Power dynamics along racial and class lines impact support for child development

Clinical psychologist Cynthia García Coll, PhD, stressed the need to recognize common ‘human’ characteristics among families while acknowledging cultural differences.

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The availability of resources that support healthy child development often reflect America’s centuries-old conflicts over race, class, and power, one of Erikson Institute’s 2017 honorary degree recipients said during a recent discussion with faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

“Minorities are not minorities because of numbers — it’s a matter of power and access,” said Cynthia García Coll, PhD, an influential researcher and clinical psychologist from Albizu University in Puerto Rico. “It goes back to this country’s Civil War. It’s the same issues of power and ownership, who controls resources, and who is human and not.”

Erikson hosted a conversation with Dr. Coll titled “Supporting the Development of Marginalized Children in Uncertain Times” the day before she gave a keynote speech to the Class of 2017 at Erikson’s graduation ceremony.

The discussion came just after the 20th anniversary of the “Integrative Model for the Study of Developmental Competencies in Minority Children,” which Dr. Coll and her peers published in 1996. The model is still widely used and studied today, including at Erikson, and continues to be highly relevant, as issues of inequality have been amplified in recent years, Dr. Coll said.

She stressed a need to acknowledge diversity, not just in terms of outward appearances but also in terms of culture and approaches to child rearing. At the same time, individuals working to support child development must also recognize that despite differences, all humans are common in many ways, such as the idea that “we all want our children to do well.”

The concept of differing approaches to child rearing can be difficult for Erikson students to grasp, particularly if they come from less diverse communities and have less exposure to different theories and practices, said Erikson Professor Luisiana Meléndez, PhD, who co-moderated the discussion with her colleague, Professor Tonya Bibbs, PhD, MSW.

“Not all parents do their child rearing in same way, and students sometimes see that as challenging,” Dr. Meléndez said. “They want to have a right way.”

“We have differences, but we are still part of the same circle,” Dr. Coll said. “That’s why students have difficulties. They are tribal; they are part of a tribe.”

Individuals who work with children and families need to consider the circumstances in which parenting is taking place, she said, echoing one of Erikon’s core commitments: Understanding child development in the context of relationships, family, and community. For instance, she said, parents who are from low-income households and are stressed sometimes find themselves raising their voices with children or even spanking, actions that a practitioner from a different background might find alarming.

In that sense, it is essential to mitigate other factors that might be causing family stress, including poor economic conditions and violence in the community, Dr. Coll continued. It’s also important to ensure that all families can access resources that support fundamental needs, including parenting assistance, adequate housing, and education.

“I just want open doors,” Dr. Coll said. “I just want supports and resources for kids and families to thrive. I just want to be sure everyone has access to everything that is theirs.”