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Arts and Enrichment

Culture Kids

Raising Kids to be Citizens of the World

November 01, 2009
My grandparents are having a hard time keeping up with their 13 grandchildren. From San Francisco to New York, France to Africa and Pakistan soon enough, they marvel at how we "young people" maneuver our way through the world.

Despite Grandma's legitimate worries about our ability to stay truly connected to good friends, us grandkids, ages 20 to 39, are globally mobile. Among the great tasks of our lives will be to raise a generation of global citizens who may well view the world as their hometown.

"The world is changing at a rapid pace and many things are becoming global. We cannot assume that our children will enjoy the same career prospects, job security and earning potential that we have. China, India and a number of other nations are becoming increasingly competitive," says David Garner, head of school for the International School of Indiana.

Garner adds, "Many of the big challenges facing our world, from environmental issues, to hunger, disease, political instability and warfare, are issues of a global dimension that require global solutions."

Undeniably, education is key to preparing our kids for living in a world that is shrinking with each new technological advancement.

"The framework for the 21st century skills we wish for all children to acquire has to be global," says Caterina Blitzer, international education specialist for Indiana Department of Education. She is encouraged by the opportunities—both public and private—Indiana offers students to learn new languages and to be exposed to diverse cultures early in life.

One specific example she points to is Indianapolis Public School #2, a National Blue Ribbon School in which students interact with students from other countries via Skype. It's the new wave of pen pals, and honestly, what an incredible means for learning about other cultures right in the comfort of the classroom.

Blitzer feels there are ways parents can help direct kids' attention to a more global focus that don't require linking in via Skype. For instance, she encourages parents to work with teachers and librarians to help broaden children's knowledge about the world and its many cultures through the earliest stories that are read to them. "It is such a doable, pleasurable task." She notes that Indiana libraries are increasingly offering story hours in different languages and suggests that even if the event isn't in your language to take your child so he or she can appreciate the nuances of language.

Maureen Healy, founder of the worldwide organization Growing Happy Kids and author of "365 Perfect Things to Say to Your Kids," due out in January, feels that raising culturally aware kids doesn't have to be complicated, but should start with parents having a genuine interest in other parts of the world.

"Get a globe. Get a puzzle. Start to talk about the calendar year, or different types of food and music. There are kids all around the planet and [your kids] might want to learn how other kids learn," Healy offers.

There are infinite ways to help raise kids who compassionately think about cultures different from their own, whether within or beyond the borders of our great 50 states. Here are just a few ideas experts recommend:

1. Start the dialogue. "Talking about concepts like respect and differences early in our children's lives can be as natural as talking to him or her about eating and sleeping. It is an important factor in helping our children know that it's okay to recognize differences that we all have and that it's okay to talk about them," says Kara Wright, founder of Mindhearted, Inc., a diversity education company for parents.

2. Examine yourself. Wright also says that raising globally conscious kids who respect differences requires parents to tell the truth about what we see and examine our own values, beliefs and understanding for want we want for our children.

3. Eat a cross-cultural cuisine. The way to a person's heart is through his or her stomach. What more natural way to get a glimpse into how others live than to eat the food indigenous and meaningful to them?

4. Attend an international festival. Share cultures informally by food, music and costume at local international festivals held throughout the year. This month families can take advantage of the annual International Festival held Nov. 19—22 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

5. Get a pen pal. Work with your child's teachers to encourage international pen pals to learn more about how kids live in other parts of the world. Pen pals can communicate via Skype, such as School #2 does, or the old fashioned way—email!

6. Celebrate holidays from other cultures. What a simple thing that can provide insight into the history of a culture or religion. The library is a great resource for discovering what and how other cultures celebrate.

7. Watch foreign films. Seeing a story that is written and told in a language other than our own provides an often beautiful and sometimes jarring way to learn new points of view from those who live in other countries.

8. Learn another language. "Learning a foreign language is a great way to broaden your mindset, because it's not only the language you learn, it's actually another way of looking at the world," says the International School's Garner.

9. Host exchange students or hire an au pair. LiLing Pang, co-founder and editor of travel review website Trekaroo, says, "There is nothing like living with someone of a different culture to get to learn about their culture. Undoubtedly, your guest will break some of your social norms and house rules. But as parents, we are the ones who model to our kids how to respond to different cultures. Sometimes that requires some soul searching of our own as parents." How true.

10. Allow kids to find their own way. Janice Yester-Beyer, mother of three bi-racial children and author of the children's book "Zebert The Rainbow Striped Zebra," says her children had a hard time choosing a peer group to fit into as they did not want to offend either their African American mom or German dad. "I don't think that parents should force their children to integrate with other kids; it should be a natural thing, and it will turn into a natural thing if parents open their kids up to different experiences and different people."

Healy sums up the need for raising culturally aware kids when she says, "If the planet is to succeed, we not only need to connect leaders of our countries but need the children to learn about each other and have compassion and kindness." I happen to agree.

Carrie Bishop is a freelance writer and mother of two young sons, whose daily antics inspire her work and her life.

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