Cultural Brokering Stresses Students, Families

September 15, 2012

Curtis Jones

Curtis Jones

When moving to a new country, families often need help navigating the culture and language. Through their experiences in school and making new friends, children usually learn the language and adjust to the culture more quickly than their parents. As a result, in immigrant families, children often act as translators and interpreters during phone calls and daily conversations.

Parents often ask their children to translate newspapers, bills, rental agreements, notes from school, movies, and TV shows. Children are often used to help parents find information about potential jobs or manage family finances. In their role as “cultural broker,” children help immigrant families adapt and survive in the new culture.

Research on culture brokering has suggested that the acts of translating and interpreting may actually help students academically. However, the responsibilities of translating and interpreting for adults can create stress for children and also lead to tension among family members which can, under certain conditions, lower children’s performance in school. Previous studies focused on the individual child and interpersonal family dynamics. They determined that culture brokering interferes with children’s efforts to gain autonomy from their parents, which results in child emotional distress and family disagreements. 

Curtis Jones, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, applied a contextualist perspective to the culture broker phenomenon. That means he related the culture broker role to the resources that immigrants from the former Soviet Union bring with them and the resources available to them in the communities where they settle.

Jones and colleagues surveyed 328 former Soviet families settled in and around Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. They asked about their use of their children as culture brokers, their acculturation to the U.S., their employment situation, their emotional health, and their family functioning.  Further, they explored characteristics of settlement neighborhoods by analyzing economic and cultural census data.  The study established that the family and community economic and cultural contexts (1) acted as a determinant of culture brokering, and (2) helped explain how brokering related to family disagreements and child distress. 
Jones found that families were more likely to use their children as cultural brokers when the parents had less English proficiency, lower status jobs, and lived in neighborhoods with more Russian speaking families. A parent’s low job status was likely to be associated with increased family stress. It also usually meant the family had fewer resources, which led to “patchworking,” where children were required to do more of the work needed to run a family, including culture brokering. Conversely, families had less need for cultural brokering if they had lived longer in the U.S., held higher status jobs, were more fluent in English, and lived in more advantaged communities.

As Jones had hypothesized, the findings showed a direct relationship between children acting as culture brokers and a higher amount of family disagreements. Family disagreements also were related to children’s emotional distress (see the figure below). 

These findings add complexity to the understanding of cultural brokering found in the research literature. Jones’ study points to the need for using an ecological framework to understand the role of the cultural broker in the lives of immigrant and refugee families.

The findings support theory and research that suggest that children step into the broker role more often when their parents’ English language skills don’t meet the family’s needs. If the parents’ English proficiency was poor, this influenced parents’ job status, both of which resulted in more likelihood of children acting as brokers.

Also, since economic conditions influence job status, children in less economically advantaged communities could be expected to perform the role of culture brokers more frequently. Although community economic factors were found to be important, they are rarely included in studies of immigrant youth in general and culture brokering in particular.

Jones cautions that it would be inappropriate to generalize the specific results of this study to other cultural groups and immigrants in other contexts. But it’s important to keep in mind social and economic contexts when studying immigrant families more generally, and the culture broker role more specifically, with other cultural groups.

Adapted from the article, “Determinants and Consequences of Child Culture Brokering in Families from the Former Soviet Union,” by Curtis J. Jones, Edison J. Trickett, and Dina Birman. American Journal of Community Psychology, Online First™, 13 January 2012,