Comb Together

November 18, 1999

Judith Zwolak

A mother's practical task of combing her daughter's hair is also laden with emotional meaning, says a Tulane researcher. "Hair combing involves touch, it involves talking, it involves looking," says Marva Lewis, a psychologist, assistant professor of social work and principal investigator of a study that examines ethnicity and parenting styles. It involves all the care-giver behaviors that shape a secure attachment relationship.

In her research on the parenting behaviors of African-American women, Lewis used hair combing as one of the methods to assess mother-daughter relationships. Lewis presents her research on 38 pairs of New Orleans-area mothers and daughters at the Society for Research in Child Development in Albuquerque, N.M., this month.
Lewis' study examined how African-American mothers concepts of their ethnicity related to their parenting styles. "Ethnicity is a multi-dimensional construct," Lewis says. "It's how much a person has acculturated and socialized and grown up in what has now been identified as African-American culture."

In her study of the mothers and daughters, whom she recruited from four day-care centers in the area, Lewis used various measures to establish a mother's concept of her own ethnic heritage. They included self-reported childhood experiences of racial acceptance and rejection, identification with African-American culture and internalization of stereotypes. Lewis then evaluated the parenting styles of the women in the study by observing them in the School of Social Works Visualization Center while they interacted with their daughters, who ranged in age from 15 to 52 months.

Lewis and her research team of social work students observed and videotaped the women and children while they played together, while the mother performed a teaching task and during a hair-combing session. They then grouped the women's parenting styles into four categories: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and disengaged.

One finding suggested that those women who thought very positively about their ethnicity were more warm and authoritative with their daughters, Lewis says. They were more accepting and less rejecting. Another finding showed a variance between how women thought of themselves as parents and how observers classified their parenting styles. The women who reported more internalized stereotypes and more internalized oppression were observed as more authoritarian, more rigid, more power-coercive and more impatient with their daughters, she says.

"The women, however, had perceived themselves as disengaged or rejecting. The experiences having to do with race and racism were impacting their current relationships with their daughters in unconscious ways," says Lewis. Lewis says that although her sample size was small, the study's findings set the foundation for more research.

"This is a descriptive, exploratory study," Lewis says, "but the findings suggest future paths for study. Establishing hair combing as a viable tool for evaluating parenting styles could possibly lead to developing ways to help mothers become better parents through the hair-combing task."

"It's a cultural practice that can mediate between some dysfunctional practices and behaviors and the positives of the African-American legacy," Lewis says. "It's naturalistic; it's something mothers do every day."

A native of Michigan, Lewis says the Crescent City was an ideal setting for this research. "New Orleans is a wonderful place in terms of retention of cultural practices," she says.

Lewis says she hopes to replicate the study with a larger sample and with a number of racial ethnic groups in the New Orleans area-African Americans with Caribbean heritage, from Jamaica, Cuba or Latin America. (Inside Tulane, 4/15/99)

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000