This morning I had the good fortune to spend time with Chinese MSW students. A professor here invited me to talk with his class. I did a formal presentation but, as is often the case here, I had to go a bit off message because there are so many questions about differences between the U.S. and China.
The hardest question, of course, concerned child protection. In China at the moment child protection systems only serve children who are abandoned. There is no clear definition of maltreatment and no system to deal with it, even if there was. Students here apparently hear about situations in which Asians from many countries move to western countries and run afoul of child welfare authorities because of child-rearing choices that are considered maltreatment in the host country are ostensibly acceptable ways of discipline in the home countries. The students asked how social workers in the U.S. negotiate these divergent views. This is a question that I dread. I was first asked something similar when I was a new professor. An adult MSW student from another country, not an Asian country, stated, in the course of a class discussion that as a young child she had stolen something and had had her hand burned on the stove as punishment. She stated emphatically that this was not abuse but a common cultural practice and that she maintained a close relationship with the family member that burned her. As a new teacher, this was a moment of horror. In addition to terrible image of a child being deliberately burned, there was the implicit challenge in the statement from the student to which I needed to respond. Breathe, feel, think, speak. Another student in the class expressed deep sympathy for what had happened to her, giving me the space to think how to approach her statement. What might the consequences of a burn to the hand be – infection, nerve damage, loss of mobility? How would someone know whether they had burned too much or too little? How angry would a caregiver have to be to do that? Does true discipline come out of anger? If discipline is teaching, what was this practice teaching? Is that what every parent in that country did or were there some families that would have chosen some other method to teach their child not to steal? My husband, the lawyer, does not find all of this as complicated. You live in a particular country, you abide by its rules. But in the social work role, it is complicated. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about cultural competence but what does that mean in the child welfare context? Is the same behavior maltreatment if you are American and a cultural difference if you’re not? And if I’m a social worker tasked with intervening, how do I demonstrate respect for cultural difference even as I say that particular behaviors cannot stand? There are no easy answers accept the simple ones: breathe and take time to listen; feel and find compassion, it really is so hard to be a parent; think, use your education; then speak honestly and say what needs to be said.