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 #6: Don’t force it.
While it’s good to facilitate cross-cultural friendships, be careful not to push children into friendships they don’t enjoy just to prove a point. Forcing children to play together when they are uncomfortable only adds to the discomfort. If a friendship seems to consistently cause stress for the children, let it rest for a time and focus on other friendships.
When we were making the choice of where to send our kids to school in South Africa, we debated between the school that all the white kids in the area attended (but low-income families were excluded from because there was no bus system to take kids), a low-quality school where the kids would be speaking Zulu, or homeschooling. We asked many friends for advice, and from parents who had raised children in cross-cultural situations, we heard again and again the advice to be sensitive to who your kids are and adjust to their needs. One family shared how much they regretted sending their kids to a challenging inner-city school largely to prove the point that it could be done, even though they saw how unhappy their children were. We ended up choosing to homeschool for a season while investing a lot of time into the local Zulu school, but then switched to public school when we moved elsewhere and the situation was different.
If you live near kids who speak other languages, language can be a particular stress-point. I suggest setting an example of making an attempt, but not beating yourself up if you make mistakes or need to retreat to your own language. You don’t have to be fluent, just make an attempt. Use the words you know, and don’t take yourself too seriously if you make mistakes.
Asking how to say a word in someone’s language can show interest and respect, as long as you don’t become so obsessed with asking that it distracts from just being friends. Teach your children—or better yet have someone of another culture teach them—how to say common useful words in another language, such as “come,” “sit down,” “eat,” “can I have that,” or “let’s go.” Don’t let language hinder you or your children, though. Most children will learn languages better from their peers than from you or a teacher. If children are engaged in playing together, they quickly find ways to communicate even when they don’t speak the same language.