Elements of a Confident Kid… Cultural Awareness
– the beliefs, customs and arts of a particular society, group, place or time. 1
About Cultural Awareness
Culture is who we are, how we act and how we communicate. It defines our membership in multiple communities whether they are professional or personal, spiritual or practical.
Our families are a culture. “Michael doesn’t have to wear a coat? Why do I have to?” said E this past week as we teetered between chilly and warm temperatures. You likely hear similar comments in your household. If some other child can do it, “Why can’t I?”, children often want to know. And the answer is simply that each family has different rules and expectations. And it’s a critical lesson for kids to learn. Children must “code switch” as they enter varying environments. Schools have different rules than restaurants than churches than amusement parks.
Being culturally aware means that a person accepts that there are differing rules, practices and ways of being among groups of people and in various environments. The work and opportunity of a new person introduced to any culture not his own is to learn with an open mind and work toward empathy and understanding. It may be as simple as your child spending the night at a friend’s house. In those circumstances, not only do parents have expectations of his behavior while away, but also the host family has expectations of the child’s behavior while in their home.
Cultural awareness requires self-control. Because we are hard-wired to size up people immediately, we may find ourselves quickly passing judgment. The culturally aware individual notices that judgment occurring in her thinking. She realizes that critical thinking creates distance and puts up walls that may prohibit her from feeling empathy and certainly does not allow for the creation of a relationship. She manages her opinions and works on listening for understanding. She knows that if she remains open-minded, she may learn about the other person. And more importantly, she may discover something about herself that will help her better understand her own identity.
Promoting Cultural Awareness
Be curious and encounter cultural diversity
Perhaps the most important way we, as parents, can help our children learn to be culturally aware is to expose them to diversity. Drive a little further once a month to grocery shop in a community outside of your own. Attend summer festivals held by a cultural group other than your own. Try out foods from various countries. Extend yourself to people who are unlike you to expand your own view of the world and your children will notice and learn. Express your curiosity about people who look and act differently and your children will show their curiosity too.
Talk about other cultures and your children’s impressions and experiences. “What did you think of the way she was dressed?” I asked students I was working with after attending an Indian Pow-wow in Oklahoma. If children are learning discriminatory biases from the cultural around them, asking open-ended questions begins the conversation. You can share your own opinions about the richness of any culture you may be encountering.
Diversify your reading
There is not a holiday that goes by that I don’t buy a book for my child. It’s part of our family tradition to give books in addition to toys or candy. We also make regular library trips. When looking for a new children’s book, consider finding stories from other cultures. Not only will it add interest to your bookshelf, but also it will help your efforts to promote a culturally aware child. The Delightful Children’s Books blog has an incredible list of children’s books from around the world. It’s a perfect place to start! I’ve also listed some of my favorites below.
Practice catching judgments
I find myself hesitating to show acknowledge my own negative thinking in front of my son. After all, I am supposed to have everything under control as Mom. But catching ourselves in the middle of judgment can be an incredibly powerful teaching experience for a child. As I am talking mindlessly criticizing another Mom who is yelling loudly at her son in public, I remember that this is not the model I want to establish for my son. I say to him, “I really don’t want to say that. What I want to say is that I wish her the best. Maybe she is struggling with stress we are unaware of and that’s why she is yelling at her son. We can’t know the circumstances.” Turn your words toward compassion and empathy. Your child will witness your use of self-control and learn that even adults need to exercise it in order to get along and connect with others.
Practice perspective taking
Trying to understanding another’s perspective is often a struggle for adults. We all require practice since we cannot truly know someone else’s feelings and interpretations of experience. Practice whenever you get the chance. Whenever it comes to mind, ask “What do you think that Dad is feeling while he’s pushing his child on the swing?” or “What do you think the boy is thinking about?” Your child will become experienced thinking about other’s thoughts and feelings.
Prepare for new experiences
Though we are constantly adjusting and learning about appropriate boundaries according to the environment we are in, parents can support children by helping clue them into the new expectations that come with each new environment. If you are going to a friend’s house for dinner or attending another’s religious ceremony, think ahead to the expectations they may have for children. Then prepare your child in advance. “In this new environment, people are expected to listen and whisper only if they have a need.” Children can learn to act in accordance with the new setting if they are well prepared by their parents.
Cultural awareness does take a commitment to exploring realms outside our comfort zone. Facing those who are different can make us feel awkward or even disturbed as it forces us to examine our own self-identity. Showing that struggle to our children, though we may feel vulnerable, is the way they will learn that it is worth the effort. And it’s required if we truly want to grow as individuals and as part of a global community.
Photos of Classrooms Around the World
The World’s Harvests – photos of farmers harvesting their crops all over the world
Where Children Sleep – photos of bedrooms of children from around the world
Hungry Planet, What the World Eats – photos of typical meals around the world
A Global Family Portrait – photos of 30 statistically “average” families around the world
Read the story of the “Big Bad Wolf” from the wolf’s perspective and discuss with your children what they think of the different perspective. Talk about a time when they might see things differently than you, a peer or a teacher. 2
Remember this picture? What do you see first? Can you see both the old and the young lady? View this with your children who likely have not seen it yet and help them understand that each individual sees with a different perspective.
How I Talk to my Kindergarten Class on Race by Madeleine Rogin
1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved on March 24, 2015 on http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture
2. Educators’ for Social Responsibility. Originally developed by Uvaldo Palomares et. al., A Curriculum on Conflict Management. San Diego, CA: Human Development Training Institute adapted from Fearn, L. (1974). The Maligned Wolf. San Diego, CA: Education Improvement Associates.