By Manaal Siddiqui
In a low-income neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a mother named Arleen is struggling to keep up with her rent, and maintain the roof over her family’s head. When her son, Jafaris goes to the kitchen because he’s hungry, she says: “Don’t be getting in the kitchen because I know you are not hungry.” On other occasions, she tells him to stay away from the kitchen because he’s getting too fat. (Desmond, 2016.)
Too painful to mention, however, is that the cupboards are barren. There is no food left.
It was Karl Marx who first claimed that the central features of political life are explained by the existing economic structure of the community (Karl Marx -Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy). Today, In the 21st century, with all the research done on how stressful environments disrupt normal brain physiology (Poverty and Health: The Family Medicine Perspective), it is well known that people living in economic deprivation are at a higher risk for stress and immune system related disorders such as high blood pressure and heart disease (Reynolds, 2019, July 9). However, what is less frequently talked about is how an environment of economic deprivation has its impact on culture and the interpersonal relationships between people within a family system and in the community at large. In this article, I will explore the effects of economic deprivation on cultural values. Specifically how cultural values impact child rearing practices and the caregiver-child relationship.
It should not come as a surprise that an environment of deprivation forces communities to form strategies to deal with scarcity. These strategies are passed on from generation to generation and integrate into culture. One of these strategies is harsh parenting, which trains the child to suppress their feelings. According to the words of sociologist and writer Matthew Desmond (2016),
You could only say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t’ so many times before you began to feel worthless, edging closer to a breaking point. So you protected yourself, in a reflexive way, by finding ways to say ‘No, I won’t.’ I cannot help you. So, I will find you unworthy of help. (p. 241)
Apart from protecting the caregiver from feelings of inadequacy, this approach to parenting also aims to teach children to survive in a world where their needs will not always be met.
Consider another example of a mother-child relationship of a family in Pakistan. When the child asks for a new set of markers, her mother calls her selfish, saying that the daughter is purposefully trying to drain the family’s resources to fulfill her own needs. However, what none of them realize is that an important message is being passed from one generation to the next, a conclusion reached years ago at a time of severe scarcity; in order to survive in this world, you must suppress your feelings.
Similarly, children may be taught to enter a default state where they automatically ignore their own feelings for the benefit of the family at large. This behavior is often modeled by parents, who work long hours, and ignore their own needs for food, sleep and relaxation to make ends meet.
At other times, the caregiver might have to suppress their emotions to keep the social order of the community. Anthropologist Nancy Scheper Hughes writes about a shanty town in Brazil where mothers leave their weak infants to die seemingly without remorse. In such cases it is easy to blame the parents for not fulfilling their responsibility, however Scheper Hughes goes on to describe that the severe drought, famine and poverty in the town leaves it inhospitable for an infant’s survival. Hughes (n.d.) notes
The average woman of the Alto experiences 9.5 pregnancies, 3.5 child deaths, and 1.5 stillbirths. Seventy percent of all child deaths in the Alto occur in the first six months of life, and 82 percent by the end of the first year. Of all deaths in the community each year, about 45 percent are of children under the age of five. (p. 12)
Any mother expressing grief is consoled by being told that it was Jesus’s will. How else can a group of people survive and move on under a government oblivious to their plight? And most importantly, with such an epidemic of infant mortality, of disease and death, how can we expect mothers to love their children if the conditions in which love can safely exist are essentially non-existent?
The main concern, then, is not one of parenting skills or cultural influences, it is the story that shaped the parents, the community. Thus, it makes sense that the path to healing should involve a collective awareness of the social injustice, followed by individual and collective attempts to physically, psychologically, and spiritually heal from it. It is also important to note there can never be any one explanation for the complexities of political life. The development of cultural values is nuanced and multifactorial. Also factoring into the equation are economic deprivation, war, natural disasters, mass migration and other such collective plights.
The key takeaway is that in the effort to become better human beings, when we sit down to unpack the influences that shaped our lives, parental blaming and cultural shaming are never the definitive answer. In fact, this defense conceals a much more complicated, nuanced reality. Perhaps our deepest sorrows, regrets, and fears were brought about by coping mechanisms borne out of necessity to keep our ancestors, and by extension, us, alive in a world seemingly oblivious to basic human needs.
Desmond, M., (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. Crown.
Wolff, J., and David L., “Karl Marx”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, E. N., (ed.), Retrieved Jan. 2022, from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/marx/
American Academy of Family Physicians. (2021, April). Poverty And Health – The Family Medicine Perspective (Position Paper). Retrieved Jan. 2022, from https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/poverty-health.html
Reynolds, S., (2019, July 9). Stress Links Poverty To Inflammation And Heart Disease. National Institutes Of Health (NIH), Retrieved Jan. 2022 from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/stress-links-poverty-inflammation-heart-disease#:~:text=Researchers%20have%20proposed%20that%20the,development%20of%20many%20health%20conditions
Scheper Hughes, N., Death Without Weeping. Natural History, vol 10, no. 89, pp. 8-16., Retrieved Dec. 2021 from http://Public.gettysburg.edu
I would like to give special thanks to Rodney Sharkey who enthusiastically engaged with my ideas and gave valuable feedback regarding structure.