immigrant fathers in america -- 8/19/16

Today's selection -- from The End of American Childhood by Paula S. Fass. At the turn of the 20th century and beyond, American high schools became critical tools of assimilation for the waves of immigrants entering the country. But the egalitarian culture these teenage immigrants found and adopted from their classmates led them to a confounding boldness and disrespect that put great pressure on the highly patriarchal families of these immigrants. The crisis for immigrant fathers was the highly difficult task of adapting from "uncontested patriarch" to "first among equals." Instead of adapting, they often became more autocratic:

"The deeply patriarchal household [writer Kate] Simon described is often associ­ated with many traditional European families, among them Eastern European Jews like [her family]. It was a pattern almost impossible to sustain in the American context, as early-twentieth-century social workers and sociologists who studied it understood. Louis Wirth was especially perceptive about its transitory nature. ... [He] described the trials of Jewish families in Chicago, another impor­tant immigrant city. 'Jewish parents are more apt to regard disobe­dience and disrespect on the part of their children as a problem and family crises as calamities than the other groups. Deviations from the customs, the traditions and norms of conduct of the group often constitute a serious problem.' ...

"The Simons were far from orthodox, and Kate's mother even gave up the sacred ritual of lighting Sabbath candles, but Wirth's sense of the expectation of obedience and the resulting tendency toward discord defined the atmosphere in first-generation families like theirs. Parents were confused about how they could preserve their stand­ing in the ethnic community and among their kin, as well as their own self-respect, as they watched their children adapt to the require­ments of the new world to which they had brought them. Immigrants had crossed the ocean to survive and, if possible, to succeed, but not necessarily to change. Their ethnic lives in the United States, includ­ing newspapers, food stores, theaters, clubs and burial societies (often linked to their hometowns), were a buffer meant to shield them from the overwhelming threat of change. Above all the family itself was meant to shield immigrants by providing them with the economic and emotional support of their primary attachments.

"Their children brought change straight into the heart of the fam­ily. Immigrants tried to maintain the common good of the family as a governing principle and a means for cultural continuity, but changing their personal habits, their language, and 'individualizing' their goals was what America was all about for the young. Schools were deeply implicated in creating this conflict in perspectives. The high school, especially, because it emboldened older children, diffi­cult enough to control in the best of circumstances and on whom parents were often dependent economically, was especially potent in this regard. Exposed all day long to others, many of whom were unlike themselves, to American ideas and values, and peers and teach­ers who approved of their transformation, second-generation high school students made conflict a poignant part of the experience of almost all migrant groups. According to sociologists W. Lloyd War­ner and Leo Srole, who studied a range of different groups including Greeks, Italians, French Canadians, Poles, and Jews, the threat to parenting authority in the United States strained first generation immigrant households especially because fathers lost the brace of in­stitutional supports that once undergirded their authority. 'Does he capitulate to the incontestable logic of the situation and assume the father role after the American mode, converting himself from the patriarch to something more like 'first among equals?' The evidence from the newer ethnic groups ... is that the father reasserts his au­thority through direct controls with even greater vigor than before.'

They were reinforcing Sigmund Freud's similar observations about turn-of-the-century Vienna: 'Even in our middle class families, fa­thers as a rule inclined to refuse their sons independence and the means necessary to secure it, ... foster the germ of the growth of hos­tility which is inherent in the relation .... In our society today fathers are apt to cling desperately to what is left of a now sadly antiquated potestas patris familias.' Even European patriarchy was beginning to erode. The American challenge to what was left of it was a further irritant in a difficult situation; all the more so when the resistance to authority came from daughters. The challenge to paternal authority thus often resulted in more rigid attempts at enforcement, as appears to have been the case in Simon's family.

"Italian parents were quite as sensitive as Jewish families to the ways in which schooling in the United States undermined their authority, and they resented how American children upended their once un­questioned expectations about obedience and quiet subordination. 'Children listened to their elders,' Leonard Covello remembered about his own childhood in Avigliano, Italy. 'We rarely ventured even a question and never offered a comment.' Covello devoted himself to finding ways of educating second-generation high school students without causing disrespect to their immigrant parents, but he knew that this attitude was impossible to sustain in America."


Paula S. Fass


The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2006 Paula S. Fass


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