Parenting Our Latino Children

Pathways can be found to help children learn and blossom

By Fernando Reimers and Eleonora Villegas-Reimers.


Contrary to what most parents might prefer, children are born without an instruction manual. Parenting children of any age is among the hardest jobs anyone will ever have, and one of the few for which there is no formal training or required credentials. Parenting children who live in a culture and society different from where their parents grew up adds another level of complexity. That is the experience of many Latino parents.

So, what can we do to support Latino parents who wish they had the “training manual?” We are starting this column with the goal of sharing information with Latino parents who want the best for their children and want to effectively support their education and intellectual and socio-emotional development. It is our hope that this column will contribute to unleashing the potential of Latino parents to effectively support the development of our children.

Latino education is critical to the future of the United States because by 2050 we will represent a third of the U.S. population. We now constitute 16 percent of the population, but we are growing at four times the rate of the total population. One in five of those under 18 years old and one in four under the age of 5 are Latino. Yet Latinos are also the group with less education. Only 13 percent of those between the ages of 25-29 hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 59 percent among Asians, 39 percent among whites or 19 percent among African Americans. The probability of completing college is lower for Latinos not born in the United States.

Necessary Involvement

Our children will need high levels of competence in order to be contributing members of their communities and the nation, productive workers, engaged citizens and leaders. A good education is crucial to give them the necessary skills to be authors of their own lives.

We are convinced that the potential of Latino parents to more effectively support the cognitive, intellectual, emotional and social development of our children can be unleashed by learning about the skills needed to parent children at different ages, and by the realization that what we do with our children matters greatly. This is especially important for immigrant parents who may have not had much education in their home country and did not later attend U.S. schools.

Stumbling blocks
Empowering parents is a promising avenue to support Latino children because parenting and education are important social values in the Latino community and because a greater percentage of Latino children live with both parents than do children in other groups. Forty-six percent of Latino children live with their two parents, compared with 41 percent of white children and 16 percent of African American children. Still, many Latino  parents experience barriers (such as language limitations, time limitations, different cultural expectations of the role of teachers and parents, and lack of knowledge) to engage effectively with their children’s educational institutions. This feeds the misperception that Latino parents do not care about their children’s education, followed with a number of wrong assumptions and missteps on the part of parents and school staff that further impedes this essential collaboration.

While Latino parents love, care for and have high expectations for their children, they need knowledge about how to support them effectively, especially in the early years.

Many Latinos do not complete or even access college because of low levels of academic achievement in the K-12 grades. In addition many lack knowledge of how to build a path that allows them access to college. Only 73 percent of Latino students finish high school. Dropout rates are highest among Latinos at 18 percent.

Multiple factors contribute to the low achievement levels, including poverty and the resulting residential segregation in neighborhoods with low-quality schools. Six million Latino children live in poverty in the United States; two-thirds of those have immigrant parents.

Parents matter

Research proves that parents make significant contributions to a child’s development. Yet the engagement of Latino parents in the schools their children attend is limited and insufficient. Barriers include not only those referenced above, but also come from a lack of knowledge about what is expected of parents in U.S. schools. In many Latin American countries meeting with teachers only happens when a child is in trouble and the teacher calls the meeting. In the United States parents are expected to take the initiative in partnering with teachers and maintain open and frequent communication throughout the school year. This kind of cultural disconnect can interfere with parents’ engagement, leaving the child to fend for herself and parents confused about what to do.

So how can parents engage? There is a vast amount of knowledge that can help parents support their children, including knowledge of specific practices which promote healthy socio-emotional development during early childhood; knowledge of ways to build early literacy and motivation to learn; knowledge of the economic consequences of completing different levels of education; knowledge of how to build a successful college pathway, and knowledge of how to apply to college and access financial aid. Parents need to understand basic terminology, sources of information and processes that allow them to follow their children’s academic progress.

Yet accessing such knowledge can be difficult, especially for parents with limited educational experience themselves. Our goal is to facilitate that access through this column and encourage readers to find ways in their own communities of engaging and supporting children and their parents.

The U.S. Latino community includes empowered individuals with high levels of education, social and financial capital, as well as those with low levels of empowerment, education and capital.

It is in our collective interest to empower the broader Latino community and there is no better way to do this than to support Latino parents in helping their children reach their full potential. As we each find ways to support parenting education in our communities, we might find ways to build partnerships and synergies that could form the most critical social movement to advance Hispanics in the 21st century. •

Fernando M. Reimers is a professor of Education at Harvard University and serves with a number of educational organizations. Eleonora Villegas-Reimers is a professor of Human Development at Wheelock College and serves with a number of organizations focused on child and youth development. The authors are also the parents of Tomas and Pablo, two successful high school students who are actively engaged in academics, sports and civic service in their community.


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