Main Page
This Issue
Next Article

2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 6, No. 2
May 2001

Working With African American Families

Social Workers

Denby and Alford (1996) suggest asking these questions when intervening with families:

  • Is the family's behavior or parenting practice being assessed in relation to the dominant culture's behavior and parenting practices? To what degree is the assessment of the family informed by knowledge of African American culture?
  • To what degree does my intervention empower the family, allowing them the freedom to use discipline styles that fit with their culture?
  • How important are traditionally-defined African American discipline styles to this family? Which do they subscribe to?
  • What are the benefits and costs of particular methods of discipline? Do other black families use these same methods? Which traditionally-defined black discipline styles have no merit?
  • Is there a danger of serious or chronic physical harm to the children?


Denby and Alford recommend agency administrators:
  • Ensure that courses for parents recognize that black caregivers must perform "dual socialization"—that is, socialization into the dominant culture as well as traditional African American culture
  • Offer training programs designed to educate practitioners about African American parenting styles, and about diverse forms of discipline, not just those accepted by the dominant culture
  • Make every effort to recruit and retain a staff that reflects the diverse ethnic and cultural makeup of the populations served
  • Monitor agency practices and policies to make sure they encourage partnership with families
  • Encourage social work practice that is strengths-based, promotes family empowerment and self-determination
Challenge dominant social norms that stigmatize African American parenting styles

The strength-based perspective is inherent in this kind of thinking. A parent struggling economically and besieged by other stresses may sometimes seem less than attentive or patient with children. But it is important to remind ourselves that parents are only human, that they have managed to care for their children under difficult conditions, and that they therefore must have great strength and wisdom, even if it is not immediately apparent to us.

Source: Denby, R. & Alford, K. (1996). Understanding African American discipline styles: Suggestions for effective social work intervention. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 4, 81-98.