Whether in an apartment with kids from a dozen countries, or in the United States in one of the least diverse school districts around, we have made it our intention to raise cross-culturally aware kids. This month we’ll be posting weekly tips on how to foster cross-cultural and interracial sensitivity in your kids–and your self.
Tip #3: Set the example
Examine your own behavior and friend group. Do you have cross-cultural relationships that go deeper than superficial greetings? Are you awkward, condescending, or shy when around people of other cultures? Do your children only see people in other cultures in certain contexts such as a worker-supervisor role? Do you make inappropriate jokes or comments about people of other cultures in front of your family? Find ways to step out of negative habits and into positive ones.
Don’t expect your kids to grow up appreciating people different from themselves if your only friends look, think, and act just like you. If you notice your child playing with a friend in school or in the neighborhood, introduce yourself to the parents and make an invitation to get together. Understanding another child’s home life will also help you deal with differences you might see in the way the child behaves. As your friendship with the parents deepens, you may find opportunities to ask useful questions about their culture.
Placing yourself in settings with people you consider different from yourself fosters empathy—the ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone else, feeling what they feel and seeing the world from their perspective. Take time for a friend in another culture, and let yourself relax and enjoy the company. Don’t force it—just be yourself. Behave as you would with friends in your own culture, and your children will be more at ease as well.
In many cases, kids are far more at ease in other cultures than adults, but even kids who don’t articulate or categorize differences in race or ethnicities as adults do often sense differences and feel stressed by them. Our culture is, by definition, our comfort zone. When children are surrounded by people of their own culture, they quickly learn what to expect. When children enter a situation with someone in a new culture, they often subconsciously pick up on differences in how people behave, speak, and think. These differences can cause stress.
These stressers could include another child’s choice of toys, the tone of voice an adult, or the timing of meals. You can help children navigate their reactions to these differences to avoid stress. Be intentional about soothing disagreements and mediating. If the children are new to the friendship and you are worried they may feel uncomfortable, it may help to plan an activity ahead of time, such as an art project or game to break the ice.