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Exploring the ‘Immigrant Paradox’: Q & A with Cynthia Garcia Coll

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For more than a century, assimilation into American culture has been held up as a positive goal for immigrants to pursue.But a just-released book that highlights research on first-generation immigrant children and adolescents, including Latinos, shows that recent immigrant children are more likely to succeed in school and avoid risky behaviors than their more-assimilated peers. The title says it all: The Immigrant Paradox in Children and Adolescents: Is Becoming American a Developmental Risk?

I recently had the opportunity to chat via email with one of the co-authors, Cynthia Garcia Coll, who is the Robinson and Barstow Professor of Education, Psychology and Pediatrics at Brown University. Here’s what she had to say about the immigrant paradox and how it plays out among Latinos.

Your research shows that first-generation immigrant children often outperform succeeding generations academically despite the initial disadvantages they face due to poverty, low levels of parental education, and language and cultural differences. What explains this “immigrant paradox”?

Our research points to the presence of a heritage language in the home, Spanish, for example, as a protective factor for children of immigrants. In other words, children who live in household where Spanish is spoken do better than children who live in households where Spanish is not spoken. We are not certain how and why maintaining a heritage language at home serves as a protective factor, but it is clear that it does. We think that the maintenance of the home language by both children and adult family members gives the youth access to values and knowledge that protect them from influences that down play the importance of education and obeying the law. We are now proposing new research to unpackage the association between home language maintenance and more optimal developmental outcomes.

How does this paradox manifest itself among Latino immigrant communities? Are there any nuances that make the situation different for Latino versus Asian immigrants, for example?

There are very interesting similarities and differences between Latinos and Asian immigrants. In terms of behavioral outcomes, we find very similar patterns of results between Asian and Latino communities. In most outcome variables, more recent and less acculturated immigrants display less risky behaviors–delinquency, unprotected sex and substance use–than subsequent and more acculturated generations.

For academic outcomes, a very different pattern emerges. Both Asian and Latino populations, display the immigration paradox in academic attitudes: the more recent and less acculturated immigrants display more positive attitudes toward learning, schooling and teachers. The same pattern is found for Asian populations in terms of academic achievement–first generation and less acculturated individuals display more positive academic outcomes. However, this was not the case for Latinos. The positive attitudes displayed by first generation and less acculturated individuals do not translate into more positive academic outcomes for Latinos, and the question is why? We need to conduct more research to understand why positive academic attitudes do not translate to good academic outcomes for Latinos.

Your research notes the strength of family and emphasis on education present in immigrant families, yet statistics show Latino children are the least likely to attend preschool. Can you speak to this paradox from the experience of doing your research? How are Latino immigrant families managing the early care and education of their youngest children?

Latinos do emphasize the early education of their children, but not necessarily in terms of formal literacy or school readiness. They want their children to be well behaved and respectful. “Obediente, respetuoso y bien educado.” They also tend to use kin care more often than formal child care or preschool. Partly this is due to the traditional construction of childhood: We use the word  infantes/infants until 5 years of age. Jardin de Infantes refers to facilities for children up to five years of age. In this cultural construction of childhood, schooling is for six-year-olds and older.

My sense is that many Latino parents do not know the importance of early literacy and numeracy for later school achievement. If they did, enrollment in Head Start and other subsidized programs would increase dramatically. They also do not know how to ascertain the quality of center based programs and might choose home daycare for issues of familiarity and safety.

How can early educators and policymakers better capitalize on the strengths of first-generation children and families?

We should definitely capitalize in how immigrant families for the most part hold on to the American Dream. Hard work and obtaining high levels of formal education is seen by many of these families as their children’s  ticket out of poverty. They might not be able to read widely or help their children because of lack of language fluency or formal knowledge, but they will support their children in any other way they can.  Involving parents in their kids education as soon as possible, by having visiting hours, extracurricular activities, etc. is very important. Teaching families about  the connections between early literacy and numeracy and self-regulation to success in formal education is imperative. Similarly, teaching parents English or useful job skills that will lead to employment will support these families in the endeavor of raising healthy and educated adults.

What happens when those first-generation immigrants become parents themselves? What changes for their children? What aspects of assimilation appear to be most detrimental to their children’s educational success?

We know very little about how acculturation affects parenting. We know that subsequent generations lose the heritage language by the second or the third generation. This is accompanied by a lack of familiarity with the heritage culture and increasing adoption of American values, such as autonomy, distance from parents, and consumerism among others. We speculate that as parents and children move from believing in the American Dream, they get discouraged and their ambitions diminish. We know that immigrants do not invoke racism and discrimination much, even though by 4th grade children of immigrants perceive it in the school context.  Later generations see the injustices in the system from the perspective of being considered a minority, and thus it is harder for them to surmount these perceived obstacles and challenges.

Are there issues that arise in the early years (birth to age eight) that are clearly different for first-gen vs. later-gen immigrants and that show the effects of assimilation into U.S. culture?

Even if first generation children have more linguistic challenges at school entry, it has been found that they catch up by showing a more accelerated growth curve in school. Moreover, if they become bilingual, bilingualism has been shown to have many cognitive advantages and thus they stand a better chance to do well in cognitive tasks.

What lessons might assimilated U.S. parents and educators take from the first-generation families you studied?

Biculturalism might be an asset for all Americans. It is done by these vulnerable families, and thus it might be possible for it to be an advantage for all Americans. Learning a second language early is actually advantageous for kids. Grounding your family in a secondary, non-mainstream culture might be good for both education and reduction of risky behaviors.