Monday, March 30, 2009

Teaching kids to embrace cultural diversity....

In an ever-changing world filled with a diversity of people and cultures, part of our roles as parents is to prepare our children to understand and respect different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. "Our children live in a global environment," says Joan LeFebvre, University of Wisconsin-Extension Family Living Educator. "We're all so connected and we need to prepare kids … to be nonjudgmental about other people, to be willing to learn and be appreciating."

In her article "Teaching Preschoolers How to Resist Bias," LeFebvre says children have a natural and healthy curiosity about differences in people. "During the preschool years, children are developing their own self-identity and their ideas about others. They are learning that they are like other people in many ways and different in others," she says. "What children learn during the preschool years can help them to form strong, positive self-concepts and to grow up to respect and interact comfortably with people different from themselves."

As part of this learning experience, children will watch their parents. They are quick to notice how their moms and dads interact with and react to people and situations. So, it is crucial that adults lead by example when talking to or about people of varying ethnicities.


According to LeFebvre, children as young as two years begin to notice differences in gender, race and ethnicity. "They are open to both the positive and negative attitudes their families and society have toward these differences," she says. "That's why it's so important for parents and teachers to show their young children how to value, accept and comfortably interact with diverse people."
Although some people are reluctant to acknowledge we live in a biased society, it is important that parents not deny differences between people by telling children "all people are the same," says LeFebvre. Properly addressing children's natural curiosities demonstrates that cultural differences don't make any one child better than another; stress that what's important about a person is what's on the inside.

Julie, a mother of two from Raleigh, North Carolina, has enrolled her seven-year-old son Andrew at Wiley International in Raleigh, a unique public school that teaches five foreign languages and integrates cultural studies into the traditional school curriculum.
"…We felt [this school] would be a great experience to expose him to a larger variety of people from different cultures and languages," says Julie. She says every year the school selects two countries to study, and focuses on language, culture, clothing, foods, etc. from those countries. They also host an international night during which everyone from the school brings a dish native to where they are from, and the kids perform for parents.

Julie says Andrew, who is learning German and Japanese, and has studied world flags, holidays, and international cooking, enjoys his school and better appreciates people as individuals rather than as belonging to racial or ethnic groups. "I think the exposure he has received has had a positive effect on him," says Julie. "He knows that he can learn from our differences, and not judge people because of them."

LeFebvre says parents should encourage children to explore their own culture, too. "Talk positively about your child's physical characteristics and cultural background. Tell stories about people from your ethnic group of whom you are especially proud," she says.

"I feel it's very important to expose our children to their Greek heritage," says Theodora, a mother of two in Liberty Township, Ohio. She believes that raising her kids to understand their own culture has had a positive impact on them. "Exposing my girls to their heritage helps increase their self-esteem."

Theodora is raising her family "in their Greek Orthodox faith and teaching them about the Greek festivals, which give them a good sense of what being Greek is all about—how the Greeks dance, which Greek foods are important, where their grandparents came from." Theodora says their family plays a lot of Greek music at home, with plenty of bouzouki and mandolin, and this coming summer the girls will be Greek dancing for the first time and wear the authentic costumes.
Everyday Ways to Expose Children to Other Cultures ....

Read together. Megan Schliesman, librarian and administrator at the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin encourages parents to read quality multicultural literature with their children. "[Multicultural literature] models the way our world is," says Schliesman. "An illustrated book should include photos of children from varying backgrounds... It's important for all kids to see themselves in books, and it's important for all kids to see the world they're living in." Schliesman says parents should strive to find literature that is culturally authentic and avoids negative or stereotypical portrayals. "There are children's literature awards that can help parents select quality literature," Schliesman says. Parents can visit the Cooperative Children's Book Center website for award-winning lists of recommended children's books, including books appropriate for babies and toddlers.
Explore how people in other countries dress. From the vibrant ceremonial kente cloth worn in regions of Africa to the traditional sari worn by Indian women, our world has an amazing variety of styles of dress.

Play groups. "Provide opportunities for children to interact with other children who are racially or culturally different," says LeFebvre. "If these opportunities are unavailable in your community, look for them in schools, after-school activities, day camps, places of worship and cultural events."

Attend festivals, visit museums and ethnic restaurants, and play a variety of music with your children to expose them to other cultures. Point out similarities and differences between your culture and the other. How is Thai food different from what your family eats at home? Does the music you hear at Oktoberfest sound like the polkas Grandpa listens to?
Allow children to attend worship services with a friend of another faith, if the opportunity arises.
Help your child start a pen pal friendship with a peer from another country. Forming friendships with children of other countries or races can be a personal way to foster acceptance and greater understanding in children.

Look at maps or a globe together. Point out where your family lives and then how your state or country relates to the rest of the world.


Immerse children in culture through travel. Family adventures can be a wonderful educational experience when you witness firsthand the dress, architecture, language or dialect, food and even smells of other parts of the world.

As we expose our children to diversity, we teach acceptance and tolerance. And don't we all need a little more of that?

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