Arab Family Dynamics: What Do the Numbers Tell?
By: Cait O’Connor/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Parenting styles across the world are as diverse and individualized as families themselves. However, certain generalizations can be made to track how different regions and cultures approach childrearing.
This is in no way an expert or even a first-hand opinion, but instead an analysis and overview of research studies conducted about parenting styles in the Arab world.
Although Arab fathers are very attached to and invested in their children, they may be reluctant to show emotion and express love explicitly. The traditional role for fathers is the “protector” and “provider,” sacrificing their own personal concerns for the needs of the family. While Arab mothers involve themselves in the family’s personal and emotional matters, fathers remain removed.
An Arab father’s relationship with a child is one of respect as opposed to fear. In an article posted in the National magazine, author Rym Ghazal reflects on Arab father-daughter relationships, writing that:
“While we barely spend time with our fathers, they are always somehow in the background of our minds. We all share our private stories with our mothers, but it is our father’s approval that we seek deep down – especially in matters concerning marriage and work.”
Evidence of the patriarchal order seen in ancient Roman murals
Male children are taught from a young age to protect their female relatives and sisters. This is just one component of the patriarchal social structure that exists in both Arab and Western societies. The father is the head of the household in this system, responsible for governing the affairs of the immediate family. Women raise children and instill traditional values while men work to earn money outside the home.
The employment rate for Arab-American immigrant women in the U.S. is among the lowest recorded for any immigrant group, suggesting that traditional gender roles persist even after the family has migrated. Although Arab-Americans tend to be highly educated, with higher income earning rates than their American counterparts, traditional gender roles dissuade Arab women from entering the workforce.
The following chart records the responses of Arab-American parents regarding their feelings about women’s employment and its effect on children. It is clear that parents are divided on this issue. The majority of participants either agree or disagree on these topics, suggesting that it is hard to categorize cultural values that are assumed to be “traditional” or “standard.” The Arab world, like the West, is caught between tradition and modernity in terms of parenting styles and gender roles.
In spite of cultural differences faced upon immigration, no Western institution has yet shaken the family structure from its seat at the foundation of Arab social order. Relatives may be distant, yet they remain in close contact with the nuclear family. Children are taught to respect their elders unconditionally and to take care of their parents in old age.
These societies are also patrilineal, meaning that inheritance and family lineage are traced through the male line. As a result, the father is the ultimate, larger-than-life authority figure to whom decisions are ultimately directed.
The patriarchal and patrilineal systems may cause families to favor male children over female children. In Jordan and Syria, there is a stronger preference for male children than in any other counties in the MENA region. Families may perceive that the social status assigned to men will contribute to the family’s future security and economic stability.
The following chart details the child gender preference of Arab-American parents:
The reasons for these preferences can be found here. In accordance with gender norms and patrilineal trends, boys are favored for their continuation of the family name, while girls are favored for companionship.
Childrearing Practices: Analysis and Comparison
Firstborn Arab children endure more permissive styles of parenting. Arab family parenting styles are influenced more by country of origin and sibling order than by other factors such as urbanization, parents’ education, and economic level. The Parental Authority Questionnaire (PAQ) is a 30-question test that asks children to assess their parents’ disciplinary methods. The test identifies three parenting styles: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. Lebanon has the most Westernized approach to parenting. Egyptians, Algerians, and Palestinians reportedly used both authoritarian and permissive parenting styles equally. Arab parenting overall is a collective activity, with many authority and adult figures playing an active role.
Arab youth may be more satisfied with an aggressive, authoritative style of parenting than Western children. Interestingly, girls were more likely to favor aggressive parenting styles and the adoption of family morals than boys. 64.4% of Egyptian female college students favored “absolute submission” to parents, while only 33.1% of male students agreed with this parenting style. 57% of women favored adopting their parents’ morals, compared with only 25.7% of men. Additionally, 67.5% of Saudi college women interviewed reported that their parents used physical punishment. Male children undergo more physical punishment than female children.
Overall, Arab children are more accepting of aggressive and authoritative parenting styles, tending to see this as the norm rather than the exception. Although women are treated more strictly than men, male children tend to undergo more physical punishment from their parents. Firstborn Arab children tend to be treated more gently than later siblings, receiving more of the parents’ admiration and attention.
Parental Affection and Involvement
Recent research suggests that parental involvement is crucial to a child’s emotional development. It is common for parents to spend more time with children of their same gender. Although mothers tend to feel equally close to both children, fathers report a greater closeness to their sons than their daughters.
Closeness correlates with affection, measured below. While fathers tend to show affection according to their level of closeness, mothers show more affection toward their sons. Mothers overall appear more affectionate, however.
The love shown by an Arab parent may be more symbolic than explicit. Parents express their love through gestures and protections, including providing food, money, and educational resources. To constantly repeat the phrase “I love you” feels inauthentic and overused to some. Instead, parents interact with their children, as outlined below. While a large portion of the parents surveyed played with and helped children with school work every day, boys tended to receive more interactive attention than girls.
No survey or set of statistics can gauge the way family members interact with and respond to one another. However, the value of records such as these comes in understanding and learning from the many varieties of family dynamics and childrearing practices around the world.