Raising kids with a greater appreciation for differences can help make the world a better place.
As racist and xenophobic sentiments fill news headlines, many parents are wondering how to instill values of acceptance and cultural understanding in their children.
“It’s important to me for my sons to understand that people around the world are just like them and to have empathy for those people, understanding and real global awareness,” Florida mom Akeelah Kuraishi told HuffPost.
Kuraishi ― who was born in England to a Pakistani father and Scottish mother ― put her mission into practice by creating Little Global Citizens, a subscription box meant to teach kids about different cultures and people around the world.
“Young children don’t have societal preconceptions and I think sometimes we forget that,” she explained. “It’s very imperative to take a stand right now to impact the next generation and make sure they are open-minded, compassionate and aware.”
To offer parents some guidance on this front, HuffPost spoke to Kuraishi and Sonia Nieto, author of Affirming Diversity and professor emerita of language, literacy and culture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Education. Here are their tips for teaching kids about cultural diversity.
Start with books
Both Kuraishi and Nieto recommended having reading material at home that reflects the diversity of our world, from magazines to children’s books.
“Books offer a great opportunity to teach kids about different countries and cultures to expand their horizons, even just to get them to say unfamiliar names,” Kuraishi noted.
While reading books that involve different cultures, parents should help their children empathize with the characters. They can ask questions like, “Oh, isn’t it interesting that this person lives with their grandparents or their aunties?” or “Wow, they have chickens at their home. Do you think it would be fun to have chickens? What would that be like?”
“Ask them to think about the differences and make sure to highlight the similarities, like ‘This little boy likes soccer just like you!’ or ‘This child is enjoying a book just like you!,’” Kuraishi said.
Find opportunities in your community
“Expose your children to experiences that they might not ordinarily have and that they can learn from so that as they grow older. They will be comfortable in these situations where they are the only one of whatever background they might be,” Nieto explained. “Exposure is so important. Let them see things they aren’t familiar with yet.”
Nieto recommends taking advantage of community experiences like theater performances, concerts, lectures and museums, which provide a wealth of diverse learning opportunities. While these kinds of experiences are more abundant in large cities, it’s still possible to find them in smaller communities. “You just have to look for it,” she said.
Finding local places of worship can be a helpful route, as they often put on cultural festivals to teach the community about their traditions and allow people from diverse backgrounds to engage with each other.
And although kids might be reluctant to try new things, Nieto noted that it’s all about getting over that initial hurdle.
“It’s just like with food. I’d always ask my kids to try something and said, ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t have to have it,‘” she explained. “But often they would like it, and say ‘Oh yeah this is pretty good.’”
Go to different restaurants
“I think it’s very important to make sure you’re learning from a culture and not about a culture,” said Kuraishi. Going to different kinds of restaurants that are embedded in cultural communities gives kids the opportunity to taste new food, hear other languages and see what people from different cultures wear.
Before visiting restaurants that serve cuisine from a less familiar culture, Kuraishi reads up on it with her sons. “My boys love to learn a few new words in that language and then try them out at the restaurant if we’re lucky enough to go to a restaurant where the staff is actually from the country of origin,” she explained. “People respond so well to it, too. Just dive into restaurants you wouldn’t normally go to.”
“Exposure is so important. Let them see things they aren’t familiar with yet.”
Kuraishi also noted that restaurants are a great entry into diverse communities that you can engage with outside the dining experience.
Foster their curiosity
It’s an all-too-common situation: A parent and child are walking down the street when they pass someone wearing unfamiliar cultural garb or speaking another language. And when the child asks about it, the parent shushes them.
Nieto and Kuraishi advise parents not to do, as it assigns a negative connotation to differences. Rather, they should to take an open and positive approach and encourage those kinds of questions as a way to normalize differences.
“Don’t act like it’s a negative thing that you have to speak in an embarrassed fashion about or be concerned to address. Look at it as a learning opportunity ― to open their minds and expand their horizons. It’s so exciting and fun for them,” said Kuraishi. “Your children are not coming at this from a negative perspective, so make it a positive thing by saying, ‘Oh that’s so cool. I don’t know why she’s wearing this type of clothing, but why don’t we go and learn about it together?’”
These moments can also open the door to learning. “If a child asks about a woman wearing a hijab, for example, you can just say honestly, ‘Women in other religions sometimes cover their hair as part of their religion and a sign of respect. In other religions, men wear yarmulkes, for example.’”
Know there’s nothing wrong with differences
Pretending not to “see race” or “see differences” doesn’t serve kids well. After all, they learn about differences like colors and shapes early on in their education.
“I think we have a problem here in our country of not wanting to notice differences,” said Nieto. “I’ve met many teachers who say ‘Oh, I don’t see differences black or white. All of my kids are the same to me.’ But all of your students are not the same. They come with their beautiful differences, and we should acknowledge those because it’s not as if by avoiding them they cease to exist. They do exist.”
Parents set the tone for how children think about people from other cultures and shouldn’t be shy about differences, Kuraishi noted. “We can set their norms,” she said.
Ultimately, parents need to teach their children that people in the world look different, wear different clothes, eat different foods, listen to different music and more. Kuraishi added that laying this foundation can help prepare kids to succeed in this globally connected world, develop better emotional intelligence skills, feel greater flexibility and creativity, and build more confidence in understanding their role and place in life.
Make it natural
“I think the best way for parents to make sure their children experience diversity is to make it a natural part of life,” Nieto said. She cautioned against taking an overly contrived approach. “It’s not to say ‘Go out and make a black friend!’ because that’s not the most natural way.”
“Work for change in housing policies. Neighborhoods are really segregated by race, ethnicity and social class.”
Ideally, all families would live in highly diverse communities that naturally exposed their kids to differences, she noted. But as that’s not the reality in the U.S., Nieto advised parents to get involved politically.
“Work for change in housing policies. Neighborhoods are really segregated by race, ethnicity and social class,” she said. “If we live such segregated lives, parents may feel like they need to import diversity, which is not very natural.
Use other media
There helpful digital resources to help kids learn about differences. Kuraishi recommends language learning apps like Gus on the Go, Little Pim, and Duolingo. “There are also some great TV shows, like ‘Super Wings,’ which takes kids on a journey to a different country in every episode,” she said. “As parents, it’s important to be intentional about what your kids are watching and making sure the children characters are representative of a diverse spectrum.”
Nieto pointed to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project, which includes resources for educators and other caring adults ― as well as a magazine. She is also a fan of Teaching For Change and Rethinking Schools.
If you don’t feel comfortable having these conversations as a parent, it’s important to educate yourself.
“Often I think we’re stuck in our own silos, and we’re afraid to venture out,” Nieto said. Reading, taking classes, seeing different movies or joining a book club with diverse selections are good ways to start.
“If you read the news right now, you see that our world needs a hefty dose of empathy, and it’s not really taught in schools,” Kuraishi explained. “It’s something we have to teach as families.”
The Little Global Citizens CEO draws inspiration from a quote by author Rachel Naomi Remen: “When we know ourselves to be connected to all others, acting compassionately is simply the natural thing to do.”
“I think that should be a guiding force for our generation of parents to make sure the world is better for our kids,” Kuraishi added.