Every family is unique. Some families are big and rowdy, some a small and quiet. Some are extended, some are nuclear and some families have just one person and a cat. Families can be scattered all over the world or can all live in one town, or house. People of all genders are parents, and children, in families. Some families are united by one culture or belief system while other include people of different faiths and ethnicities.
While every society, culture and religion has slightly different ideas about parenting and the place of the family in the community, pretty much all agree that the family, in all its diverse glory, is of fundamentally importance.
So how do we make sure, when we are working with families, that we are respectful and inclusive of all different types of families, not just the ones that look like our own? Here are a few ideas.
Don’t make assumptions
We are now quite used to families that include step-parents or children living across different households. But we may still make a range of other assumptions about what a family looks like. For example, we may assume that there is a mum and a dad in the family, when in fact the family may consist of two mums or dads, or people of different genders, or it may be an extended family where many people have the parenting role. Or a child may be in foster care or live with people outside their biological family. So when meeting with a family, invite them to tell you what their family looks like and how they would like to describe themselves
Of course, there are many other places we may make assumptions about families too. We may make assumptions about things like their parenting philosophy and practices, who does what, what they value, how and when they celebrate, what they believe, ideas about discipline, amongst other things.
The best way to avoid making assumptions is to reflect on what your own family looks like and what is ‘normal’ to you. By examining your own values and beliefs about family, you are more likely to be aware of your assumptions and values, and less likely to impose those assumptions on others.
Be respectful of privacy
A common question on many intake forms in Australia is ‘Are you of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander decent?’ While this may seem like a simple question, it can feel very loaded for some Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, for good reason. Identity can be a site of pride and it can also be reminder of trauma and oppression. This can be true for other groups in the community too, especially those who have experienced racism, violence or exclusion because of their identity.
If you do ask people about their culture, identity or experiences, ask in a way that allows people to choose what they share. You might ask something like, ‘Is there anything you would like me to know about your family culture/identity?’ If they chose not to talk about their identity with you, respect their privacy. You may find that as trust builds, they may choose to talk more about their identity or culture.
Be curious about what is important to the family and what they value
Identity isn’t just a tick box on a form — it is the heart of who we are.
If people do want to talk about their culture or identity, be genuinely (but respectfully) curious. Knowing what is important to people can help build rapport and understanding, and can give you insight into what they value. This can be helpful when you are supporting a family to make changes as you have a deeper understanding of what motivates and inspires them.
Invite them to share stories about celebrations, family gatherings and what they enjoy doing together. Spend some time researching the culture, history, practices or beliefs of the families you work alongside. Show interest in the things that are important to them.
Be respectful of family spaces
When we are going into people’s homes and talking to them about highly personal or difficult things, we want them to feel as safe and respected as possible. One way to demonstrate respect is to ask, or notice, how they do things in their home. Do you need to take your shoes off? Is it polite to bring food (or not) if you are visiting? Are there certain times of the day that people have cultural or religious commitments? Do they have certain chairs allocated to certain people? What is considered polite or impolite?
Sometimes families are not even conscious of these practices—they are just ‘the way things are done’. Be on the lookout for facial expressions that tell you that you may have inadvertently breached a ‘hidden’ household rule. Ask if you aren’t sure and encourage people to tell you if are doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable.
For some families, it can feel overwhelming or unsafe for people to come into their home. Be open to meeting in other places.
Be respectful of how families allocate time
Often, families are expected to fit in around systems, rather than systems fitting around them. When you are working with a family, build an understanding of what their day and week looks like in terms of their various commitments.
When setting meetings, try and be aware of things like school drop-off or pickup, play dates, nap times, meals times and parent or community gatherings. It is also important to respect the time needed for religious or cultural events as well as things like celebrations and funerals (or other grieving processes). By showing that you respect a person’s time, you are demonstrating that you value them and their family.
Invite regular feedback
The reality is, even if we have the best intentions, sometimes we are going to get it wrong. Many people won’t feel comfortable telling you that you’ve said or done something offensive, especially if they can see you are trying to be respectful. Instead, they may just start cancelling appointments or stop engaging in other ways.
One way to avoid this is to build time for feedback into your catch-ups. It may just be a five minute chat at the end or regular use of a scaling tool but it can make a big difference to people feeling valued and heard.
If you ask for feedback, you need to be open and receptive to hearing it, which may take some getting used to if it hasn’t been part of your practice before. You can ask a few simple questions like, ‘What was the most useful thing we did today?’ and ‘What’s one thing you would like me to do differently?’
Some people may initially feel uncomfortable giving feedback, especially if they have experienced systemic oppression or violence. But by doing it regularly and telling them they are actually helping you to become a better worker or teacher, you will gradually teach them how to give constructive feedback, which is a great skill to have in all areas of life!
Do you have other suggestions for ways we can work in a more inclusive and respectful ways with parents and families? We would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.
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