Questions Submitted by Hana Like Staff of
Parents and Children Together (PACT)
Responses by Julie Walsh Kroeker, Small Island Networks (Draft)
Parenting and Child Development:
1. What do Marshallese parents believe is important in parenting?
Marshallese parents, like all parents, are concerned about their child’s health and happiness. Marshallese society is primarily oriented to the extended family, clan, and community, and children are raised to be contributing members who are extremely aware of reciprocal obligations. This focus on the group often appears as a denial of individual needs to Western observers.
2. What values and goals are common in Marshallese families?
Marshallese people value harmonious social relationships that enhance reciprocity, a sense of strong family and community ties, social and economic support, and cohesiveness. Most Marshallese families are not “goal” oriented, in the sense of setting financial or personal goals, particularly in the context of a nuclear family structure. The goal is maintaining or strengthening social relationships, since viewing goals as personal achievements is not generally viewed positively. Standing out is often viewed as arrogant and counter to cultural values such as humility and respect. Rather, communal goals (e.g. fundraising for specific projects, or the church, etc.) that acknowledge the contributions of many people and in which people can work together are those that receive more support. This communal focus is often viewed by Westerners as inhibiting personal growth or initiative.
When working with families, it is important to include the family and to discuss family benefits and support because families are strongly interdependent and rarely do single individuals have full responsibility for themselves or others.
3. Is breastfeeding generally supported or frowned upon?
Breastfeeding is strongly supported and very common. Increasingly, many women choose to supplement with formula. Public breastfeeding is not generally a concern among Marshallese (especially in the Marshall Islands) since breasts are not sexualized in Marshallese society.
4. Do adults usually talk to their babies?
Yes, adults do talk to babies, touch their faces, smile and play, and interact vocally. Babies are adored, pampered, and shared so everyone can enjoy them. Babies receive much attention and it is not expected to come solely from mothers and fathers. They are introduced into community life, carried about by the parents, brought out into the social world from an early age. Babies are bathed frequently in traditional herbal baths and are oiled and dressed to attract the attention of others. It is considered beneficial for a child to receive a lot of attention, affection, and exposure to the larger community.
5. What are the beliefs about how children learn? Who is responsible for this?
Children are expected to learn through observation and imitation. Children at a young age are responsible for particular chores – from cleaning up the leaves in the yard, to babysitting younger siblings, or making rice for dinner. Lessons are demonstrative. Children are not expected to ask questions; they are instructed what to do.
In general, cultural knowledge and skills are passed down from grandparents to grandchildren. When possible, they are the ideal family educators. Parents are responsible for a child’s well-being and for teaching manners (manit), feeding, clothing, and educating. They are authority figures to be obeyed; not necessarily confidentes and consolers. Because of the extended family focus, children have many people to turn to for emotional support. Parents are not generally expected to be all and everything for their children.
Children are to be observers. They are not shielded or protected from the adult world to preserve “innocence” – they are expected to observe most adult events and interaction and to learn from observation.
6. What are the most common ways of showing affection to babies and children?
Holding babies, talking to them, providing treats and opportunities for them to play with other children are common. Adults include children in social activities, but do not often “play” with them. Children play with other children; adults do not act like children. Fathers do not wrestle with children or pretend to be horsie, mothers don’t play ring-around the rosie, etc. These Western games are considered inappropriate for adults to engage in. In general, Marshallese society frowns upon the public display of affection, with the exception of babies who are showered with it. Children are still held and comforted, but as they age, physical displays of affection diminish.
Much affection is expressed through gifts and storytelling. Marshallese society is oriented toward the oral. At night, grandparents traditionally tell bedtime stories (inon) to their grandchildren who rest in their arms. Sitting and storytelling are common pastimes and families bond through this. Bwebwenato is the term used for stories, or “talk story,” when people sit and laugh together.
7. Do Marshallese play with their babies and children, how?
Verbal interaction is the most common type of “play” between Marshallese adults and children. Since few Marshallese families have toys or books, these items aren’t used to facilitate play, education, or interaction. If or when available, there is no tradition or model for adults to engage in a child’s world. Children are expected to learn to behave appropriately in an adult world, or to interact with other children.
8. How is discipline handled? What are common practices? Who disciplines the children?
Discipline is accomplished verbally, and often physically. Children are taught to obey authority, which can include not only adults, but also older children. This lesson is consistently reinforced, and both parents and children are embarrassed if others begin to notice that children do not respect (obey) authority. Yet, there is also a very broad tolerance for children’s behaviors. While children are included in nearly all adult events, they are permitted to play with other children (on the fringes of the adult activity), often unsupervised, except by the “older” children. They are not generally expected to sit still and be quiet at an adult gathering, though they are told to be quiet at certain moments (prayer) with threats of punishment for not obeying. Or they are made to sit next to the parent, who can observe and prevent them from joining the other children.
Since mothers spend the most time with their children, they do most of the day-to-day disciplining and teaching. Marshallese society, language, and tradition values women, and children are taught to respect/obey their mothers. Fathers will often talk with disobedient children and/or use corporal punishment to ensure their cooperation. A relationship of respect/fear is expected between fathers and children, which relates to the distance/lack of play required in order to maintain authority. This is not viewed as coldness, and interactions are warm and loving, but parents do not generally diminish their authority by playing with children.
A mother’s brother is also a significant authority figure, given the nature of matrilineal clans. Since children “traditionally” belong only to the mother’s family (inherit their clan and land from their mother), the authority figures in the mother’s family have a strong influence. A maternal uncle must be obeyed and respected, and is often very influential in the life of a child. In some instances, the maternal uncle has a greater influence on a child than the child’s father.
9. How do Marshallese help their children feel secure?
Security for Marshallese people comes largely from having harmonious, reciprocal relationships with others. In this way, whenever there is a need, a person always has someone to turn to for help – family first. Children spend a lot of time with grandparents, with the extended family, building relationships, strengthening bonds. Social acceptance is considered an essential part of “security.” Always having people to turn to, who want to include you, who share their lives and food with you, and look after you just as your parents would is a tremendous source of security for Marshallese children. The intensity of nuclear family relationships that characterize Western families is lacking in Marshallese families. The parent-child bond is considered both sacred, and limited. Marshallese parents are not expected to provide for every emotional need of their children, and children are raised as members of an extended family and large community so that they can find the support they want and need on their own. Much of the intensity of nuclear family relationships is diffused in Marshallese families, where members have multiple sources of support, and “parental” alternatives.
10. What do they believe are some of the best ways to help children grow and learn?
Ideas about personal growth, personality, and individual success are often shaped by our society and culture. In Marshallese society, ideas about personhood are intimately connected to community, so much so that “growth” and “learning” are viewed in terms of understanding one’s place, and belonging to the group. To the degree that children participate in family and group activities appropriately (that is, generously, willingly, and respectfully) they are reaching the expectations of their family and society. Ways to make sure they grow and learn involve making sure children participate in communal events, modeling appropriate behaviors, correcting or critiquing behavior that is selfish or individualistic.
Parents consider exposure to others, especially wise and knowledgeable grandparents, as opportunities for children to grow and learn. First-born children who are frequently raised by their grandparents are considered lucky since they have greater opportunities for interaction and education that younger siblings might not have.
Also, family members with particular skills or knowledge are considered tremendous resources for children, who, if given the opportunity to be together, should be very observant. Human resources are the most significant and meaningful, and thus, again, smooth social relationships offer the best means of helping children to learn and grow.
11. Whose role is it to help children grow and learn?
Since growth and learning are viewed in relation to the group, responsibility is shared. If someone notices a child has a talent for dancing, they might try to arrange for a relative or friend to help the child learn to dance. Marshallese people are extraordinarily observant of social interactions and appreciative of developing skills. Children’s strengths and weaknesses are noticed. A family member may offer to mentor a gifted child or teach a certain craft or skill. The task is not solely a parental responsibility. As extended families suffer in an economy that promotes nuclear families, parents are taking an increasingly active role in their children’s lives. Today, children are more frequently enrolled in school enrichment programs, given the lack of availability of extended family resources.
12. What is the role of fathers in the lives of babies and children?
Fathers are authority figures, in general, though warm and familiar with their children. They are to be obeyed and not challenged, and they maintain their authority through some restrictions on interactions. Joking relationships are not common between fathers and sons. They do not “play” with their children, but they do talk, tell stories, listen, and pass along certain skills.
Fathers are particularly affectionate with babies, and participate in caretaking by holding small children at community gatherings.
13. Is it a cultural belief that a baby’s fingernails should not be cut?
Not that I am aware of.
14. Where can we get books and learning materials for parents to use with their children?
Because of the emphasis on the oral/aural in Marshallese society, most parents do not have a model of interacting with children using books, and as previously mentioned, do not engage in play with toys and games. There are very few resources of this kind, since Marshallese have certain expectations and models for raising children and are largely content with their own traditions.
Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) in Honolulu has worked with the Ministry of Education in the Marshall Islands to produce bilingual (English and Marshallese) materials, in an effort to enhance family literacy. There are a small number of illustrated children’s storybooks, and alphabet-teaching tools available. Contact PREL at 441-1300, or visit www.prel.org. Hilda Heine is a Marshallese educator with PREL who has helped to facilitate the production of these resources.
Also, available on the internet are two children’s stories (illustrated and available in both Marshallese or English) that may be downloaded, printed, and distributed with credit given to the author (Jane Downing) Refer to this site for two stories: http://marshall.csu.edu.au/literature_traditional.html
1. Do Marshallese parents believe in health care?
Health care is important to Marshallese people, and the advanced medical care of the United States is one of the main attractions for Marshallese immigrants. Marshallese definitions and understandings of health care vary, as in any population, and culturally, physical health is strongly linked to social and spiritual issues. This may mean that approaching a foreign doctor is not the first step in treating an acknowledged illness. Discomfort may be tolerated for a longer period of time as people attempt to be cured through other means – prayer, social interaction, massage, traditional medicine – before seeking out Western medical help.
Definitions of disease differ cross-culturally. Some “illnesses” such as diarrhea, scabies, boils, and head lice are so common that they are not considered worthy of a doctor’s visit unless extreme. Many Marshallese patients have no experience of preventative health care, and only seek assistance when severely ill. Also, once medicine begins to alleviate discomfort and troubling symptoms, patients are not accustomed to prolonging treatment or pursuing follow-up care. The importance of completing medication cycles and follow-up care must be explained in very practical terms.
2. Do Marshallese parents believe that immunizations are important?
In general, preventative medicine is uncommon, though most parents are aware of immunization programs. These programs also exist in the Marshall Islands, and have a fairly high rate of reaching the population. In general terms, immunizations are probably not as high a priority as traditional practices of caring for infants – herbal baths, massages – but, like prenatal care, foreign practices are increasingly appreciated.
3. Do Marshallese parents believe in the importance of prenatal care?
Yes, Marshallese parents have many traditions to follow, and many practices that support pregnant women socially, spiritually, and physically. These practices are centuries old and carefully followed, which, in many cases, means that Marshallese women feel that have been caring for their future child adequately and appropriately without Western medical attention.
Marshallese women do receive pre-natal care, though not often in the Western sense. Convincing women of the value of regular doctor visits during pregnancy—detecting any STDs, and monitoring the health and growth of the child—is a challenge for pregnant women, except for Marshallese women on the capital (Majuro) and in metropolitan areas (Hawai‘i).
4. What are beliefs/practices regarding birth control?
Today, the most common birth control methods are Depo-Provera shots and some Norplant implant use. (Norplant was tested in the RMI.) Birth control pills are not very successful, and condoms are generally rejected by men. A younger generation is better informed about birth control options and women do visit the clinic for advice and prophylactics. Some issues surrounding birth control include beliefs that a woman who uses birth control may be cheating on her partner; the face-to-face nature of Marshallese society and extended family relationships prevents privacy for women who desire birth control; being present-oriented, and valuing children and large families, many couples do not plan to prevent pregnancy. Because parents do not discuss sex with their children, and sex education is not taught in schools, most Marshallese children and teens are not presented with adequate information to make informed decisions about birth control.
Family Structure/Relationships/Cultural Norms
1. Are men still dominant in most of Marshallese culture?
Marshallese society, like other Micronesian cultures, is matrilineal. Women are highly valued as mothers and as the source of every Marshallese person’s identity, inheritance, and clan membership. In a strict traditional sense, every Marshallese person belongs SOLELY to his or her mother’s family. Only women can pass along their inherited land to their children. Men can only pass along temporary use-rights. The emphasis on women is balanced by women’s sharing of their inherent authority over land, etc., with their brothers. In Marshallese culture, the eldest daughter has authority over her siblings, and the family land inherited from the mother, yet, out of respect for her brothers, she will defer some of her authority to them.
Marshallese men confer and make decisions, but ranking women are to be consulted and informed. In terms of domination, there is an interesting division of power and authority. While men are apparently the actors, women maintain much influence behind the scenes. Women often defer to men, and men hold women, particularly those in their family, in high regard. The two sexes and their roles are intended to complement each other. Women have domestic responsibilities; men are the fishermen, farmers, and government employees.
Since the US Trust Territory period, a strong shift has occurred in Marshallese society as men have gained more control of introduced political and government institutions. The US patriarchal system disregarded women’s involvement in the new government and various institutions created after World War II. Children were given their father’s names as last names, and a more patriarchal public life emerged. Traditionally, and in local contexts, women still maintain a tremendous degree of authority and respect.
2. What is accepted in male-female relationships?
As mentioned above, females play an acknowledged and significant role in Marshallese culture, as men do. Women tend to exert their authority behind the scenes, even as they defer public recognition to men.
Concerning romantic relationships, domestic violence is not uncommon, but it is rarely discussed except among close confidantes or relatives. Violence is largely linked to alcohol abuse. Although violence is not acceptable, it is difficult to confront abusers in small, face-to-face communities.
In terms of sibling relations, many prohibitions limit certain interactions between brothers and sisters and parallel cousins (mother’s sister’s children). In order to prevent incest, brothers and sisters maintain behavioral boundaries. They do not joke about sex, do not mention bodily functions in each other’s presence, or even approach a bathroom in the other’s presence.
3. Do women really have a choice in partners or are they victims?
Generally, women do have a choice in partners, and can turn away most men who are not attractive to them. There is one exception to this generalization, and even this exception has exceptions. Traditionally, it was acceptable for chiefs (Irooj) to have as many wives/partners as they wanted. If a chief found a woman attractive, she could not refuse him, even if she were married.
4. What are cultural norms regarding family structure? Single parenting?
Marshallese families are shifting from extended family households to nuclear family households. In migrant communities, there is often an adapted nuclear family structure in which a working middle-aged couple provides for their own children and the children of their siblings who are sent to live with them so they can go to school. In some cases an older relative, often a grandmother, will live with the couple to help care for the children, especially if there are young children in the family.
In the case of a single mother with children, the woman would likely live with other family members rather than alone. As noted previously, “parenting” is not considered solely the parents’ responsibility, but involves any older relatives of the child (particularly from the mother’s family). The concept of “single parenting” is not really culturally appropriate, even when women are single and caring for children without a husband or partner.
Even rarer would be a single father caring for his children, since children are members of the mother’s clan and her family would assume responsibility for them in the mother’s absence, or the mother would take the children with her if leaving her partner.
5. Is it normal/acceptable to marry and have children with family members?
Marshallese family membership is defined through women because Marshallese people live in a matrilineal society. In a very strict sense, Marshallese children are ONLY related to their mother’s relatives. In earlier eras, it was acceptable to marry “relatives,” even first cousins from the father’s side of the family (anthropologically called “cross cousins” since these offspring were not considered related). In contrast, the children of one’s mother’s sister (“parallel cousins”) were considered brothers and sisters. Mom’s brother’s children are not related since they belong to their mother’s family.
There are restrictions on behavior and interaction with parallel cousins that don’t apply to cross cousins. Marriage of cross cousins is a Marshallese tradition that is not followed today, or, if it is, on rare occasions, it is frowned on. Marshallese people do acknowledge their father’s family and their cousins as relatives, though of a different status than the mother’s family. These generalizations vary from family to family, island to island, but in general terms Marshallese people are highly aware of their extended family relationships and do not approve of marrying relatives.
Incest is a cultural taboo, but does occur. The centuries-old restrictions on interactions between brothers and sisters, including parallel cousins, is meant to prevent incest. Today, as cultural traditions are challenged by social changes, including a lack of passing along cultural knowledge and a lack of adult/grandparent oversight, children living in Western settings are less likely to know and follow the customs. Acculturative stress on families impacts family relationships, and incestuous situations/relationships are known to occur. They are still frowned upon and prevented when possible.
1. What are the differences between the islands in Micronesia? Are there conflicts between societies? How many different cultures and languages are there?
Micronesia is a term that describes island groups with similar cultural traits, such as matrilineal inheritance, collective land tenure, chiefly hierarchies, etc. Despite these shared traits, Micronesian societies are extremely diverse. One significant factor in their diversity is land area and the types of islands that comprise each island group. High volcanic islands require different adaptations than low coral atolls. The amount of fertile soil, rainfall, aquaculture, or agriculture all vary from island to island, as does the social organization required to survive and thrive on each island.
Some societies are more hierarchical while others are more egalitarian. Some islands have communal meetinghouses for discussion and decision making while others have liaisons that deliver news and directives from chiefs. Some islands are rich and fertile, while others are subject to frequent drought and must preserve their seasonal crops. Some societies have chiefs who are spiritual leaders, and lesser chiefs who are social/political organizers, while others have all-powerful chiefs who hold complete authority over their people and maintain their distance to preserve respect.
The culture area of Micronesia includes these island groups: the Marianas; the Carolines, including the Palau group; the Marshalls; the Gilbert, Ellis, and Line islands; and the island of Nauru. These island groups comprise 7 nations: the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, the Territory of Guam, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Kiribati, and the Republic of Nauru.
Within these nations are numerous languages. The indigenous language of the Marianas Islands (including Guam) is Chamorro. The people of Palau speak Palauan. The people of the FSM speak the languages of their individual states – Yapese, Chuukese, Pohnpeian, Kosraean, and numerous distinct languages and dialects of smaller islands within the boundaries of the FSM (ex. Kapingamarangi). The people of the Marshall Islands speak Marshallese; the people of Kiribati speak Gilbertese, or I-Kiribati; and the Nauruans speak Nauruan. According to linguists, there are at least 11 languages in Micronesia.
Unlike the Polynesian
languages, which are closely related and can often be understood by native
speakers across cultures (ex. Samoans understand Tahitian, Hawaiians understand
Mori), the languages of Micronesia are NOT mutually intelligible – they may share some words, but native speakers cannot understand each other across cultures.
2. Do Marshallese practice Black Magic? Should we be concerned?
Marshallese people accepted UCC missionaries in their midst since the 1850s, and the nation is 90 percent Christian. While people do not publicly proclaim belief in traditional magic or prayers, there are lingering notions about black magic in certain contexts. When Marshallese people are ill, or bad luck seems to follow them, they suspect that someone has used black magic against them. Because physical ailments are sometimes suspected of having social or spiritual causes, it is not uncommon for Marshallese people to seek social and spiritual remedies prior to Western medicine, or supplementing Western medicine.
There is no need to be concerned about black magic – it is more a suspicion or explanation for illness than a deliberate or active practice.
3. What are the beliefs/practices regarding planning for the future? Setting and planning goals?
Marshallese people have the incredible gift of being able to live in the present and rely on each other as problems emerge. Most people do not plan for the future. They do not set goals or keep calendars or pay much attention to time (ex. keeping appointments, etc.) Their priorities are with the people they are with in the present. Goals are more likely met when they are worked on together and Marshallese people have been very successful raising funds for church and school projects when the community shares the goals and the work involved.
4. Why do Marshallese families come to Hawai‘i? What adjustment issues do they experience?
Marshallese people come to Hawai‘i for jobs, for school, for health care, and for a change of scenery. Because the Compact of Free Association between the RMI and the US enables free access and easy entry for citizens of both countries, travel between the two countries is frequent and convenient, but expensive (approximately $800 round trip from Honolulu to Majuro).
The ease of entry into the US for Marshallese (or other people from the other Freely Associated States (FAS) of the FSM or Palau), results in Micronesian communities who can come to Hawai‘i for perceived benefits and services without making a long-term commitment or residence. Unlike other immigrant groups that wait years for green cards and INS approval, and thus plan to begin a “new life” in America, FAS citizens are free to come and go as they please.
Without a long-term plan to reside in Hawai‘i, or elsewhere in the US, Marshallese communities tend to form in certain neighborhoods as support networks, and immigrants cling to each other and their familiar ways of living while in a new culture.
Much of their struggle in Hawai‘i and elsewhere emerges from a lack of knowledge in the general populace and among government agencies and programs concerning their political status, the Compact, and their eligibility for US programs. The US federal government promised the people of the FAS access to the US and its programs, including education and health systems, in exchange for military access to their islands. FAS people arrive expecting to be at least known, if not welcomed. Considering their own direct and indirect interactions with America/Americans in their home islands, the islanders they find it shocking that this relationship is so little known in their new communities. New immigrants tend to cluster together for support.
Other struggles include restrictions on housing; the use of a foreign language; lack of familiarity with legalistic, bureaucratic institutions; the reliance on written documents; keeping appointments; finding employment; enrolling children in school; transportation; etc.
5. What resources are available to Marshallese in Hawai'i?
Marshallese people generally rely on each other and share news of resources by word-of-mouth. They are slow to enroll in programs unless another Marshallese family is already enrolled. This is particularly challenging for service providers.
The various Marshallese churches are the main resource for the migrant communities. They provide a sense of belonging, and spiritual and social connection with others.
Other resources include:
Micronesians United (UCC group)
Small Island Networks
6. Given the many differences which may exist between the Marshallese society and way of life and our own, how can we best assist the families we work with?
Consider your personal relationships with Marshallese families as the significant opportunities that they are. Not only do you share your knowledge and experience with them, but your willingness to learn and listen patiently, and offer encouragement and help, are the keys to improving Marshallese experiences in America. Your interaction either encourages or discourages further engagement in institutions and practices that are foreign, and may not be necessarily valued. But the rapport you build with patients, clients, students, etc—through expressing a PERSONAL care and concern for them and for their well-being—is the beginning of the best assistance. When you are trusted, you will be able to respond to the needs expressed to you, rather than offer solutions to situations that Marshallese people may not define as problematic.
People are people. We all recognize genuine care and concern. Sometimes, putting program priorities aside briefly in order to build rapport (ex. accepting food and or gifts) is essential. Ultimately, the families will learn about American/program expectations—and they do this best when they realize they are not being judged, but helped along the process. It is often good to remind home visitors that it is important to acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with the way Marshallese families live or choose to do things—home visitors are just there to help them learn how things are done in America, and to learn what certain agencies and institutions expect. When Marshallese families are taught about American expectations, then they are free to make their own knowledgeable choices. When the consequences of one’s choices are not known, the results can be dire (ex. not keeping appointments can lead to a label of “non-compliant”).
Much of the misunderstanding that occurs on both sides—patient and provider—is due to lack of cultural knowledge, conflicting/different expectations, or a lack of awareness of cultural differences. It is always good to ask how things work back home in the Marshalls, what people’s prior experiences are. This can be a real challenge considering interpretation issues, but it is always a respectful way to get to know someone. It is also important to remember not to ask too many questions, and to give people plenty of time to respond to questions. Wait very, very, very patiently. This shows that you respect the respondent and really want to hear his or her answer(s). Silence is perfectly acceptable, too, but hard for many Americans to accept. Try to relax in the silence and just sit with others.
Remember to ask about people’s home islands (where they are from); to listen very patiently and attentively; to explain your work and why you are there; to get the whole family involved when making a plan; to not ask yes/no questions when scheduling appointments; to express your personal care and concern; to smile and be respectful, particularly of the elderly; to ask if they have any questions for you; to invite them to bring a friend or family member (for comfort or translation).