LOS ANGELES – When Nikita Ganatra’s son, Sahil, was born she did what a lot of new moms do – she called her own mom for help.
“Being a first time parent, my biggest source of support was my mom,” said Ganatra, whose family immigrated to the United States when she was in high school. “In the first two years of my son’s life, my mom was there almost every day to help take care of him – feeding, bathing, rocking to sleep – you name it.”
But Ganatra, an Indian American educator in Orange County, Calif., and proponent of early childhood education, says there were some tensions between her and her mom when it came to child rearing.
“While she helped me in daily activities, I began to see that … a lot of things that she would do were in direct conflict with my own ideas of how I wanted things done,” explained Ganatra.
The parent-grandparent conflict centered on independence: Ganatra wanted her son to explore and learn on his own.
“I wanted Sahil to learn a bit more independence and would allow him to explore our home based on his interest while I followed his lead. I knew and accepted the fact that raising Sahil was going to be like being a leaf floating on water,” Ganatra told India-West. “I didn’t have a choice in where we ended up as Sahil would decide the routes to an end.”
Ganatra described her mother’s approach to raising Sahil as more restrictive.
“I saw my mom would only allow him to do things that were within her convenience or comfort zone,” Ganatra explained. “She would encourage Sahil to stay within the same room as the adults or prevent him from trying to climb calling it unsafe for a toddler. This to me was limiting him and definitely not a child-centered approach.”
Ganatra’s experience is not unique. Differences between first-generation immigrant parents and second-generation children can often lead to divergent attitudes on a whole range of topics, including how to raise a child.
“I heavily relied on objective information from research and scholarly works to guide me in raising [my son] while [my mom] relied on her experiences raising four children” – two in India and two in the United States.
Creating a child-specific space was important for Ganatra, something she learned from the work of Maria Montessori. Implementing Montessori’s approach into her role as a mother differed vastly from how she herself was raised in India and, later, New Jersey.
“I designed various spaces in our home that were easily accessible to him — open bins of wooden toys and blocks; lowered book shelf; a special drawer in the kitchen for him to explore and always involving him in our daily activities to learn practical skills are a few examples,” said Ganatra.
Comparatively speaking, Ganatra’s upbringing featured more gender-specific roles. This was something she steered clear of in raising Sahil.
“I am one of four children and my brother is the only boy in the family. Growing up, I never saw him learn to help around the house. In fact, because he was a boy, he was never expected to,” Ganatra recalled to India-West. “I knew Sahil had to be raised differently. I want to raise a kid who is self-sufficient and learns that work is work. Gender has no role in dictating who should do work and what type of work. I believe Sahil was two when he first learned to wipe up a spill and, to date, we all clean up our own spills.”
ECE advocates say the early years of a child’s life are a critical time for brain development and cognitive ability. Children begin learning well before stepping into their first classroom. Interactions with people, technology and the everyday world around them all play a role in what a child learns from birth to age five. Early childhood education seeks to maximize these learning opportunities.
Supporters of ECE argue that, as a child’s “first teacher,” parents need to engage with their children during this period, exposing them to language and other critical reasoning skills, and that by doing so they are helping to prepare their children for future success. Parents are encouraged to speak and read to their children often and from a young age, and when possible to seek out preschool programs that provide nurturing learning environments.
Nimish Patel is a lawyer and former board member of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District. Like Ganatra, he was born in India and came to the United States at a young age.
He says that when it comes to early learning, there are some key difference between his parents’ generation and his own.
From an early age “it was embedded in me that education was a primary goal in my life,” said Patel, who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb. But he added that while his parents often read to him, they were so busy adjusting to life in America and pursuing their careers that they didn’t have the time to “get involved with every aspect of my education.”
These days, he explained to India-West, parents who can afford them have a range of options, including the plethora of online educational tools and devices, and the many “super camps” designed to accelerate learning in kids as young as one or two years old.
But for immigrant parents, the notion of sending their child to preschool can be anathema. In an article on cultural differences and early childhood education, Prachee Mukherjee, director of Assessment, Evaluation and Research with the St. Louis Park Public Schools, in Minnesota, writes that many immigrant parents “do not seek out preschool because they want to maximize those years for parent-child bonding, or mother-child bonding … It also becomes a way to immerse the child longer in their mother tongues.”
Narmeen Ramjan raised three kids in Los Angeles and is now a grandmother. Born in India and raised in London, she said she tried to help her children bridge their two cultures.
“I took the best of two worlds — what I had while growing up and what America had to offer — and tried to instill [the best of both worlds] into my children,” Ramjan explained. “They were living with both worlds.”
How cultural mores are handed down from generation to generation – while also maintaining Western values – is still playing out as a vast majority of Indian Americans have only come into parenthood within the past few years.
But, Ramjan added, she has noticed that today parents are more likely to encourage their children to be independent learners.
“Today, when I see the second generation, they allow their children to grow on their own, make their mistakes, rather than doing things for them,” she told India-West. “They are trying to get the children to be more independent and make choices. We didn’t do that with our children until they were older.”
As for Ganatra, ECE remains an important tool for her.
“Being a parent is hard, but it is harder when you have limited knowledge, resources and/or strategies,” she said. “ECE allows parents access to guidance that minimizes the daily struggles of parenting and makes the journey much more enjoyable for parents and kids.”
And when it comes to her mom, Ganatra acknowledges that she’s beginning to find common ground.
“Though the differences still continue, I am beginning to see there is room to utilize some of her experience while adding to it with new research based strategies in raising [my son],” said Ganatra. “She too sees the benefits of incorporating our current knowledge. Open communication through ongoing dialogue allows us to come to better understand each other’s perspectives and approaches.”
(Parimal Rohit received an Early Childhood Education Fellowship from New America Media to research and write this story.)