austin, San Francisco, New York and Chicago.  It may take a village to raise a child, but sometimes that village needs to be heard and supported.

For more information about the CHAI Parenting Initiative, please email chai.parenting@gmail.com.


Neha Navsaria is a psychologist and instructor in psychiatry at the Washington University of Medicine in St. Louis, MO.

Neha Navsaria is a psychologist and instructor in psychiatry at the Washington University in St. Louis, MO.

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