We’re an international family of sorts. Besides our girls’ being Ethiopian-born, my husband spent part of his childhood living overseas, and I grew up in Canada. We have family, relatives, and many friends from different parts of the world.
I can already see how this will affect the way we educate our girls. I want them to love the country they live in; I also want them to appreciate the country they were born in, and to know the country I still call home. I want them to see themselves not just as citizens of three countries, but citizens of the world. I think this perspective will help them to forge a rich identity and be successful in life.
A lot of parents want their children to appreciate other cultures and to know about the world, but it can be hard to know where to start. Here are a few ideas that might help:
Start with what comes naturally. What’s your heritage? Are there cultural celebrations, foods, or traditions related to your heritage that you can bring into your family life? You might choose a special recipe to make on Thanksgiving or Christmas, or to mark a new holiday with a special dessert. Maybe you already do this kind of thing and need to turn it up a notch or make these “teaching moments.” There may be children’s books about the countries your ancestors came from; if you have old photos of previous generations, you can use them as a springboard for discussion.
If your heritage doesn’t inspire you or offer something new to learn, consider places you’ve traveled or cultures that have always fascinated you. There may also be aspects of your religious faith or spiritual practice that lend themselves to learning more about other places and cultures. For example, as Catholics, celebrating the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12) offers our family an opportunity to learn more about Mexican history and culture.
Pick a monthly theme. As part of our homeschooling regimen, we’ll be picking a country or region each month and doing at least one thing each week to learn about it. We might cook a special dish or go to a restaurant, find a book to read, talk about the place, or do a craft. (I would do this even if we weren’t homeschooling.) Picking a theme allows you to create a plan for it, since without one, good intentions can fly out the window.
Get a map and make it accessible. Before our girls came home, I purchased laminated world maps to use as placements. Before they could even understand English, I’d point out where Ethiopia is and show them the route we took across North Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. The girls can now point to where Daddy was born (California) and where Mummy was born (Nova Scotia), where Aunt Noemi is from (Spain) and where we took our summer vacation (Maine). They also like to point to the regions where certain favorite animals live, like chinchillas, meerkats, and koalas. I intend to get a globe soon so they can experience the concept that the Earth is actually round, and when we move to a bigger house with more wall space, I plan to mount a large world map somewhere. With a map or globe accessible, you can reference places as they come up in conversation, books, TV shows, homework, and social situations.
Find inspirational resources. One of my favorite online resources is KidWordCitizen; I link to it regularly and interviewed its founder, Becky Morales. You can find great ideas there — activities, music, ways to celebrate holidays from around the world, crafts, books, programs for kids and families, and more. Many of Becky’s guest contributors live in different parts of the world and have their own blogs highlighting ways that children can explore other cultures.
Look for opportunities in your own backyard. If you live in the middle of nowhere, this might be a little harder, but most larger towns and cities have cultural festivals, churches, concerts, art shows, restaurants, and exhibits that showcase cultural diversity and are worth taking in as a family.
Travel! I mention this one last because I know it’s not feasible for many families. Whether it’s cost, work schedules, or family obligations, traveling with kids can seem out of reach and impractical. But children are often better travelers than we give them credit for, and if you make traveling a priority, there are ways to make it rewarding for everybody. I still harbor the dream of living overseas for a while as a family. Whether that happens or not, I think anytime you travel with children — even if it’s close to home — they learn a lot.
One additional thing I wanted to mention: Some people balk at this idea of teaching kids to be “citizens of the world.” It can seem to fly in the face of being patriotic and knowledgeable about your own country. But I don’t think it has to be either/or: Some of the most patriotic Americans I know are well-traveled, speak other languages, and have friends from different countries and cultures. Learning about and experiencing other places not only broadens your horizons, it usually makes you better appreciate where you live. Frankly, I don’t think I truly appreciated where I lived until I traveled to a developing country.
Our planet is now connected in ways it never was before. Teaching our children about the world and allowing them to encounter people and cultures different from their own helps prepare them for the globalized world in which they’ll be living and working.
I’m curious how you bring the world into your home. Do you celebrate certain cultural holidays or keep special traditions? If this is something you’d like to do more of, where do you think you’d begin?
Images: Zoe Saint-Paul