How To Raise Globally Competent Kids
What are your prejudices? For whom do you hold contempt? Is it the Hipsters? City people? Middle Easterners? Mexicans? African Americans? Maybe it’s rich people, poor people, white people or bankers? Be completely honest with yourself about which groups become scapegoats, evil-doers, and generally the people you blame for threatening your way of life and then think about how related comments may be affecting your kids.
We all have one if not more biases we carry with us. In some cases our judgments are what keep us safe in this world, but in others they can be harming us. No place is that more apparent then in how we set examples for our children. Whether you live in one place or travel around, success is no longer guaranteed by what a person knows so much as what they can do with that knowledge. I’ve met many experts in their fields who are stumped at how to get their projects to flourish because of cultural differences. Without cultural competence you can be a rocket scientist, but won’t be able to get anything off the ground if you can’t respect and mobilize your counterparts.
The need to equip our children with the ability to interact with or outsiders from either next door or around the world is increasing every day. While the ideal way to create globally minded children is to travel and expose them to different ways of doing things, there are a few simple (and even not so simple) steps parents can take to integrate a global mindset into their daily lives, whether they get on a plane or not.
1. Set the Example
Developing a global mindset unquestionably starts with the parents. How you react to things, categorize people, qualify information and respond to the differences around you will inform a big part of the attitudes your kids develop towards people who are not like them. Most of us aren’t doing anything wrong, but below are some ways of setting the example that can be added to our play books to better equip our children for a flatter world. By setting the example, fostering a global mindset in children ends up starting with us.
2. Us versus Them
Children will develop their attitudes towards difference through the things they hear their parents say. If parents have an Us versus Them attitude, their children will pick up on that and develop a similar world view. The Us/Them paradigm fosters a sense of false superiority that encourages exclusivism and actually weakens your children’s ability to objectively measure the world around them. It will certainly work against them when interacting with people globally. The Local/Outsider model is probably the most prolific example of this – local versus non-local, urban versus suburban, black versus white, rich versus poor, young techie versus old fogy. In the end the irony in it all is that our complaints about others, say more about Us than they do about Them.
3. Avoid Stereotypes and Generalizations
It is hard to avoid judging groups of people based on the behaviors that bother us about them, especially when those behaviors threaten a way of life. While sometimes generalizations can be helpfully descriptive, they can also be damaging if used too often. Example: the French are rude, Americans are loud, Germans are strict, Australians are fun, Chinese are clever. Even locally we use gross-generalizations: Hipster, Jersey people, Tourists, City folk, Rednecks. There are two problems with this. 1) It fosters the Us/Them and 2) It suggests that an entire country or group of people is unrealistically homogenous. That is a risky lesson to teach our kids if we want them to succeed in an increasingly heterogeneous world. Not only can it pigeon hole our kids into one of these categories, but it doesn’t allow for the diversity that exists within all cultures.
4. Qualify Lessons
In the United States children are often taught to look a person in the eye and shake hands firmly when they meet. In some countries looking an elder or superior directly in the eyes could be considered disrespectful. A firm handshake could be a sign of over confidence or lack of humility. When we qualify the lesson we are encouraging mindfulness, ex. “In the United States, you look at someone in the eyes when you greet them, but in some cultures this could be rude.” This lets children know that their way isn’t the only way, which leads to mindfulness.
5. Use Descriptions
It is easy to jump to conclusion based on what we see, but sticking to descriptions protects us and our kids from falling victim to inaccurately using our visible cultures to interpret someone else’s invisible culture. Continuing our above example, three possible ways a person could react to a firm hand shake:
a. Description: The young woman squeezed firmly when shaking hands.
b. Interpretation: The woman is rude and doesn’t understand my culture. She can’t be trusted.
c. Evaluation: The woman is bad.
(Generalization: Western women are over confident and disrespectful).
By sticking to descriptions we are teaching our children that there may be more to certain behaviors than meets the eye. How would you feel if someone judged you negatively for something you were taught was good, like a firm handshake?
6. Teach Them Another Language
Learning a language is a full-time commitment. For a child the ideal way to learn a second language is to be surrounded by it, but that is a primary goal or luxury few have. Language holds cultural cues often not accessible otherwise. Consider the Chinese character for home: the characters for house and woman combined. When you travel to a country with a foreign language learn a few key words and phrases and encourage your children to do the same. Good morning, thank you, please, where is the__, goodnight and I don’t speak ___, can go a long way to modeling respect. It has the added benefit of letting people from the host culture know you are at least trying. In the end it isn’t necessarily important to get children to fluency so much as it is to opening their minds to other possibilities.
7. Books and Films
Exposing children to books and films that have protagonists that are from different backgrounds can be incredibly enriching. IncultureParent.com has a great list of cartoons that feature main characters that aren’t the prototypical white. Some of our favorite movies to watch at home with our 5 and 7 year old include Kirikou and any of Hayao Miyazaki’s Films . If you children are studying a certain language then having them watch films in that language will help with comprehension over time. Disney has a wide variety of offerings in multiple languages, even though most of their standards wouldn’t fall under the multi-cultural category. Amazon has a list that acts as a great starting point of Best Books to Teach Children About Culture and Barnes and Noble has an excellent section on Teen Fiction – People’s and Culture.
8. Welcome an Exchange Student
Inviting a member of another culture into your home is a great way to expose children to difference. Ideally, an exchange student will speak the language that you are trying to encourage your child to learn, but if language isn’t involved, simply having a person from another culture provides all sorts of opportunities to discuss geography, culture and different ways of doing things. While this is a commitment, many people find it enriches the lives of all parties involved.
There is no better way to expose children to respecting different ways of doing things than to travel while incorporating the above tips into your interactions. If international travel isn’t your thing, then simply going to a neighboring state or community also provides opportunities for showing respect and appreciation for our differences. It is also valuable to keep in mind that being involved in local community activities that include people with disabilities is another way of transporting yourself into another culture as most of the time those communities have their own specific cultures that affect their values, beliefs and communications patterns as well.
10. Have a Globe and Atlas on Hand
Having a globe and atlas around the house allows you to talk about where your children are in relation to all of the other countries and people in the world. UNICEF publishes a couple of great books by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley, one of which is called Children Just Like Me which shows kids from around the world in their local clothes and environments. This combined with the atlas and globe makes the conversation more dynamic and visual and allows children to relate to different locations more dynamically.
In the end, it isn’t necessary to take extreme measure to raise a globally minded child. Every country has its own cultural similarities and subcultures that contradict those since each individual is unique regardless of their background. The key is to be flexible and be able to adapt to each situation that arises. Simply changing the way in which we talk about people from different places provides the example for children that they can keep with them a lifetime.
Let us know your thoughts and please share some strategies from your own playbook.