The Italian Immigrant Family

By: Giuliana Colalillo

From: Polyphony Vol.7, 1985 ,
pp. 118-122 in Italians in Ontario
© 1985 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Two contrasting images of the Italian immigrant family (or any other Italian family) are held as valid by their respective proponents. In the "alienation view" the family is seen as a disintegrating unit succumbing to forces of assimilation in the host society Within the family the parents faced with the alienation of their children from their traditional norms of behaviour and their Old World belief system. The immigrant or second-generation child rapidly socializes to the values and norms of the hod society leaving his/her parents in a backward cocoon which they have difficulty leaving.

On the other hand, in the "continuity model' of the Italian immigrant family, the family is portrayed as a resourceful, inventive, dynamic structure which exacts its own compromises from the conflicting demands of the bicultural and bilingual setting in which it evolves. In meeting the challenge of adaptation to two cultural and linguistic environments, the immigrant family contributes to the development of a syncretic culture which contains workable elements of both the Italian culture of the parents and the Canadian culture as experienced by all family members.

The first portrayal is largely derived from historical documents, sociological sources and psychological studies. For example, 0. Handlin, an historian with unprecedented influence on the study of immigrants and their adaptation to North American culture and society, wrote that "the history of immigration is a history of alienation and its consequences, of broken homes, interruptions of a familiar fife, separation from known surroundings, the becoming a foreigner and ceasing to belong." More recent sociology portrays Italian immigrants as urban villagers who remain outside the mainstream of their host society. The paradigm of numerous studies of the assimilation and integration of Italian immigrants pits the parents and the children against one another. In the race to assimilate - to get rid of the excess cultural and linguistic baggage, which was the parents' Old World burden, and become like one of "them" - tests and measures carefully quantified the rapid gains made by first- and second-generation children while admonishing the immigrant parents for remaining behind in their ethnic ghetto.

Clearly this negative characterization of the immigrant family needs to be balanced by a more realistic and contemporary image. In the continuity model several different areas of theory and research are synthesized and brought to bear on our understanding of the adaptation of the Italian immigrant family. The first area is the socialization theory. In this framework the family and the subculture to which it belongs are considered important and influential socializing agents which provide the child with the values, attitudes and beliefs on which to base his/her behaviour through adolescence and into adulthood. Secondly, there is the work of continuity theorists of adolescence who argue that there is no separate and distinct adolescent subculture in this crucial stage of human development. They argue that adolescents rely on their parents' attitudes and beliefs to develop their own, despite an increasing commitment by adolescents to their peers and to activities outside the home. In other words, these theorists maintain that at the very stage in development in which much of the behaviour of adolescents can be interpreted as a sign of rejection of parental authority, there is a substantial degree of congruence between the values, attitudes and beliefs of adolescents and their parents.

Additional evidence to support the continuity hypothesis comes from studies of ethnic identity formation of minority children. The evidence suggests that ethnic/ minority children do come to identify strongly with their cultural and linguistic heritages and that this positive identification has clear benefits for the all-round sociopsychological development of these children. In the same vein studies on mother tongue or ethnic language retention and learning also suggest that learning one's mother tongue or minority language to an optimum level can be advantageous for the ethnic/ minority child's sociopsychological development.

The author's own study on Italian immigrant families in Toronto was designed to test the continuity hypothesis by finding evidence of cultural sharing and continuity between the parents of adolescents of Italian immigrant families. Two methods were employed: a) comparing the values structures of Italian immigrant parents and their adolescent children on a Value Survey, and b) interviewing Italian immigrant parents and their adolescent children with regard to issues arising from living in a bicultural setting.

The respondents were very representative of the Italian ethnic population of Metro Toronto. They were a rather homogeneous group of immigrants who had come to Canada in the mid 1950s from rural Italy. They worked at low status (not necessarily low income) jobs and owned their own home. Half of the women worked outside the home. Men seemed to be more fluent in English than women; they all said they preferred to speak Italian in the home. Their adolescent children were between seventeen and eighteen years of age and in grade eleven or twelve. Most were born in Canada and had at least two siblings. They preferred to speak English, but most claimed to have a good knowledge of Italian or a regional dialect.

Several analyses were carried out on the value rankings of parents and the adolescents on the Value Survey lists. Parents and adolescents were compared by sex and generation, e.g., mothers vs. fathers, girls vs. boys, adolescents vs. parents, girls vs. fathers, and boys vs. mothers. Comparisons in value rankings were also made between the Italian adolescents and a Canadian group of adolescents of the same age, grade and neighbourhood (or at least attending the same schools).

It was found that the value rankings of the male and female adolescents of Italian background were very similar. They both ranked family security, happiness, honesty and being responsible as top priorities in their fives. Low priorities were assigned to having social recognition, attaining salvation, being obedient and being imaginative. With regard to the mothers and fathers, as would be expected, similarities were also found. Their top priorities were family security, being happy, honest and forgiving. Least important for the Italian immigrant parents were having an exciting fife, a comfortable fife and being imaginative or broad-minded.

When parents and adolescents were compared, there was enough similarity in the value rankings to support the hypothesis of cultural sharing and continuity. Indeed the parents and adolescents all ranked family security, happiness and honesty as top priorities.

The sex by generation comparisons yielded even more informative results: there was a higher value ranking of the girls and the parents than there was for the boys and the parents. In other words, the girls of Italian ethnic background tended to assign similar priorities to the list of values in the Value Survey as did their parents. Some explanation for this can be given in terms of the role demands placed on females. The female, with an eye to her future nurturing responsibilities, remains closer to the parents in her value priorities since they provide her with a base on which to regulate her behaviour. The male, on the other hand, can afford (and is almost expected) to distance himself somewhat, since it establishes his own independence of the family and since it is assumed that his future role as bread-winner demands a degree of separation from his family as he establishes a career or goal in mainstream society.

The interviews conducted with each member of six Italian immigrant families - three with adolescent daughters and three with adolescent sons - confirmed the continuity hypothesis to an even greater degree. Three specific themes were used as the basis of comparison: a) the issue of freedom, b) the adolescents' italianita, and c) their cultural identification. The issue of freedom was defined as the parents' and adolescents' concern with the increasing demands made on them by adolescence and the degree of freedom that should be given to an adolescent. In the interviews it was clear that the traditional strictness of the Italian immigrant parents was giving way to mutual trust and understanding. From the parents' point of view they were concerned with not being "behind schedule," or "old-fashioned," even if it raised personal anguish and worry. The adolescent, on his/her part, showed a remarkable understanding of their parents' ambivalence and concerns. Their insights served to reinforce their determination not to abuse their parents' trust, but to be responsible in earning and keeping it.

Both the Italian immigrant parents and their adolescent children preferred the careful balance needed to establish and maintain their developing relationship to what they perceived to be the norm in Canadian family relationships. In this case, both attributed Canadian parents with an easy-going, carefree attitude to child rearing and family responsibilities. They interpreted this laxity as a lack of caring and mutual respect.

Without doubt the adolescents of Italian ethnic background valued the closeness of their immigrant families and identified with their Italianness. Indeed the adolescents' feelings of
italianita were multi-dimensional, ranging from preference for Italian movies, records and clothes to selecting other Italian-Canadians as friends to speaking Italian and consciously being active in ItalianCanadian social activities to just recognizing and appreciating the Italian ambiente in which they were growing up.

Moreover, the Italian immigrant parents and their adolescent children realized that their cultural
ambiente was neither Italian nor Canadian. Their subculture was an immigrant culture, which combined and synthesized elements of the parents' Old World, rural Italian culture with selected elements of a modern industrial Canadian society. The immigrant parents regarded native Italians living in Italy as being the same as native Canadians living in Canada. They argued that since each was living in his/her own country, each feels a degree of security and enjoyment in life that an immigrant cannot and/or will not ever feel. The Italian immigrant, in their view, is displaced from his home culture and the host culture; but he and his children find security and identity within the shelter of the derived subculture, which they create to suit their own needs and aspirations.

Much of the existing literature on the adaptation of immigrant parents and their children has suggested that there is a great deal of incompatibility in the value structures of the parents and their children which leads to alienation, stress and disintegration of the family unit. In contrast to this theme, the basic hypothesis of the study reported here is that there is continuity of culture between first- and second-generation immigrants which may be observed by examining their value structures.

The analysis of the data provided evidence which supported the hypothesis of cultural sharing and continuity. Moreover, it appeared from the data analysis that the overall value structures of the Italian adolescent girls more closely resembled those of the immigrant parents than did the value structures of the Italian adolescent boys. One explanation for this finding rests with the differential socialization experiences of females and males within the family unit. The girls are socialized to become the traditional maintainers and preservers of the family's cultural traditions, norms and values. Yet their similarity with the value rankings of the boys may also reflect a shared stage of development, as well as the fact that the girls are defining a more liberal role for themselves in both their families and in society at large, which is more in fine with the changing role of women in today's world. Together, these two interpretations of the girls' central position within the Italian immigrant family are complementary and underfine the females' role as change agent or cultural broker.

But the centrality of the girls' position within the immigrant family should not obscure the considerable similarity between the value structures of the adolescent boys and the parents as well. While the adolescent male may be expected to develop the social and work skills needed to achieve success in a competitive society and thus encounter the risk of moving away from the core value concepts of his parents' culture, the data from this study nonetheless suggest that his value structures remain embedded within that of his parents to a significant degree.

It is apparent from the findings and discussion of the study reported here that caution needs to be exercised when speaking of "value conflicts" in Italian immigrant families. There may well be conflict. However, one must be careful to distinguish the basis of the disagreement in any inter-personal conflict. It is misleading to attribute automatically the cause of such disagreement solely to cultural value differences or to interpret disagreement as being prima facie evidence for fundamental discontinuity.

A much more differentiated picture of value conflict and agreement within Italian immigrant families is needed than has been suggested by assimilation and culture conflict theories. Sex and generational differences must be taken into account; the strengths and weaknesses of the family as a socializing agent within a new culture should be recognized; and the importance of specific values as opposed to others for individual family members needs to be more accurately discriminated. Despite many external and internal influencing factors, we must account for a substantial degree of congruence and continuity in the
values and beliefs of members of the Italian immigrant family.


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