Parenting in multi-racial Britain

Ravinder Barn with Carolina Ladino and Brooke Rogers

An exploration of the relationship between ethnicity, parenting and family life.

Relatively little is known about parenting and family life in minority ethnic communities. As British society becomes increasingly multi-ethnic, comprising diverse religious and cultural traditions, it is important to develop an adequate understanding of the needs and concerns of racially and ethnically differing groups.

Based on empirical research, this study:

  • provides an authoritative account of the lives of ‘ordinary’ families from a range of diverse ethnic groupings;
  • discusses support networks, parental authority and discipline, attitudes to education, change and continuity, and racial and ethnic socialisation.


Parenting has increasingly become the focus for policy and academic debate. The racial and cultural heterogeneity of British society also invites considerable attention to many aspects of the lives of minority ethnic families. Yet, there is little empirical evidence into ethnicity, parenting and family life. This study, by Ravinder Barn at Royal Holloway, University of London, explores the views and experiences of 'ordinary' parents to increase our understanding in some key areas, including family support, education, child discipline and the process of acculturation.

  • Minority ethnic family life is complex and needs to be understood in the context of migration, ethnicity, socio-economic circumstances, multiculturalism, and racism.
  • Contact with family and friends varied across ethnic groupings. Minority ethnic families reported more frequent contacts with the wider family network than white families. White families reported more frequent contact with friends.
  • The impact of migration and the fragmentation of families affected the extent to which wider family members were available to support some minority ethnic families.
  • The demarcation between public and private concerns seems to be in evidence in different ethnic groups. Some ethnic groups felt able to raise concerns about poor housing and lack of finance; they were less likely to vocalise their children's behaviour as problematic to outsiders.
  • The task of ethnic and racial socialisation is a challenging but important one for minority parents and children. In addition to creating a positive, nurturing and supportive environment, minority parents have additional tasks of giving positive messages about difference and diversity and to develop a sense of belonging.
  • Parents employ a range of discipline strategies. The findings challenge the supposition that physical punishment is more prevalent or harsh in some minority cultures.
  • Most parents wished to be involved in their children's education, regardless of ethnic background and socio-economic status. Black and Asian parents placed an enormous importance on the value of education, something less prominent among the white group.


Although much concern is expressed about 'differential' parenting practices and the poor outcomes in black and Asian children, relatively little is known about parenting in minority ethnic communities. As British society becomes increasingly multi-ethnic comprising diverse religious and cultural traditions, it is important that an adequate understanding is developed of the needs and concerns of racially and ethnically differing groups.

This study presents the findings from an empirical study into the views and experiences of a non-clinical group of 'ordinary' parents in diverse ethnic communities in England. A total of 385 parents provided quantitative analysis, and a further 61 comprised the qualitative component of the study. The predominant ethnic groupings included Asian, African, African-Caribbean
and white.

The complexity of ethnicity, socio-economic context, family form, and race and racism provide the backdrop for the discussion of family support and networks, parental authority and discipline, attitudes and views about education, and acculturation and racial and ethnic socialisation.

Socio-economic difficulties

The findings suggest that low income, unemployment, and poor housing were characteristic of black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families. Many such families were reliant upon social housing. Lack of financial resources coupled with poor and overcrowded housing led to very difficult situations for some.

“In terms of housing, we have a three-bedroomed house … we are too squeezed, not used to such small places like … rooms are dingy … .” (African mother)

“We've got just two bedrooms and it is too small for us with the kids … see how small it is, there's no place for my kids to play well.” (Bangladeshi mother)

Single parenthood and ethnicity were also key dimensions in the study. Many of the Caribbean families experiencing financial and housing problems were lone mothers.

Overcrowding, older properties, flats rather than houses, and higher floors rather than lower floors were common concerns.

Support networks and informal support

Social networks involving family, friends and other informal networks were considered important in creating social cohesion, and better supported individuals, families and communities.

The wider family was a strong source of support for many parents, who described contact with relatives as an important ingredient in the upbringing of their children. Mothers often played a key role in establishing and maintaining key links with the wider family and children were often at the centre of this.

The experiences of minority families in the sample demonstrate the impact of migration upon family networks. It is clear that whilst the wider family is important to minority groups, the process of migration from their countries of birth to Britain has resulted in the fragmentation of the wider family network for some. Thus, although minority communities reported good frequent contact with their families, the non-availability of some family members, such as grandparents, other family friends and the informal networks is evident. An African father highlighted the supportive nature of the informal networks involving family and friends in his native land of Ghana:

“Back home we have a small group of people, mostly married people, and from time to time we meet in someone's house, this gathering was very helpful … very, very effective. Even if a husband and wife had a problem ... colleagues had troubles, if a wife thinks that the husband is too domineering with the children or too impatient, we can sit down, issues on the table and dissect them. But not here.” (African father)

Change and continuity

The extent to which minority ethnic groups adapt to social and cultural change is an important debate in modern multi-racial societies. These findings reveal that it is important to understand adaptation/acculturation within the context of migration, ethnicity, identity and belonging, the political, social and economic climate, and the process of 'otherness' in the host society.

Language and religion are key characteristics of culture, ethnicity and heritage. These are generally perceived as central vehicles for accessing a culture/group, constructing shared identities and defining out-groups.

The distribution of power in British society and the social and political discourse on race and ethnicity are useful in understanding the views and experiences of minority family life. In their accounts of parenting experiences, concerns and anxieties, it became evident that many minority ethnic parents shared a relatively common view on ethnic and racial socialisation of their children. The emphasis placed on religion and language transmission, and the location of these within a family and cultural context were two key components of this framework.

The majority of African and Asian parents reported many struggles in the transmission of ethnic group language. In the absence of key educational support structures, parents reported that they were finding it extremely difficult to raise bilingual children. Although the educational and social benefits of bilingualism are beginning to be recognised, the majority of parents signified the importance of learning ethnic group languages in family and cultural terms only. For a few parents, the mother tongue was of little importance. This was because they themselves had a poor command of the community language; or because they believed that fluency in the dominant language was the only way forward for their child to succeed in education and the world of work.

Another key dimension of racial and ethnic socialisation is the transmission of religious belief. For many minority ethnic families, religion and ethnic identity were intertwined. Visiting a place of worship signified more than just a place to pray. Parents expressed the need to be amongst others who shared a similar cultural heritage. This was perceived to be important for themselves and their children in the development and maintenance of group and self-identity.

Group and self-identity within the context of ethnicity and culture were important considerations in interviews with the parents. Almost all parents expressed the view that it was important for children to learn about their own and other people's cultures. However, minority ethnic parents expressed this view more strongly.

“I always tell them not to lose their identity. That's important wherever they go. That's the root of your life, if you know who you are, who you belong to, what your background is … It gives children a sound background.” (Indian mother)

Physical punishment

Research evidence suggests high representation of minority ethnic children in child protection services. Whilst there is little evidence to support this, the impression that is created is that some cultural groups hold particularly punitive attitudes to child rearing. High profile child tragedies involving black children such as Jasmine Beckford, Tyra Henry and Victoria Climbié add to the unspoken myths and apprehensions about minority families.

Whilst the popular myths and stereotypes are that some cultural groups mete out harsher punishment, this study documents no real differences between ethnic groups with regard to physical punishment of children. Less than two-fifths of the parents in the study reported that they had used physical punishment (mostly occasionally) in disciplining their children.

Physical punishment was often the last resort for parents. It was evident that parenting strategies were in a constant state of flux throughout the parenting cycle. Many parents reported hitting their child when the child was younger, but believed that as children grow up it was no longer an effective or desirable way to discipline them. Also, some parents used physical punishment after other strategies had been tried but failed. At times, the threat of being smacked or hit was said to be effective by some parents.

Adopting a particular tone of voice was a preferred way of disciplining children for some parents. This was considered to be more effective than shouting, or hitting. For some minority ethnic parents, reverting to their own ethnic group language to express their annoyance with the child was also an effective discipline strategy.

“Yeah, give them a little slap you know. But as they get older you talk to them and it's the manner of your voice and the way you talk to them, they get scared.” (Indian father)

“When I'm speaking my language, they know I'm mad.” (African mother)

There are key determining influences in the implementation of various discipline strategies including context, ethnicity and gender. Black and Asian parents highlighted many fears which were located in the urban environment, but also related to race and racism. The implications of this were felt by both children and parents. A Caribbean mother explained how she had very strict rules to ensure her children's safety. She had become particularly strict as a result of a personal experience when her son went missing for three hours following a fight with some older boys in the local park:

“… they don't play outside at all. They play in the garden. If they do go out, I go with them because I had a really bad experience a couple of years ago when Stephen went out with his cousins. They were older children, about 12 or 11, and he ran away.” (Caribbean lone mother)

Parental involvement in children's education

The majority of parents are involved in helping their child with homework. The nature and extent of parental involvement varied between different ethnic groups, and some clear ethnic, social class and family type differences have been noted in terms of provision of educational materials, access to TV/computer, and arrangements for private tuition.

It is notable from the data that black and Asian parents place an enormous importance on the value of education, and express a great deal of concern about the future of their children. The reality and impact of racism in their own lives and in the lives of their children was not far from the minds of minority ethnic parents. Good education was regarded as of the utmost importance to combat racial discrimination and disadvantage and to prevent social exclusion. Respect for teachers, clear rules and boundaries for the completion of homework, provision of educational materials including private tuition, and encouraging their child to go on to further and higher education were some of the key areas of focus for these parents.

Respect for teachers was seen to be the cornerstone of a good education, self-discipline and an appreciation for knowledge and learning.

“Obey the teacher, listen to the teacher, respect the teacher as they respect the parents … I tell them that the teachers in school must be obeyed, you must not misbehave.” (Bangladeshi father)

“Young people need education in school. Without education you get nowhere in life. That's the main point. I always say to my kids, 'When you go to school, it's for you to learn and not mess about, because when it comes for you to leave school and you've got no education, it doesn't matter if the teachers don't like you, she's not there to be liked, she's there to teach'. I always tell them that. Without education, you get nowhere in life.” (Caribbean mother)

The intersections of ethnicity, social class, parental employment patterns, and family type were evident in the findings indicating the complexity of the concept of parenting and family life. Asian parents with poor or limited education were most likely to make arrangements for their child to go to a private tutor. Indeed, parents attempted to compensate for their own lack of formal education to try and ensure that their children had an easier path out of social exclusion. A lone Asian working mother illustrated the ways in which the multifarious nature of parental status influenced their involvement in their children's education.

“I'm always asking … making sure their homework is done, are they studying, are they reading, have they done their reading? I find … because I work full-time and I'm single I find that I always have to be nagging them more than spending any pleasure time with them.” (Indian mother)


Given the disproportionate involvement of some minority ethnic groups with health and social care services, the researchers conclude that the perspectives of 'ordinary' minority ethnic families are crucial in understanding parenting and family life in today's multi-racial Britain. In particular, the study suggests that those advising and supporting families need to be more aware of the following:

  • The heterogeneity of minority ethnic family life is complex and needs to be understood in the context of migration, ethnicity, socio-economic circumstances, multiculturalism, and racism.
  • Although minority communities reported good frequent contact with their wider family network, the non-availability of some family members such as grandparents was an important concern for others.
  • Minority ethnic families are no more likely to use punitive discipline methods than other parents.
  • Minority ethnic families reported the task of 'ethnic and racial socialisation' of their young to be challenging but crucial. The difficulties of raising bilingual children suggest that parents need better and more effective external help.
  • Provision of effective support services to families and children in need.

About the project

The research study is based on a survey of 385 parents (272 mothers, 113 fathers) from a range of diverse ethnic backgrounds. The predominant ethnic groupings included Asian (156), black (106), and white (123).

Parents of primary school-age children (7-11), from four geographical locations in London and Berkshire, participated in the study.

Semi-structured interviews with 61 parents (45 mothers and 16 fathers) add further substance to the findings.