Bilingual-Parenting Expert Maritere Bellas Shares Her Tips for Healthy, Multicultural Bonding with Kids
For the CHICA series “Mami Tales,” we wanted to explore ways for parents and kids to bond. And we wanted to look at how to instill an appreciation for both biculturalism and physical health in our children.
To do all this, we tapped Maritere Bellas. Maritere is an award-winning author, and bilingual and multicultural parenting expert. Maritere's books, Raising Bilingual Children/Cómo Criar Niños Bilingues, and Arroz Con Pollo and Apple Pie, a guide for immigrant families, both received a finalist award at The International Latino Book Awards. For 12 years, Maritere wrote a highly regarded and influential parenting column for La Opinión, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the country. Her work has been featured on Huffington Post, HipLatina and in Alegria Magazine, among other titles, and she appears as an expert on Univision and Telemundo programs.
The good news is the advice is simple to understand. Teach by example, spend time with your kids and make things fun for them when it's time to learn. As far as helping to make your kids multilingual, you can't start too early exposing them to different languages.
The catch, of course, is that time and effort must be put in. This doesn't always come easy when both parents work. But by just doing what you can, the payoff can be immeasurable.
Bellas not only gave us some solid tips and information, but a look into her own life. Naturally, she knows how important it is to lead by example! She even mentions something she would have done differently.
CHICA: What inspired you to write about motherhood for a living.
Maritere Bellas: When my children were young, there was no information for Latino parents on how to raise bilingual or multicultural children. My children were being raised with two languages and three cultures, and I felt like I didn't have any support, no books or internet that could help me figure out how to find a balance between all the cultures and languages. Nothing that would help me navigate my parenting journey in a culture that was not the culture I grew up with.
I approached La Opinión newspaper in Los Angeles with the idea of a parenting column and they loved it. That was 1995. My column, “Pizarrón Familiar,” ran for almost 12 years.
Do you remember what your first column was about?
I think my first column was about how I was feeling as the mom of two multicultural children and sharing my perspective and offering any research I could find to help other parents in the same situation. The column tackled things that were happening in our world that affected children and families, and things that were happening in my house that I felt could be of help by sharing.
What was a popular or particularly controversial column you remember?
I think “controversial” is a strong word, but I do remember writing about the 7-year-old that was allowed by her parents to fly solo and the plane crashed and she died. Without judgment, and as humbly as I could, I wrote about it and shared that I would have never allowed a child that young to fly on an airplane by herself, regardless of how much she loved it! I never received any negative mail (in those days that is how we communicated), but I think those were different times. Today, I would have probably heard from parents that didn't agree with my “helicopter parenting.”
What does “bonding” with kids mean to you? How would you define it?
Any activity we do with our children qualifies as bonding. Family time is bonding time, regardless of what we do together. An activity, a trip, reading, cooking, eating, talking, listening, dancing, and so on.
Is there a simple way to teach kids the merits of a healthy lifestyle?
Parents are the first example and if children see mom and dad following healthy eating habits, exercising, finding time to play a sport — and finding ways to encourage and motivate their children to play outdoors and to pursue outdoor activities — they will grow up with a healthy mindset.
Online you can find lists about bonding activities that say: Read to your kids. Play with your kids. Cook with your kids. Is it really that simple? Could you elaborate on these with a bicultural perspective?
All those you mentioned are excellent opportunities to practice and nurture the culture and language. Reading time is bonding time. Alternate books in English and in Spanish and not only read out loud to the children but ask for them to read out load to the parents. As children grow older, there can be a conversation about how a healthy lifestyle is good for the mind and the body, and how it can contribute to a more confident person and a higher self-esteem.
As far as playing?
Planning family walks and hikes, exposing children to cultural activities that promote and instill cultural pride, family movie night at home, perhaps alternate each week between a movie in Spanish and a movie in English.
How did you play with your kids?
In my kids' day, we used to go to the beach all the time. And the park. We spent a lot of time outside. They were exposed to organized sports since they were 5. They were also exposed to culture: art museums, libraries, plays, musicals. And there were always the cultural events that promoted their Latino and Greek culture.
As my kids grew older, we did go skiing together as a family for many years in a row and we started playing tennis. At 13, my son realized he liked tennis the best of any other sport and got to play for his high school. My daughter picked volleyball and played for her high school. She and her dad would enjoy an occasional basketball outing. Today, my son, my husband and I enjoy tennis and we play often. My daughter chose running and yoga and enjoys cross training. Last fall, she trained and competed in a triathalon. Both kids grew up with a mom that exercised and played tennis, at the top of the list, and a dad that played basketball twice a week. We are happy it translated into two young adults that value their health.
Did you use cooking as bonding time?
I love to cook and when my kids were little, I would prop them up in their high chairs next to the kitchen counter and would cook something Puerto Rican: rice, pork, habichuelas (beans) and would talk about the ingredients and would share an anecdote about my abuelita, or their abuelita and my whole conversation was in Spanish. I would ask them to repeat the word of that ingredient in Spanish so we could have a conversation. I would do the same when cooking Greek food and my husband would be the one telling his growing up stories. Now that my kids are young adults, we still enjoy cooking together.
What if you try but your kids aren't into cooking with?
Cooking can be a teaching activity. But if the kids don't enjoy it, find something else that works for both parent and child. Bonding, like learning a new language or nurturing culture, should be fun!
Is there something you would do today differently than you did with your kids back then?
As far as language, if I could do it over again, I would have enrolled my children in summer school in Puerto Rico, while we visited family for two months every year. Or I would have chosen to move to the island for a year or two, to ensure their fluency in the language.
Speaking of teaching languages. Please give us your thoughts on when and how to bring in Spanish in an English speaking household. Is it possible to start too early?
It is a myth to think that we want our kids to get better at one language before starting another. Studies have demonstrated that we are all born with a multilingual brain. All children can learn many languages at the same time and the sooner the better! If mom speaks Spanish, she should be speaking in Spanish to the children all the time. If dad speaks English, he should speak English. The children can go back and forth, effortlessly! Trust me. Our brains are elastic, they can handle it! Look at the research, [it's] so much easier now [to look at]!
It would be a negative effect to push kids or to treat it like a chore. Language learning should be fun, and like part of their daily lives, like brushing their teeth, two-three times a day. This is why we start from the beginning, so they don't see it as being different, but as part of who they are and as part of their family life.
Why is it important for kids to be aware of heritage?
We want our children to know where they came from, the customs, the traditions, and we would like them to embrace their cultural identity and pass it along to future generations.
For older kids, is it possible to push their heritage too much? What if they are clearly uninterested in their heritage?
I have not heard this one before, but I like the question. Clearly, it seems to me that if mom and dad are proud of their heritage, and from the beginning, children are exposed to their heritage, they should grow up being proud of who they are and where they came from. Parents are the example here. And by the way, it is important that parents accept the fact that our children are bicultural. This means that we as parents also embrace and respect their American culture.
At what age is learning on a screen like iPad apps OK? Say, to help the child become bilingual.
My children didn't grow up with iPads. Cellphones at that time, they didn't get until they were already in high school. Screen time was monitored and used mostly for homework. Studies show that today's children have cell phones as early as 6 or 7 years old. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends monitoring screen time, that includes iPads, to one hour a day for children ages 2 to 5. Parental control devices are also recommended. I say, for younger children, as little screen time as possible. And make sure that what they are watching or playing with is highly regarded.
I want to get my kids into the things that I like doing. Sometimes that feels wrong. Should I feel guilty about doing that?
Never feel guilty for wanting to spend time with your children! I would expose to what you like but ultimately, they might choose something else and that should be ok with you. What we want is for our kids to want to have and purse a healthy lifestyle!
On the other side, can you overindulge kids?
Yes! I see it all the time. My husband and I chose not to get the latest gadget around, the newest toy, the car at 16 years old, the cell phone until 14. But that is just my family. Everyone is different. We wanted to raise children that were not entitled because of where they lived and that valued and appreciated what they had.
As far as getting kids into healthy routines. Pushing drinking water and vitamin supplements, I would assume is a good thing. But are kids likely to rebel?
Lead by example! If mom and dad drink water in front of the kids and take a vitamin or two, kids are more likely to follow suit.
Any other activities or tips you might have that might facilitate bonding and a healthy lifestyle?
One example is, if you want them to eat more vegetables, perhaps planning to visit a farm and seeing where vegetable grow can be a motivator. Same with planting a vegetable garden together in your back yard and learning about the five food groups. There are online programs that can help with teaching children about nutrition and to eat healthy while they are playing and you can find more examples of activities here, here and here.
Remember that it is all about finding a balance. We want to teach, not overwhelmed and always keep in mind the child's maturity level.
Maritere Bellas's website www.maritererodriguezbellas.com, where she blogs, is a place where she shares her wisdom as a Latina author and as a mom. Next, Mari is working on a bilingual children's book series, Yunito's Bicultural Adventures.