Raising cross-cultural kids: Be intentional

For the first six years of our daughter’s life and the first five of our son’s, they spent more time in foreign countries than our own.  Their playmates included kids from China, Congo, Zambia, Sudan, Burundi, Germany, and South Africans of three different official races.  That list conjures up glowing pictures of smiley kids speaking half a dozen languages and bouncing in and out of each others’ houses like one big happy colorful family.

Just because we lived in such diverse settings, though, doesn’t mean our children naturally knew how to play with children of other cultural backgrounds. Kids are just as likely as adults to notice differences and retreat to the comfort of whatever feels safe and “the same as me.” Raising kids who were ethnic minorities in the settings where we lived meant learning to navigate plenty of challenges. We learned the importance of helping our children by modelling, encouraging, and facilitating healthy relationships across cultures.

Now back in the United States in one of the least diverse school districts around, we struggle with a different set of obstacles in trying to raise cross-culturally aware kids.  Again,we recognize the importance of intentionality and modelling in helping our kids see outside their predominantly white surroundings.  Whether you are a minority or majority, and whether your kids interact with other racial or ethnic groups on a daily basis or scarcely ever, there are some things you as a parent can do to help them grow up interacting positively the diversity of neighbors who share our planet.

So tip #1 is this:

Be intentional.

Intercultural relationships often require intentional steps: picking up a phone, starting a conversation, or driving out of your way.  At home, chose books and television that expose children from an early age to positive pictures of people of other cultures.  When planning a birthday party or group gathering, ask yourself if there are people of other cultures you are acquainted with who you might not immediately think of inviting.  Brainstorm ways to expose your family to a variety of cultures, such as attending a religious function, festival, or an event organized by people from a different background.  Set aside time to walk to a neighbor’s house with your children and let the children linger as they play.  Ask a child of another culture to join you for a family outing, such as a library visit, sports lessons, or holiday travels.

This won’t happen unless you decide diversity matters.

Life is plenty full.  Pressing deadlines loom. Everyone’s tired after the gridlocked commute home.  Kids bring home stacks of papers demanding we funnel them fast and furious through supposedly “enriching” activities. I can spend a whole evening just barking commands as the taskmaster of the household: “Finish you homework, practice your instrument, get some exercise, get ready for your scout meeting, plan for the science fair…”

The last thing I want is another task to check off on a list.  But when I look at the homogenous little world my children operate within, it sure looks like there’s no way they’re going to ever interact with kids who aren’t middle-class white Americans than to make it a task.  I want to somehow help my kids grow up between the extremes of being like, “Cool a black person!!” and “Um, weird, I don’t get her and I won’t play with her…”

Real friendships and genuinely caring relationships aren’t “tasks.” 

Being intentional about helping your kids become cross-culturally comfortable isn’t about making diversity a “project” or an “assignment.” I’m not suggesting diversity become your new task.  I’m suggesting diversity becomes a value, in the same way you value courage or perseverance.  It can permeate anything your family does.

Any intentions to foster cross-cultural relationships in your children’s lives have to stem from a genuine commitment that everyone benefits from learning to interact with different sorts of people—and not just different in the way of race or ethnicity, but different in any way you can imagine.

We children who can see a new behavior or a new perspective and figure out how to handle it.  This means exposing them to other people who think differently.  It means explaining how to be open-minded, and giving respect to people who are very different from us either in the surface or the inner depths of what we believe.

And let’s get real—Christians are not typically known for this. Christians often get labelled close-minded, insensitive, bigoted, and scared of new perspectives.  We need to work to break that stereotype and lead the in being the peacemakers Jesus called blessed.  We need to apply Paul’s words that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

How many disputes—from the international and political level all the way down to the playground—could be solved if we could teach that to our children not to treat others’ differences as walls or weapons?  As our children play and learn with others of different cultures, they are growing into a new generation of leaders who can peacefully benefit from each other’s differences.

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