BY HEATHER NUGENT, HOMESCHOOLING MOTHER, WRITER, REGISTERED NURSE, DUNKIRK, NY
Watching the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games, I could not help but reflect on the progress our world has made toward global understanding in the years since I was a young child. I remember being fascinated by other cultures, especially those to the East. Aside from the occasional family dinner at the local Chinese restaurant, however, the sights, smells and textures of these exotic cultures were far out of my reach. Now we have the internet, satellite television and a popular culture that not only values but celebrates cultural diversity.
I was surprised recently when I read about research that supported the idea that, for all our good intentions, we may be hard-wired to have prejudice toward those we are most like. This means that it is even more crucial that children are exposed to other cultures. The more we know about a person who may not look like us on the surface, the more we are able to see how alike we are.
Taking a closer look at the holidays celebrated by another religious group, for example, we can find parallels with our own beliefs and traditions. We can also learn to appreciate our differences while still valuing our own cultural traditions. My family of origin celebrates Christmas, but in my home we acknowledge one night of Chanukah with candles, potato latkes, songs and games.
It may seem like a daunting task, especially for those who have never traveled outside the United States or who do not have close relationships with people from different cultures. Any parent, regardless of life experience, can create an environment that celebrates diversity. I have found that introducing my children to the customs and values held by other cultures is made both fun and easy by using the three F’s: Fact, Fiction and Food!
Information about news and events occurring around the globe are at our disposal literally twenty-four hours a day. While I do not advocate exposing young children to the news, watching or listening to a news program is one
way to get factual information about another culture to share with your children. It would be difficult for anyone to get through the day without hearing about happenings in the Middle East. Depending on the age and sensitivity level of your child(ren), you can introduce topics of discussion focusing on holidays celebrated, people in leadership roles or even what movies may be popular in a particular place. While you may not wish to call attention to the news event being reported, you can call your child’s attention to the name of a city or a person and share with him what you know about that person or place. If your child is old enough, you could lead him in an online search for information about what sports children in that enjoy or what a typical school day looks like in that country.
Exploring fiction together is an easy, enjoyable way to share foreign cultures with your children. Make a point of asking your local librarian to recommend fables and folk tales from other countries. A lot can be learned about a society’s values by reading its children’s literature! You can discuss these values with your older children, while younger children simply enjoy the story. Older children may want to read a book by a foreign author or one that depicts a child their age who lives on the other side of the world. Get two copies of the same book and read along with your older child. From reading stories, it is an easy transition into exploring cultures
through artwork, poetry and song. Books with accompanying CD’s or cassettes may feature folk music while the book’s illustrations can be wonderful examples of the art techniques and materials specific to the culture.
One of my favorite ways to infuse an appreciation for other cultures into our daily lives is through the preparation and enjoyment of food! Children love to cook. Even the littlest ones get a thrill from helping out in the kitchen. Whether you utilize a cookbook from your local library or search the internet, a simple recipe can provide an afternoon’s activity, a new addition to an evening’s meal and a trans-cultural experience all in one!
So don’t forget all the resources at your fingertips and around the corner at your local library. For little or no cost, you can expose your children to experiences here at home that will make a world of difference in the way she responds to those she encounters throughout her life. Of course, your exploration of another culture does not have to be limited to the three F’s. Folk art and film, anyone?
Heather Nugent is a homeschooling mom of two who lives in Dunkirk. She works outside the home as a labor and delivery nurse in Buffalo. Heather also works as a midwife's assistant, labor doula and massage therapist.