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  • Whether you are looking at high school valedictorians, spelling bee champions, or science fair winners, the children of immigrants dominate. Tweet This
  • American culture is becoming what Robert Bly called a “sibling society”: a society in which young people look to other young people, rather than to their elders, for direction and guidance. Tweet This
Category: Immigration

The most recent Scripps National Spelling Bee broke records. The Bee ran out of words for contestants to spell. After the final eight contestants breezed through aiguillette (a braided military decoration), bougainvillea (an ornamental climbing vine), pendeloque (a pear-shaped pendant), and other gems, the MC, Jacques Bailly, announced that the Bee had exhausted its lists of challenging words. All eight finalists earned an equal share of the trophy, the first time the prize has been shared by more than three contestants. The Twitter feed for the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the official dictionary of the Bee, posted a simple Tweet acknowledging “The Dictionary concedes,” listing the names of the Octochamps. 

Of the eight winners, seven were children of immigrants from India. Seven out of eight. 

Whether you are looking at high school valedictoriansspelling bee champions, or science fair winners, the children of immigrants dominate. The Science Talent Search is the oldest and most prestigious science competition for high school students in the United States. According to one study, 33 out of 40 finalists in a recent Science Talent Search were the children of immigrants. 

On many parameters, the children of immigrants now outperform the children of parents who were born and raised in the United States. Across the board, the children of immigrants have better academic outcomes compared with the children of nonimmigrants, despite the fact that the children of immigrants are more likely to speak English as a second language. As IFS Senior Fellow Nicholas Zill has noted, the children of immigrants are also less likely to get in trouble at school compared with the children of nonimmigrants. The children of immigrants are also less liable to engage in delinquent criminal behavior and are less likely to be anxious compared with nonimmigrant children. 

What makes this phenomenon so interesting is that it is still fairly new. When I was earning my doctorate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania 40 years ago, we were taught that immigrant status was a predictor of bad outcomes for children. Investigations in the 1950s and 1960s had found that when immigrants arrived in the United States from overseas, their children were at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and poor school performance. We read a monograph published by Oxford University Press, which presented evidence that the best intervention professionals could offer immigrant children was to help them to assimilate. 

I have been a medical doctor for 35 years. Back in 1994, I remember reading a report in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) announcing that children of immigrants were now healthier than children of nonimmigrants—and that American mothers were much more likely than immigrant mothers to be depressed, despite enjoying higher incomes. "Infant Health Paradox" was the headline, because it seemed paradoxical back then that the children of immigrants could enjoy any advantage over the children of nonimmigrants. The findings, the article said, "challenge widely held assumptions that U.S. women, usually with higher levels of education, employment, and income, have healthier infants than immigrants." Rubén Rumbaut, a lead investigator on that study, told reporters "We are trying to unlock the paradox." The term "immigrant paradox" gained wide currency because it seemed paradoxical to researchers in the 1990s that immigrants could have any advantages in outcomes over nonimmigrants.  

A long generation ago, children whose parents were born and raised in the United States enjoyed advantages. Today, children whose parents were born and raised in the United States are at a disadvantage compared to the children of immigrants. What happened? 

As a family doctor, I have had a front-row seat, so to speak, to changes in American culture over the past 30 plus years. In addition, over the past 20 years, I have led workshops for parents and teachers at more than 440 venues across the U.S. and worldwide. This has given me the opportunity to discuss research findings with investigators and to listen to parents share their ideas about parenting. I believe that three factors are driving the immigrant paradox. The first of these factors has been covered at length on this blog, the other two less so. 

Stronger Families

Immigrant families are more likely than nonimmigrant families to be led by a married couple. The children of immigrants are also more likely to live with extended family, which may include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We now have compelling evidence that the closer family ties characteristic of immigrant families account for roughly half of the advantage reflected in the immigrant paradox. 

The Culture of Disrespect

Over the past 30 years, American culture has increasingly become a culture of disrespect. For example: The Disney Channel, as well as some of the most popular videos on YouTube, along with some of the most popular songs, make it appear funny and entertaining for young people to be disrespectful not only to their parents, but to one another. Even T-shirts broadcast this attitude, with messages like “Spoiler Alert: I Don’t Care,” communicated to all passersby. As I showed in my book The Collapse of Parentingthe culture of disrespect explodes any possibility of strong bonds across generations. The end result of the culture of disrespect is young people who view their parents with “ingratitude seasoned with contempt.”  

Permissive Parenting

Researchers who have studied parenting have identified three basic parenting styles, which we might call Too Soft, Too Hard, and Just Right. Permissive parents are Too Soft: they let kids call the shots, they fail to enforce their own rules. Authoritarian parents are Too Hard: they are punitive and unloving. The Just Right parent, however, sets rules and sticks by them but always communicates love and respect along the way. 

Unfortunately, American parents are now much more likely than immigrant parents to be permissive, or Too Soft. IFS blogger and Iraqi immigrant Luma Simms has written about the American tendency to confuse “harsh” with “strict.” American parents tend to think that they have to choose between being strict or loving. In reality, as Simms observes, the best parents are both strict and loving. Yet, I rarely meet an American parent who admits to being permissive. Instead, American parents say things like "I just want my child to be happy.” The end result of such parenting is kids in their bedrooms with their doors closed: boys play video games, while their sisters post selfies on Instagram. 

The good news is that this evidence provides some guidance for parents who want to improve the odds for their children.  

For immigrant parents: If your native language is not English, speak your native language at home and ensure that your kids are fluent in that language. Connect with other families who share that culture and who speak that language, so that your kids can interact with peers in the context of that language and culture. 

For all parents: 

1. Prioritize the family. Cancel the playdate; make a family date instead. Fight for suppertime together as a family. When kids have supper at home with parents, their risk of bad outcomes decreases in a dose-dependent fashion: the more suppers at home with parents, the lower the risk of anxiety and depression. As we come out of this pandemic, seek out opportunities to connect with extended family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

2. Challenge the culture of disrespect. You and I, acting alone, can’t change Hollywood. But we can change the culture in our own homes. Don’t allow your kids to watch shows that promote the culture of disrespect. Have just one TV in the household and watch TV together as a family. Seek out TV shows and movies that promote a culture of respect. Monitor access to online vectors such as YouTube so that your kids are not watching videos that spread the culture of disrespect. 

3Be the "Just Right" parent. Don’t let your child be raised by their peers or by screens. Limit social media such as Instagram and TikTok. Encourage real-world activities instead. No cell phones in the bedroom after bedtime. Don’t be afraid to say “No” when necessary. 

That last point will require courage. American culture is becoming what Robert Bly called a “sibling society”: a society in which young people look to other young people, rather than to their elders, for direction and guidance. No such culture has ever endured for long. But when you explain to your teenager that the bedroom is for sleeping, not for texting or Instagram, and that henceforth the teen’s phone will spend nights in the phone charger, which from now on will reside in the parents’ bedroom, be prepared for pushback. Your teen may protest that other teens are not subject to the same restrictions. Remind your teen that you are not responsible for other teens. But you are responsible for raising your own child. 

If you don’t, who will? 

Leonard Sax MD PhD is a practicing family physician, the father of a teenage daughter, and the author of four books for parents, including The Collapse of Parenting

*Photo Credit: Scripps National Spelling Bee, 2019