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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70 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.

  18. I would have handled the “food dilemma” in the same way. I was raised in a way that if someone offered me food when I enter their home it’s polite to accept. Also, since I would be working with them all the time and with their children some families might build relationships with people best over food. It’s a great way to take away stress and nervousness from hard conversations.

    • Thanks for your comments, Rachel. It IS so important to consider the long-term relationship that might develop if you provide supports and services to this family. And, I agree, food is a “great equalizer” which can reduce stress.

  19. Being from a culture that doesn’t let any guest go without serving them a cup of tea, I totally understand where they are coming from. I don’t think you should reject food because thats the family way of practicing their culture and beliefs. It probably makes them feel more comfortable and establish a relationship with you. If parents feel more comfortable with you, the more they will be willing to share information about their child or voice their concerns

    • Thanks for sharing, Bushra. We’ve been talking a lot about culture humility and I think your point that sharing food or drink is a method of “practicing (the family’s) culture and beliefs.” And, absolutely, we want families to be comfortable sharing so we can provide the best supports.

  20. I was taught to always say yes when handling the “food dilemma” unless I am allergic to something in what they’re offering. I don’t think taking food that you’re allergic to would be a service to you or the child you are helping out since it would make your performance be subpar. However, if you aren’t allergic to what they offer, then you might as well take it since usually taking what they offer is a sign of trust. It helps you bond with the family. However, if you feel like your safety might be in jeopardy, just take it and set it off to the side to take later if possible. Just make sure if you have to decline their offer that you do it in a kind manner. Some cultures would deem it as disrespectful if you answer with a blunt, “no”.

    • Thanks, Natalie. I had not even considered food allergies but your point is very well-taken. We certainly would not want the early interventionist to jeopardize his/her health. And I agree, accepting food can be a method to build trust and support that bond/rapport building.

  21. I think food connects people in very special ways and I have always loved trying new foods. Being Vietnamese, many of our dishes can be a little strange and intimidating at first sight. I have always been very adventurous with food so I don’t think the food dilemma would be that much of a problem for me. It’s a good way to build a relationship and trust with the parents and gives both parties something to bond over and have in common. Speaking from a family that loves to invite family friends over for dinner, usually my friends will ask what the plate is, take a bit, and politely reject or accept it depending on their tastes and I find that completely acceptable and respectful behavior.

    • Thanks for sharing your family’s culture. My family is Slovak and I bet some folks would find some of our dishes “strange and intimidating” too! 🙂

  22. I think being sensitive to a family’s culture is extremely important in the ECI world. As long as there’s no concrete reason, such as an allergy, to not accept the family’s offer when it is a matter of respect, I think it’s easy enough to just drink the tea, or whatever else is being offered. It also doesn’t hurt to ask about the culture if you’re not sure if it would be rude to not drink the tea. Communication is key when navigating a culture that you’re unfamiliar with, and showing interest could be very much appreciated.

    • Nicolette: I think you hit the proverbially nail on the head–“communication is key.’ I find that most families like sharing their rich history and culture if questions are posed in a respectful way.

  23. I have run into this same situation while in Kenya. Tea and food is always served when you go to a families house for any sort of meeting. It is considered rude if you do not eat and drink everything in front of you and I always have to remember that as an American we are to be mindful of everyones culture regardless of if you like the tea etc. Respect is a very important part of making other people and cultures feel welcomed and appreciated. I have choked down some very weird dishes, but I am always thankful that I did when the family looks so pleased that you ate it.

    • I love your story, Laura. I’ve never been to Kenya so don’t know the foods but I have a picture of my oldest daughter eating guinea pig and all I could think was, “WOW, she is so brave [and so NOT like her Momma!] And, of course, you are right—respect is the most important element.

  24. In my family, food is involved in everything and the expectation is that everyone always eats. I really enjoyed reading your post, I have never been in this situation professionally, but with my background, I am positive that I would feel compelled to finish my plate. Regardless of the content, if I was even hungry etc. However, I am sure that there could be situations where politeness would not be enough for me to eat/ drink some things.

    • Thanks for your comments, Sarah. Isn’t funny how our families of origin still drive so many of our behaviors even as adults. Much of my family’s celebratory activities are around food so I’m right there with you.

  25. If I was put into this position I would accepted the food offerings as well because I come from a culture that does the same thing. It is a way to make your guests feel comfortable. I don’t feel like it would be inappropriate to accept tea when visiting a family. It is a common practice among families. I think it builds a sense of trust and makes the family even more comfortable with you since you will be helping their child. Trying new foods builds dialogue within a family and the fact that you are willing to sit and listen about a culture you do not know about is a kind gesture towards the family.

    • Thanks for writing, Mawardi. I like your thought that “trying new foods builds dialogue.” That is so true and it really does show your openness to listen and learn.

  26. I do think it’s very important to keep an open mind especially when working with families. Keeping an open mind allows us to broaden our lenses and see the world differently. I personally don’t see rejecting or questioning certain foods as disrespectful but rather as something to learn from. We all have our reasons for eating certain foods and if we are open about it, we can learn from each other.

    • Nicely stated, Maria. I love this sentence: “Keeping an open mind allows us to broaden our lenses and see the world differently.”

  27. I found this post very interesting! As someone who has spent a lot of time traveling, I’ve noticed these kinds of practices in some countries. Recently I traveled to Turkey and just like you said, I was offered tea everywhere! Even as we would check into a hotel, the receptionist would have us sit down and they would bring us apple tea. Having knowledge of a family’s culture and their practices is so important so that both parties can feel comfortable and just making an effort can instantly put the family at ease.

    • Sounds like you are a very experienced traveler, Katie. How true your comment, “just making an effort can instantly put the family at ease.” Thanks for sharing.

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

    In my family and culture we always learned that what was put in front of you, you had to eat it. It did not matter if you like the food or not, you were required to eat it. It would be considered an insult should you not. When eating close friends or immediate family this did not have to be followed because they knew and understood my dislike for some foods, however should I be in a new environment or with relatives that rule immediately applied and I knew my plate had to be cleared.

    • The rules and social mores from our family of origin stick with us well into adulthood (maybe even a lifetime!) It is nice that in more informal situations with friends and families, you could/can choose to eat what you really like. Thanks for writing, Alicia.

  29. Based on how I was raised, I would manage the “food dilemma” in an open-minded, respectful way. My family always taught me to be polite and at least try what was offered to me. I think that acknowledging the gesture or trying the food is a great way to make an environment more loose and sociable. It also may establish a sense of trust between a guest and host, especially in an early intervention visit.

  30. I do the same whenever I am offered food or a drink, I kindly deny and thank them for offering. However, if I am in the position of where the food or drink is simply placed in front of me, out of respect, I also try it. Most of the time I am very open about trying new food, because I never know I might end up loving it. However, I would probably do the same as you if I happen to not like it, try to go around it without disrespecting the family or coming off rude.

    • Thanks for your comments, Mallory. I always admire people who enjoy trying new foods. It’s a skill in myself I’d like to build a bit more. I think, as you state, the important thing is to be respectful and polite.

  31. If I was a provider in this situation, I would gladly accept the food without hesitation. Part of the reason is because my culture taught me to not be rude and make others feel comfortable. If I refused the food, it could cause embarrassment for the family, and that is looked down upon in my culture.

    • Thanks for your comments, Theresa. I might challenge you to consider reframing your comment about rudeness. As I read through many comments, I do not think anyone would intentionally be rude if they did not or could not accept certain foods. For example, I’ve read comments from people whose religious beliefs bar certain foods. Others are vegetarian or vegan. Others have their own sensory issues. I think what you are intending is that you would focus on making others feel comfortable and demonstrating respect.

  32. This is a very interesting question. With food dilemmas, I would have to decline certain foods because of my religious beliefs. I can’t eat pork and if I was in a situation in which a family gave me some pork to eat, I would have to decline it. I believe the family would understand why I choose to decline there offer. I would be more than wiling to have a conversation with them about it or ask for an alternative like something to drink instead but overall, I would have to decline the food offer if it conflicts with my beliefs.

    • Thanks for sharing, Abigail. Your willingness to have that conversation demonstrates your willingness to share your values and beliefs while respecting the family’s.

  33. I really enjoyed reading your post. Offering more than plenty of food is what many families would do. I think families offering food is not 100% about about get your stomach stuffed, but it is a way to show they care about you and appreciation of your visits. In this sense, I would like to try anything and show my respect.

    • Thanks for your comments, Bilan. I always really admire anyone who is willing to “try anything” as you stated. Just this week I was in another awkward situation where some professionals were taking me out to dinner. I struggled to find a main dish that was within my “limited palette” as most of the offerings were meat. Always tricky.

  34. Culture and family values do play a part in whether I would have accepted a certain food- I am prohibited to eat pork in my religion so I would have to deny that food if it was placed in front of me. I think the way situations are handled, and how they are communicated are the most important thing when having to deal with a situation like this. Being respectful of the family but still letting them know about your practices and beliefs is ideal.

    • Thanks for sharing about your religion and practices, Farah. I agree that “the way situations are handled” is really so very important. Respect goes VERY FAR.

  35. As a service provider given this scenario, I would accept the food. In my family, we offer all of our guests food and drink and take hospitality very seriously. Often my mom would spend a good amount of time prepping food to offer people that came over. Knowing this, I understand that accepting food is an important part of different cultures and denying them can place the person offering the food in a uncomfortable situation.

    • Thanks for your comments, Kimberly. It sounds like in your family of origin, especially with your mother, food was a big part of hospitality. Great to use your personal frame of reference to think about this ‘dilemma.’

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