Ab Initio International Spring 2009

Parental Ethnotheories among Immigrant and Irish Parents of Infants in Ireland

Drs. Elizabeth Nixon, Sheila Greene, Imelda Coyne, J. Kevin Nugent

Trinity College
Trinity College

Evidence suggests that many immigrant parents experience loneliness and a sense of cultural discontinuity. These parents are required to negotiate and construct their parenting role in a milieu that is different from their community of origin. This research addresses the question of how these parents come to think, feel and act the way they do in relation to their newborn infants in an environment in which traditions, customs and worldviews may be at odds with those of the mainstream culture. This is an important topic to consider in the Irish context, given the large number of immigrant parents in Ireland. The focus of the study is on "parental ethnotheories" or cultural models that parents hold regarding children, families and themselves as parents, among immigrant and Irish parents of infants in Ireland. A further goal of the research is to examine the relation of these cultural belief systems to parenting behaviours and activities. This research study is being conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Nixon, who is Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, School of Psychology & Senior Research Fellow, Children's Research Centre, Trinity College Dublin, along with her colleagues Professor Sheila Greene, Professor Imelda Coyne, also from Trinity College and Professor J .Kevin Nugent from the Brazelton Institute, Children's Hospital Boston.

Traditionally, research on parenting has tended to overlook parents' beliefs and cultural worldviews, and this is a limitation which this study seeks to address. This study is based on the assumption that parent-child relationships are at the heart of ecological contextual models of development and never more so than during the period of infancy, when parenting constitutes the primary ecology of infant development. However, parent-child relationships are themselves embedded within broader contexts, including a macro-system of values, laws, societal institutions and cultural prescriptions. Differences in cultural ideologies pertaining to parenting and children can play a powerful role in shaping parenting practices. They may also give rise to conflict or tension with health professionals or other parents, with possible consequences for mothers' well-being and parenting role.

Three groups of parents who are the primary carers of their infants (most typically these will be mothers) will be recruited into the study: Irish-born parents, Polish immigrant parents and Nigerian immigrant parents. These two immigrant groups have been selected because they represent two of the main immigrant communities in Ireland. Three methods will be used to explore parents' ethnotheories and behaviours with their infants: individual interviews, diary methods, and observation. Each parent will be involved in two stages of data collection: the first visit will take place in the first six months following the birth of their infant, and the second before the infant's first birthday. Observations and an open-ended interview will take place at both stages of data collection, while parents will be asked to use their diaries to record some experiences in between periods of data collection.

In terms of the observations, an important component of the proposed methodology is the use of the Newborn Behavioural Observations (NBO) System, developed by Nugent et al. (2007). The NBO is a tool used by practitioners in hospital, clinic and home environments with parents of newborn infants. The NBO is made up of observations of infant states, reflexes and responses to stimulation - it is not a diagnostic scale, nor is it used to assess parameters of typical or atypical behaviour. Rather, the tool is used to elicit and describe the infant's competencies and individuality, and has been described as a relationship-building tool between parents and practitioners/researchers. The rationale behind the use of the NBO as a research tool in the study is that the baby, rather than the parent, becomes the initial focus of the interaction between the parent and the researcher. Observing the infant in the parent's presence, narrating to the parent what the researcher observes and involving the parent in the observation session provides an important starting point for dialogue about parenting during infancy. The assumption is that this will lead to a reduced reliance upon language as a means of interaction and will facilitate a rapport between the researcher and parent that reflects cultural competence and sensitivity. The proposed use of the NBO as a research tool represents a unique methodological departure from previous research conducted on parental ethnotheories. Interviews with the parents will focus upon the story of the pregnancy and the birth, parental beliefs, values and explanations for their parenting behaviours, context and history of the family's life in the parent's country of origin and in Ireland, experiences of cultural continuity, discontinuity and the culture of the in-between.

The proposed study has a clear theoretical contribution to make, as potentially competing parental ethnotheories will be examined within one national context. The study goes beyond comparing ethnotheories across different national contexts as much of the previous research has done. This study provides a unique opportunity to build upon existing research to explore the process of negotiation of parental ethnotheories, examine whether and to what extent parental ethnotheories are susceptible or resilient to change, and the factors that affect this process. Methodologically, the use of the NBO as a research tool for facilitating infant-centred dialogues between parents and the researchers is a further unique aspect of the study.


Coakley, L. & MacEinri, P. (2007) The integration experiences of African families in Ireland. Dublin: Integrating Ireland.

Coyne, I.T. (2006) The 'good' family syndrome: Social and cultural issues in community and family health. Contemporary Nurse 23, 12-14.

Garcia Coll, C. & Pachter, L.M. (2002) Ethnic and minority parenting. In M. Bornstein (Ed.) Handbook of parenting (2nd ed.) Volume 4: Social conditions and applied parenting (pp. 1-20). NJ: LEA Publishing.

Harkness, S. & Super, C.M. (2006) Themes and variations: Parental ethnotheories in Western cultures. In K.H. Rubin & O.B. Chung (Eds.) Parenting beliefs, behaviours and parent-child relations. A cross-cultural perspective (pp. 61-79). New York: Taylor & Francis

Nugent, K.J., Keefer, C.H., Minear, S., Johnson, L. & Blanchard, Y. (2007) Understanding newborn behaviour and early relationships. The Newborn Behavioural Observations (NBO) System Handbook. Maryland: Paul Brookes Publishing Co.

Rogoff, B. & Angelillo, C (2004) Investigating the coordinated functioning of multifaceted cultural practices in human development. Human Development, 45, 211-225.

Timur, S. (2000) Changing trends and major issues in international migration: An overview of UNESCO programmes. International Social Science Journal, 52, (165), 255-268.

PreviousTable of ContentsNext Article