Engaging Families, Intervention Visits, Service Coordination, What Would You Do?

Would You Like a Cup of Tea?

You knock on the door, enter the family’s home and take off your coat. Maybe you take off your shoes, too. And the mother asks, “Can I get you a cup of tea, or a soda, or anything?” What is your initial response?

Mine was always, “No, thanks. I’m fine.” Then one day I visited with a Kurdish family.  I wasn’t asked, however, if I wanted hot tea. Instead, almost as soon as I entered and sat down, the tea was placed before me as well as a slice of baklava.

I remembered that some of my colleagues had told me that they ALWAYS refused any offer of food. But this food was already served. I remember thanking them and taking the plunge. It seemed like the right thing to do and I was going by sheer “gut instinct.” By the way, the baklava was HEAVENLY!

A cup of tea became a part of each visit with this particular family. Over tea, we talked about how things had gone in the weeks between my visit and discussed what was important for this visit. It also became a time to learn more about their country of origin as well as their customs and beliefs.

Soon the child was ready to transition to early childhood special education. The ECSE teacher asked about making a joint home visit. When the teacher and I arrived at the family’s home, an ENORMOUS spread of food was laid out before us.  This was much more than tea! Soon the mother and children began carrying out more plates of different foods that I did not recognize. The father quietly served the teacher and me as the mother and children watched.

I am not vegetarian but I’m also not much of a meat eater so I had a moment’s hesitation when the father placed some unidentified meat and bones on my plate. Now, all I could hear was my mother whispering in my ear, “Be respectful. Don’t hesitate to try new things” and lots of other motherly advice. But, the truth was, I just was not sure I could eat the unidentified meat.  I began sampling the foods that clearly looked like fruits, vegetables, and starches. The father quickly noticed that I was avoiding what would later be identified as lamb and asked, “You don’t like “da sheep?”

I realized at that minute that it was ok. The family recognized my dilemma but appreciated that I was trying so many unknown foods. For over a year, we had shared tea and stories and had established a relationship built on trust. It didn’t matter that our cultures and our beliefs were very different. It didn’t matter that I didn’t eat lamb. What mattered, was that I put aside the “steadfast rules” and adapted to this family’s individuality and uniqueness.

How do you manage the “food dilemma?” Did culture or family values play a role in your decision to reject or accept the food?




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34 Comments to “Would You Like a Cup of Tea?”

  1. Dana, I very much enjoyed reading your post! It’s funny because this always seems to happen when I “treat” in clients’ homes. I enjoy eating all kinds of food (and it’s starting to show – ha!). I was raised that it’s polite to eat (at least try) already prepared food when it’s offered to you. I find this particularly the case when ethnic food is offered. I take it more that the family wants to share a part of themselves with you and it can be quite personal. What’s wonderful about these opportunities is that they can be turned into family education times or intervention. Cooking and mealtimes are great ways to target family centered communication goals!

  2. Oops! Sorry, I meant, Cori!

    • No worries, Kim! I agree about cooking and mealtimes offering great opportunities to address communication. You can also address things like positioning, social interaction, fine motor skills (like using different grasps to pick up food), and of course self-feeding. When the opportunity presents itself, you might as well take advantage of it because you can learn alot about the family AND work together to develop strategies they can use when you aren’t there at dinnertime!

  3. Kim and Dana: I absolutely agree! I love that more and more early interventionists are thinking about those family routines and how to “use” them to support the child’s development. You both have identified a multitude of opportunities to support learning while enjoying your “tea” with the family AND learning about their culture!

  4. Gosh, I am reminded of the time I was presented with a huge (7+ ounce)of orange juice…yikes I don’t drink orange juice but I did that day! Be courteous and polite I kept repeating to myself. The Hispanic families often offer a bottle of water or a can of soda after a home visit is completed during the summer. Since the bottles/cans are unopened I accept them. For cups and glasses presented or foods, I’m always silently say a grace. Again be courteous and polite. 🙂

  5. Hi Everyone I have been reading this for a while but haven’t responded much. I remember when I first starting my degree, I was doing a practicum in one of the local public preschool and I went with the teacher on the home visits. There was one family from the middle east (I regret I do not remember where specifically now), that the teacher always schedule around lunch time and when I asked she told me ‘you’ll see’ and I did. The family made included us as part of lunch on those days. It just so happened that in one of my classes were studying the multicultural aspects of developmental disabilities, teaching and everything that we all run to in the field. Which helped when I realized not only was this how the mother was probably brought up to treat guests, but it was also the families way of thanking us for what we did. In our case they weren’t making anything too much different then what they usually did (At least I don’t think so) but it was a for them to show their appreciation of what we were doing. In my current job I don’t always accept things, partially because it always seemed to get in the way of the session, but I next time I will try making a part of the session.

    • Thanks for sharing, Sarah. I love hearing stories that help all of us to consider our practices. It sounds like with your early experience with the family from the Middle East it really gave you an opportunity to share in an important everyday activity. They were including you in their routine. How cool is that! And in your current job, you might be able to consider how to use those routines and activities as part of your visit.

  6. I have found that many latin families that I visit share their food, even when it is an expense for them or they do not have much for themselves. I thank them and ask if they do not mind if I only take half a glass or a small portion. Typically, they seem to appreciate that I am not wasting their food, but that I do appreciate their hospitality.

    • Hi Edith: I’m glad you commented. Your strategy seems like a really respectful way to recognize the family’s finance hardships while still respecting their culture and their willingness to share with you. I like it! (-:

    • I think this could be a good strategy too for picky eaters like me. I have to admit that I have declined alot of food because it just plain looked wierd to me and I wasn’t brave enough to try it. Rather than declining when a family offers, take a smaller portion to be polite and respectful. Thanks for the suggestion Edith!

  7. Coming from a Hispanic family, I was always taught to take food when offered, although now I’m not as hesitant to politely decline. I think food does offer a nice gateway to understanding others’ culture and can help create the opportunity for more communication. Personally I also think that rather than what is being said, it is how it’s being said that can really affect the situation.

    • Thanks for your comments, Sarah. I especially agree with your note that “food offers a nice gateway to understanding.” Someone once told me that food is a “great equalizer.”

  8. Coming from an Indian background, I was always taught to immediately serve food to guests, just like the Kurdish family that was mentioned. Since I grew up with this, I’ve never realized that this may be a problem to outsiders, but then again we’ve always explained what the food is before offering it to anyone. If I were to take an outsider’s perspective, I would definitely incorporate the family’s cultural values into my decision to reject/accept food given to me. In some religions/cultures, rejecting the food could be viewed as offensive, and we certainly wouldn’t want that with our clients! However, if I felt uncomfortable eating something, I would politely decline it in a way that wouldn’t be offensive.

    • Thanks for sharing about your family’s culture, Loana. I think the key thing is that most of us might not even consider if the food is offensive or contrary. I’m glad that the blog caused you to pause and consider this in light of your family.

      I love that you explain what the food is. I am Slovak and we frequently eat things that most people may not care for but for us, it is part of ‘who we are.”

  9. I can only speculate as I am currently an undergraduate pursuing a bachelors along with a certificate in Early Childhood Intervention. However, from my class this semester as well as my experience working with kids and nonprofits I believe that ECI specialists need to respect families individual cultures. In general, I would not want to be taking food or resources away from a family but would definitely appreciate the offer. However, for cultures in which families feel this is necessary, I would participate in their traditions to make them more comfortable with the services and so that I could truly be a part of their routines. I think this would make the experience of discussing the child’s outcomes more comfortable for a family who is not used to this kind of home invasion and necessary for intervention.

    • Thanks for your comment, Nicole. it sounds like you have had experience with diverse families in your work with children and nonprofit agencies. I think all of us, at one time or another, run into this dilemma, regardless of whether it is through employment. I recall being a little girl (maybe 6 or 7) and being invited to a friend’s home to eat supper. They were from the deep South. I was from the North. The foods served were unlike anything I’d ever seen (fatback, black-eyed peas, and kale….YUP, I still remember!) I think the important thing to consider is how you will proceed if food is offered or presented.

  10. Growing up, I have always been taught to accept food. It often makes the host or hostess feel like you are accepting their gifts and in this case, their culture. Food holds such a great power in connecting people in cultures since most cultures enjoy very different types of foods. By accepting another culture’s food, it feels like to me as if I am accepting their culture and taking a step into their lives. This would make me and hopefully, the family, feel more comfortable to chat and open up.

    • Thanks for your comments, Yvonne. Have you ever heard of community ‘shared table’ events when everyone in the community is invited to a “pot luck” where they bring their favorite dish? I like how you noted that it is as if “you are accepting their gifts…and their culture.”

  11. This was a really nice read, because it also reminded me of my mother. I too feel that I would hear her whispers in my ear to be respectful.
    It was interesting to me to think that it’s a question of whether or not to accept food or drink offered by a family in their own home, because I was raised that the answer is always ‘yes, thank you!’

    I suppose this brings me to think that you don’t necessarily have to break away from your gut instincts and your own culture. If a family offers you or simply provides you with any kind of food or drink, I would have to say it is a simple kind gesture and it could mean them simply thanking you for helping their family.

    I think you handled it very well. 🙂

  12. If I were in this situation, I think that I would interpret their offering as an invitation into their lives and culture. I would attempt to make it clear that although it is not necessary that they set out food or drinks for every visit, I appreciate it any time they do. I think honesty and communication go hand in hand in this situation because it can be difficult to stomach something you know you don’t like such as meat or dairy. Instead of outright declining their offer, you could take it home to your family or be frank and say that you are not a meat eater but you would love to try a different food they’ve set out. Being open and honest with the family, as well as accepting their cultures and traditions will go a long way in understanding who the family is and what they value.

    • Thanks for your comments, Alexandria. I think you have hit the key of this blog. By forming an open and honest rapport with a family, you have the opportunity to share any restrictions you might have (vegan, for instance) while still honoring their attempt to share their home, family, and culture with you.

  13. Very interesting post. This made me think about my mother as well because from a very young age I was taught to take food when offered. Now, I most of the time respectfully deny it even though sometimes i’m scared i might offend someone’s culture by not taking it. I think first of all, there has to be that mutual respect specially when the individuals interacting are form two different cultures. Most of the time when I deny the food, it is mainly because I am scared to cross any boundaries because as a Hispanic women, I feel such as food brings people together on a different level.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Maria. I think many early interventionists do decline food as their typical response. Knowing how you will handle the situation should it arise helps to prepare you for the situation. As you noted, mutual respect is critical.

  14. I have always denied food offers, even with friends! So often that it has now become a habit. This situation is unique because the family seems genuinely appreciative so it would be difficult to reject their hard work. But I agree with you on the last paragraph. If a relationship of trust has been made between you and the family, then it should be appropriate to let them know that you are not ready to try these new dishes. As long as the gesture is sincere and polite, I’m sure the family would understand. Communication is key. As long as they are reassured that you rejecting their food does not make you any less appreciative. I think you handled it well.

    • Thanks, Anne. It is a fine line to work to establish and maintain rapport, especially when perhaps the situation is less than comfortable for you. As you noted, sincerity, politeness and good communication go a long way.

  15. I think if I were put into the “food dilemma” situation, I would accept food that was given to me without me asking, and refuse food that was offered. This way, I would not be stepping out of any bounds, and the family would not feel disrespected in any way. I think that family culture definitely plays a role in whether or not I would accept the food or not. Some cultures will ask if you would like food vs. they give you food without asking.

    • That’s a good strategy, Sara. If they offer food, politely decline. If they present food without asking, perhaps take and try a little. I like it! Thanks for commenting.

  16. This was incredible to read, as the “Food Dilemma” has been practically reigning my life. I come from Persian background, which is very similar to the Kurdish background, so I have experienced this challenge since I could first remember. It’s difficult to say no to foods that family has so lavishly styled right in front of you, because it’s apparent they’ve worked hard to prepare the dish for you, so you don’t want to say no. However, coming from such a family, I know that they understand that American culture is different, and they don’t get as disheartened by you not accepting the food as you think they would. However, if you were in the homeland and you rejected the food, oh man is that a slap in the face, haha.

    • Oh I love hearing your personal experience, Maryam. Thank you for sharing. AND, you are quite right. The food that was often offered to me was quite lavish (and probably finer than anything I could ever prepare!) I appreciate your thoughts that this Kurdish family recognized that America culture is different. Having a wonderful rapport with this family helped tremendously.

  17. In my culture, i learn that i should offer food to visitors who visits the home so if i go in a home an something is being offered to me i will take it to make the family feel comfortable even if i do not want it.

    • Thanks for your thought on this, Chrisann. I think our own personal culture plays into this scenario as we decide how we will respond in this situation.

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