Where our children in the West are heading to?

by Abdi G. Elmi, MA Thursday, April 04, 2013

As so often happens, one morning I was asked to interpreter at a juvenile court proceeding in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the parents of a sixteen year old. After a long wait the court proceeding started and I was sitting between the parents whispering in Somali every word said in English by the court officials, the prosecutor and defense counsel. It was a short hearing where the juvenile and his parents were informed of the charges against the juvenile (officially put in the record) and the next court proceeding was scheduled. The juvenile was charged with several counts of different offenses including curfew violations, giving false information to police and aiding and abetting in a theft. At the end of the hearing, the judge asked the parents if they had any questions for the court or the prosecuting attorney. The mother who eagerly wanted to speak said that her son was a citizen of the United States, and that the court and prosecuting attorney should not think that he was a green card holder (permanent resident). They added that they didn’t think the prosecutor had that information. And with that the proceeding ended!


While the juvenile, the parents and I were waiting in the hall to receive the date and location for the next court hearing, I asked myself several questions but whispered them to myself without sharing them with anyone else. How was it possible that the parents didn’t know where the juvenile had been at 10:30 pm – the time that the juvenile was arrested? How had the juvenile in the case left home with other teenagers and driven to a place about thirty or forty miles away from home and committed a crime? How had the juvenile had the nerve to tell lies about his name and address when talking to the police, even telling lies about the parents whom he lived with? And those weren’t my only questions. Surely there must be a problem!

There is no doubt that there are warning signs that can lead parents to more closely monitor their children’s activities and what they can expect before it reaches the point where the juvenile is brought back home by law enforcement handcuffed or where the parents receive a call from the juvenile detention center asking them to pick up their child who is in custody for a crime he/she has committed. These warning signs should cause the parents to make further investigation – investigation of a proactive nature – in order to prevent what might happen in the future. Upon acting upon the warning signs, parents should more closely scrutinize their children’s activities and strictly monitor how their children spend their time, the places where they go and whom they go with.

These kinds of incidents happen for many reasons but the main reason is the lack of monitoring of children and general parental negligence. Certain regulations set by the state authorities including those for curfew and truancy are set to help parents monitor and follow their children’s activities but should not replace parents’ roles.

The system (juvenile courts) assumes that when the child is in trouble with the system, there is a problem at home where the child lives, but it’s an assumption does not occur to many parents. Somali parents, for example, seem to think that if their child is in trouble, they have nothing to do with it and should not be held responsible. That problem needs to be addressed and fixed. But who is to fix it?

My experience with the juvenile system is that most of the young teenagers who are brought to the courts are there for a certain specific minor offenses including shop lifting, giving false information to the police, riding public transportation without paying proper fees and other similar minor offenses. But there are times when teenagers are involved in more serious offenses such as gang involvement and robbery.

The nature of the above cases has a great deal to do with the parents’ involvement with their children and their children’s upbringing. If the two parents are not at home often or one parent is missing from the home, then the child may have time when he/she is not under parental supervision and when he/she may become exposed to the outside world with no proper monitoring or guidance. The parent has the responsibility of teaching children the basic rules of life, and among these is the rule that a child shouldn’t take anything that doesn’t belong to him/her and doesn’t have permission to take. The child should seek permission before going anywhere and parents should know their children’s friends. The parents should set strict home rules including times to watch television, other activities and bedtime. This may be a difficult task at times, especially as children grow older, but it needs to be done if our children are going to succeed.

The style of living in the West is different in many ways from the environment back home where parents had less involvement with their children’s education and activity. In many parts of the world, including my homeland, Somalia, the official duties of the department of education include the behavioral development of the children. Back home teachers are not at school simply to teach students academic subjects but are also responsible for handling the behavior of their students. It is of utmost importance to teach students how to make appropriate decisions and help students when it is seen that their behaviors are changing. Teachers and students spend more time together than the child spends at home or with his/her parents. Students are at school for almost one-third of the twenty-four hours of the day. Back home parents had the support of other relatives and neighbors. I do remember in my childhood, we used to be as concerned about our neighbors as we were about our parents and sometimes even more. Every parent in the neighborhood treated all the local children the same, and any wrongdoing discovered was reported back to the parents of the children after they had dealt with it themselves. If one of the parents in the neighborhood saw a child doing something inappropriate, they would stop and mete out discipline. It was mutually agreed that a strong network was needed for the sake of all the children in the neighborhood as was strong communication between the parents.

At school, teachers were given a free hand, and acted as second parents for the children in their care and there were high expectations from the parents. There was no police presence in the schools. Parents guaranteed school principals and teachers their respect and a free hand in the teaching and disciplining of their students. Parents were called to the schools only to give them updates and consult with them about certain situations, and parental involvement was deemed part of the process. I don’t recall my parents ever being called to come to the school for disciplinary reasons.

In the West, the situation is different. Teachers are not responsible for how their students behave, but rather their responsibility is limited only to teaching academic subjects and reporting to the liaison police officer at school all the concerns they may have. Because of the teachers’ limited responsibility, parents have to fill the gap and play more of a role then they used to play back home. Parents are expected to have continuous communication with the teachers, if not weekly, then at least once a month.

We decided to live in the West and bring our children with us so we must adjust to the system. We can’t expect the system to adjust to us. Yes, there are accommodations to make, but we, an immigrant community, are responsible for adjusting to the system here and for becoming good citizens who make contributions to the society in which we live.

It is understandable that we will meet with cultural conflict or culture shock if you wish to call it that when we immigrate to the West, but I can’t find any excuse for the failure of many parents to even know where their child is at the times when the child should be at home.

Some or most of the children who display inappropriate behavior commit offenses because of peer pressure or in imitation of bad behavior. These children think that challenging authority figures including teachers, principals and the police is a way to gain respect and fame from their peers, and the absence of the parent’s role in the juvenile’s upbringing fuels the situation and makes the child vulnerable to peer pressure – becomes its victim in fact.

The bottom line is that if parents do not get involved, monitor their children’s activities closely and become friends with their children, then the children will have many friends whom parents may regret in the end.  Children will have friends that do not care about their future and well-being – friends who will lead them down the wrong path and allow them to travel that path and face the consequences.

The education system has failed to make parents aware of the importance of their involvement with the education of their children. Most parents only find out about their children’s offenses after they have been summoned to juvenile court. These days, parents are quite often the last ones to know about incidents that occur in our schools, when in fact they should be the first. Whatever the reason for this, our public school districts should be working more closely with parents and encouraging them to be part of the system. Schools should stop using point of contact for the parents or using children as interpreters when they are meeting with the parents over concerns about their children. Since large numbers of the parents do not speak English, it is entirely possible that the children whom the school districts are using as interpreters don’t fully convey the message to their parents.

In the end, the success of our children in this new culture and society depends on how hard we work with the system of education to involve their parents in their education and upbringing. Parents should not be passive and wait till they are called, but rather they need to be proactive, present and maintain continuous communication with the schools and as well as teachers. It is an ongoing commitment and an essential contribution to the future of our children.

Abdi G. Elmi, MA. is a court certified Somali Interpreter in the State of Minnesota and the nation. He can be reached at interpreter@firstinus.com