by Mauro Gonzo

The family is the central environment for the child: when the child is young, he or she is fully dependent on the family for survival, for his/her emotional needs, and for his/her general well-being. In the immigrant family, the child feels an enormous sense of loyalty towards the parents, and this feeling is interiorized by the child as a sense of duty. The immigrant family behaves differently from a non-immigrant one. It behaves by different beliefs and values which originate in the family’s original cultural background, and in the very experience of being "immigrant". These values, therefore, may be difficult to understand for teachers and, hence, hinder dialogue and collaboration between the teachers and the immigrant families. This is why it is necessary for us to understand the values and attitudes of the immigrant families.

 The family can be described as a "system", i.e. a "whole", with all the elements interdependent to one other. A system is equipped with self-regulation; it is structured in and by time through a process of trial and error. The family tends to maintain its "identity" or "organisation" in the course of time, but can adopt its structure to the environment from time to time (Bateson, 1976; Maturana, Varela, 1985).

Every system is a "mind" that processes its interactions with the environment through information. Among the members of a family-group, information is exchanged concerning both the every-day interactions with the environment and the relationships among its members. The communication within the family may be more or less functional from the point of view of an observer, but it must be absolutely coherent with the logic of the system, that aims at its self-preservation (autopoiesis). The particular communication modalities of a family, or of its members, are always coherent with the history of the family and with what is necessary for its development.

The family changes during its "cycle of life". The most important events in the "life cycle" are: the formation of the couple, the arrival of the first baby, the period when the child/children is/are very young, the mid-period of the marriage, adolescence, the period when the sons/daughters leave home, the period when the parents are old. The sons and daughters, separating from their parents during the adolescence, give rise to new families (Walsh, 1997). These phases are not the same in every culture, in fact, models of the family vary from culture to culture. However, these phases constitute the model in our culture. The family in its development is conditioned by events inherent to its physiologic evolution (life-cycle) and by the stressful external events to which it is subjected to, such as disease, poverty, unemployment and emigration which can all represent serious difficulties,. Among the many environmental changes and pressures that a family must confront during its life-cycle, emigration is one of the hardest. During the process of emigrating, a family faces all sorts of pressures which may cause the family to divide, break up, reconnect and, modify in various ways. The adult generation has to separate from its parents’ generation who has stayed at home and has to go to and settle in a new country and environment. Sometimes, nevertheless the "mandate" of the family of origin is so strong that a "distancing" between the two generations does not happen but, in fact, a strengthening of the family ties occurs: the moral obligations toward the family of origin can be felt very strongly (Donati, Scabini, 1993).

The making of a new couple is the first step towards the stabilisation and integration in the new environment. The birth of children has similar effect, too. Integration involves a separation from the habits and the memories of country of origin and settling into a new environment. However, the new couple, will not be able to adopt and adjust to the new environment completely since it has to preserve its own original identity (its own traditions, its language, its own organisational modalities, etc.)

The parents, therefore, often look back to the past (the mandate from the family of origin; the money to send to the family members who have stayed at home, etc.). The couple’s children, however, try to integrate with the new society. This happens because their young age allows them to be open to changes and the very fact that they attend school and mix with the young people of their age-group, motivates them to push for socialisation.

The family-structure of the different groups of immigrants differs according to the nationality and other factors, such as religion. The families from Eastern and Southern Europe are quite similar in structure to the North-Italian family unit. However, there are some differences. Usually their family ties are more intense, there are more siblings and there are more extended families. Families who come from Africa or from Asia can have very different family-structures even though these can apparently look similar to ours (etc. Ghana, Gonzo,1995). Here, collectivism rather than individualism prevails. There are often marked differences in the ways the children are brought up, and in the approach to education with respect to the North Italian model (the transition to adulthood is much more sudden; the religious and moral outlook are different; the role of daughters in the family is different; the parents are less permissive with their children and there is less intimacy between parent and child, etc.) In fact, the whole concept of an autonomous infancy for the child, as conceived in the West, is less relevant in these traditions. In the Western world , the whole pedagogical and psychoanalytic tradition (Rousseau, Montessori, Freud, etc.) stresses the importance of offering protection to the child, of providing emotional care and affectivity; and ensuring that the child’s emotional needs and independence are respected.

 Immigrants are likely to live among themselves, thus isolating themselves from the outside environment. This condition, however, bring advantages. Researches in several parts of the world have shown that the ethnic groups that maintain strong cohesion can survive and have a chance to succeed in a new environment. The Italian population has many different attitudes in relation to immigrants that range from the full acceptance of immigrants, from demands for their integration (assimilation?), from the refusal of some behaviour, tradition or specific family-model, to an outright rejection of their presence in the adoptive country.

Even when the presence of immigrants is accepted and demands for integration are put forward, the problems are not resolved. In fact, for the second generation, above all, school integration can provoke serious conflicts with the family of origin and with the traditional cultural model of the country of origin. These conflicts can be difficult to resolve. Further, problems can arise when the immigrant’s son or daughter assimilates too quickly the values and traditions of the new environment. This happens for a number of reasons. The child who mingles with, and assimilates too quickly the norms of the adoptive society can come into conflict with his/her own family because it may not accept the child’s new way of thinking and behaving. The children family fears losing its authority over the child because the child begins to look up to teachers, to school friends and their parents (the immigrant family is more authoritarian in the relationship between the generations). The child who assimilates the new models too quickly, also, shows less self esteem in relation to his /her identity as a member of a different culture. The child is more easily exposed to the psychological strains of growing up and, hence, feels lonely. He or she wouldn’t be able to resort to the family for help or understanding.

The communication between the different education agencies is often very difficult because the immigrant family may refuse contact with the school since they do not recognise themselves in the school’s values. The conflict of the different cultures over the child’s education may make the family say that it is "too engaged with work" to cooperate with the school. It is important to remember throughout this conflict, that the family to survive has to be coherent with its own models of identity-reference ("intercultural communication" and "cultural mediation"). We need to assist the immigrant child, who lives on the border between two different cultural worlds, to confront the conflict. However, this is difficult because the parents do not understand the cultural values of the new society, while the local teachers and welfare operators, usually, cannot understand or cope with the arrival of new culture, and the cultural shock that this brings. Only communication, between the school and the child’s family, will allow the child not to feel forced to choose between two models of life that are often irreconcilable and in conflict with each other, if he or she is to live this experience – for as much as it is possible- in an enriching rather than distressing way.