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What is Cultural Reciprocity?

Aug 31, 2016

Cultural reciprocity is a crucial skill for all infant/family staff because it helps to ensure that staff and families are able to discuss these issues from a perspective of openness, learning, and acceptance.

Children develop within the context of family, community and cultural expectations. Culture is the implied or apparent rules and traditions shared by a group of people and expressed through their beliefs, values and goals (Kalyanpur and Harry, 1999). Culture shapes people’s understanding of the world. The influence of culture on child and family development is profound, and is especially important during the child’s first years of life.

Cultural reciprocity refers to the efforts of infant/family staff to understand families’ cultural beliefs, and to use this understanding as a way to help promote the healthy development of infants and toddlers. It refers to a staff member’s ability to respect families’ beliefs and traditions, and look for ways to meet families’ unique needs while still upholding program objectives. The model of cultural reciprocity asks infant/family staff members to look at (observe) the family, listen to the family, and learn more about their beliefs before proposing a course of action or determining what services the family might need. Using the model of cultural reciprocity helps to ensure that families are included as equal partners in the program. The model includes the four steps listed below.

  1. Identify what the staff member brings to the interaction. What cultural values are embedded in staff’s interpretation of the issue or in your recommendation? For example, when a family says they are trying to toilet train their 10 month old, the staff member’s immediate reaction may be “that’s too young!” and they may begin to think about all the reasons why their view is correct. Beliefs about issues like toilet-training, where a child sleeps, the appropriateness and timing of immunizations, and discipline (among others) are, in large part, culturally driven. We believe what we do is “right” because that was our own experience, and the experience of most people we knew.

  2. Find out whether the family being served recognizes and values the beliefs you have, and ask how their view differs from yours. This puts the family in the position of the “expert” and gives them the opportunity to “teach” you about their beliefs, values, and practices. It is important for staff members to listen open-mindedly and reserve judgment. In this example, the family might explain that, in their culture, it is common to hold a young infant—even as young as 2 months old—over the potty to get them used to it.

  3. Acknowledge and respect the cultural differences the staff member has identified. Explain the cultural basis of your beliefs and assumptions. This helps continue a dialogue with the family, and avoids putting the issue in the framework of “right” and “wrong.” In this example, the staff member might explain: “This is the first time I’ve heard of that practice before. In my family, and with my own children, I’ve waited until they were 2 or 3 to try toilet training. At that point, the research says kids have the ability to understand how to use the toilet, and the muscle control they need to hold it and go when they need to. They also know their bodies enough to recognize when they have to go, and the language skills to tell us. So I guess my beliefs about when to start toilet training comes from my own personal experience, and my work in early childhood.”

  4. Through discussion, determine the most effective way to adapt the staff member’s recommendations to the value system of the family. This means that the staff member, the program, and sometimes the family, too, may have to compromise. As partners, everyone involved can determine the best way to keep the family’s cultural beliefs a central part of the work you do. This doesn’t mean ignoring what early childhood research tells us about children’s development, but that staff members share this information with parents and allow them to make informed choices. In this example, the family might choose to continue toilet-training. After reading some materials that staff members offer them and a few more discussions, the family acknowledges that it may be unrealistic for their child to be fully trained until at least another year. They agree not to punish the child for “mistakes.”

Cultural reciprocity is a crucial skill for all infant/family staff because it helps to ensure that staff and families are able to discuss these issues from a perspective of openness, learning, and acceptance. The tips below highlight ways that staff members can develop the skills necessary to recognize and resolve the cultural dilemmas that arise in their work with families.

Tips for Promoting Cultural Reciprocity

1. Ask staff about cultural dilemmas they may have encountered in their work. Discuss how to “look, listen, and learn” in order to resolve the issue. Walk through the steps above with the staff member and together, come up with a potential response.

2. Raise the issue of cultural reciprocity in staff meetings or training sessions. Provide staff members with brief vignettes that describe cultural dilemmas. Ask them to role play possible responses.

3. When making changes to policies or procedures, include families in the decision-making process if possible. Discuss any culturally-based issues that arise.

4. When faced with a cultural (or other type of) conflict, it is important that staff members not react right away—and, rather, take a few moments to remain calm and thoughtful. Take some time in a staff meeting or in individual supervision to brainstorm different ways to stop oneself from responding immediately (e.g., count to ten, close eyes and relax for 10 seconds, imagine a relaxing scene, etc.)

5. Ask questions. When staff members share their concerns that a particular family’s cultural practices are inappropriate, ask lots of questions. What is the practice? What does the staff member believe is inappropriate about it? What are the staff member’s beliefs about this issue? What did his/her family do in a similar situation? Is the practice truly inappropriate, or just different than the staff member’s experience?

6. Remember that just because a practice is “cultural” doesn’t mean that it is appropriate or healthy. If a cultural practice violates the state’s definitions of abuse or neglect, it cannot be ignored or excused. For example, a beating may be a perfectly acceptable punishment in a particular culture, but be a violation of child protection laws. The concern can be discussed with and explained to parents. Any practice that puts a child in jeopardy, hurts, or harms a child must be reported.

7. Promote active listening skills among staff members by modeling them yourself. It is one thing to “listen” to a family while all the while in your head planning what to say next. It is another thing to truly listen to a family with an open mind and reserving judgment. Modeling this experience of truly listening is an important role for program leaders and supervisors.


Kalyanpur, M., & Harry, B. (1999). Culture in special education: Building reciprocal family-professional relationships. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

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