Tips for Raising Culturally-Aware Kids

By: Susan Ragsdale

Why is it important to teach our children about our culture? Why is it equally important for us to spend time learning from others? How do we want our children to interact with others who come from different places—who have different backgrounds? How do we teach them tolerance, acceptance, and kindness? How do we ensure our youth get to know people as people and not just “buy into” whatever the current prevailing stereotype suggests? As a parent, you’ve likely pondered or begun to ponder all (or even some) of these questions.

We all know it’s important to prepare our children to thrive in an ever-changing, and increasingly-diverse population. And doing so can be a balancing act between maintaining pride and love for one’s own culture while remaining curious, tolerant, and accepting of those who are different from us. Ultimately, the goal for any parent trying to raise culturally aware kids is to equip them with the attitudes and skills necessary to be able to live together peacefully with others, even amidst differences.

Helping youth develop skills to interact effectively with others and be able to work in diverse teams with others who don’t necessarily share the same cultural norms are important skills researchers have identified as “21st century skills”. You can read more about 21st Century Skills here.

As you continue to prepare your child for life in a diverse world, remember that your child will be more open to learning and exploring if you are open to playing the part of “willing parent”. Being willing to take your kids to see people of other cultures (and interact with them) helps children grow up in an accepting atmosphere. And your willingness as a parent to interact with others goes a long way toward combating the fear of the unknown.

Consider these ideas (from experts as well as from other parents) to introduce your child to other cultures and to teach them to respect the differences they will surely encounter as they continue to grow and learn.

Tips for parents with children under the age of 5

  • Give them opportunities to be around others. Kids in this age group are fearless. Having your child around others and showing (or practicing) your comfort level with all kinds of people sets the stage for acceptance. For example, one mom, Susannah Fotopulos, takes her 4 ½ year old to a pediatrician’s office that has an immigrant population so that he can be around people of different colors and sounds. One father, George Hovaness Donigian, recommends you take your child with you to a variety of festivals or events. Take them and say, “We’re going to meet some people who grew up in a world different than ours. They may dress differently, eat different foods, speak a different language. And if we’re lucky, we may hear them speak it, and then we can ask them about it.”
  • Build an eclectic music library. One easy way to explore the best of other cultures is through music. From lullabyes from around the world to musical series, you can take your family on a music tour around the world without leaving home through Putumayo, a site dedicated to introducing people to the world’s music.
  • Read from an assortment of books. When reading to your child and teaching her how to read, pull from a variety of books and authors to introduce the rich, diverse world we live in and how we differ.

Tips for parents with children ages 6 to 9

  • Teach them to be respectful in learning names. Don’t take the shortcut and “Americanize” a name. Teach your child to say it correctly. Let the person know you want your child to say his name the right way, and ask him to say it slowly and repeat it if necessary.
  • Diversify your holidays. Consider various ways to diversify your holidays. Perhaps you can try a new custom, play a cultural game, or explore how another culture celebrates holidays (such as the lighting of the Menorah candles).
  • For example, one father, Steve, buys his advent card from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It is stuffed with little dolls from around the world. As he pulls out each doll, he explores with his children the country that doll comes from and they look up the location on the map.
  • George, an Armenian father, shared that in his culture’s folklore, the Virgin Mary ate spinach, and that spinach is what caused her to go into labor. For his family, it is a tradition to have spinach on Christmas Eve (which for them is on January 6th).
  • For New Year’s, Steve passed along his Greek family’s tradition of having a King cake. There is a special way to slice the cake. The first slice is for God, the second is for the dad, then mom, and then each child, from oldest to youngest. Hidden within the cake is a coin. Whomever gets the coin in her slice of cake is considered to be blessed for the year.

Tips for parents with children ages 10 to 15

  • Use food as a way to learn about other cultures and traditions. Look at how homes take a common food, like rice, and make it in different ways. Spice it up at home with different recipes and verbalize the connections to the cultures who make rice that way. You can also hit up different booths at festivals, or go out and experiment – try new foods (sushi, noodles, eat with chop sticks).

[Activity: Download our International Rice Passport Challenge. ]

  • Teach them to stay curious and to show interest. Teach your child to find ways to ask questions that open up a door to get to know the person. For example, when meeting someone new you could ask, “Where does your family come from? What is your heritage?” Or when asking how to pronounce a name, you can follow up with asking if their name has a story or meaning.
  • Maintain a “see people as people” philosophy. One mom of a multicultural family, Kathy, says that the very first lesson she wanted her children to learn from her was that they choose who they are, and that who they are on the inside is what counts. She recommends that parents teach their children the vital truth that “people are people.”
  • Seek the humor. When misunderstandings happen (a mispronounced name, a seemingly naive question), teach your children to find the humor in the situation. Sometimes it’s best to take things lightly. Be open, have conversations, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek to understand where someone else is coming from.
  • Model acceptance and openness. Create an “open door” policy at home. Open your doors to multiple people from different walks of life. When your teen sees that you are okay with people who are different from you and that you are willing to learn from them, it goes a long way to sending a message of acceptance and tolerance.
  • Too much to have an “open door” house? Tone it down. Invite just one friend who gives you a cultural connection. Even having that one person’s perspective opens up the world that much more. It might be that your child will make a connection, or it might be your family as a whole. Be open to befriending others and be open to learning!
  • Above all else, be sincere! If you have biases or prejudices, your teenagers will pick up on it so be sure to deal with your own “stuff.”

Tips for parents with children ages 16 to 18

  • Teach them to ask questions and not just assume. Sometimes language is the only barrier between people; it’s not intelligence, just language. Pictures, gestures, and a sense of humor can help greatly when working to overcome language barriers. And don’t forget: just because someone has an accent doesn’t mean you have to speak louder or more slowly to him. Don’t assume! For example, one mom, Meredith, tries to teach her kids not to assume anything about customs. At their school, some girls wear head covers. She encourages her girls to seek to understand why they wear them by asking questions: What does it mean? Why do you wear one? Do you even have an option to not wear it?

Explore more on how to talk about and introduce the idea of diversity here.

  • Encourage your child to learn a language other than his own. “When you speak one language, you are one man; speaking two languages makes you two men,” says Nerses Kamajian, an Armenian grandfather. Being able to speak more than one language opens up a door to new friends and new possibilities.
  • Challenge your child to explore more about other cultures than just the foods. Invite them to find something different that appeals to them about the culture – a custom, a game, a ritual. Later, share together what you learned, experienced, and liked.
  • Give them the gift of an immersion experience. The most wonderful gift we can give our children is an immersion experience so that they become aware that “our” culture is not the only culture AND that other people share similar concerns as us, but from different experiences and perspectives.
  • Be a tourist in your own town. Go to ethnic grocery stores, visit mosques, museums, or attend services from a different culture/religion, etc. Visit, learn, explore.

  • Check out local inter-faith groups that sponsor week-long (or longer) service or cultural trips to other regions of the country or to other countries. For example, living on an American Indian reservation for a week, or going on a Habitat for Humanity trip to Mexico. Living with a different culture is an impactful way to help people become sensitive to others and develop empathy.

Explore More Ideas for Building Culturally Responsible Kids:

1. Raising Your Family in a Diverse Culture.

2. Make a World of Difference: 50 Asset-Building Activities To Help Teens Explore Diversity.

3. Educational Games from Around the World.