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by Mary Grace Otis
“It’s not wrong, it’s just different.” I can’t tell you how many times my high school German teacher repeated those words to us on our class trip to Germany the summer after 10th grade. She said those words to try to help us process all of the things that we were experiencing that seemed unusual, confusing, strange, or downright wrong. By having this phrase as our mantra throughout the trip, we were able to simply accept things as different that otherwise may have caused us great consternation.
This phrase has served me well in my time living and traveling throughout Europe and in my years living in India. It is a phrase you can easily add into your family vocabulary to help build a culture of acceptance for other cultural norms and practices.
Why should we even strive to build a family culture of acceptance? There are many reasons, and you probably already have some of your own ideas.
Here are just a few:
I’m a fan of keeping things simple. Raising globally-minded, accepting children doesn’t mean you have to hire fancy tutors or spend a fortune on extra-curriculars. Exposure to other cultures can happen in a multitude of ways, and parents who are open and accepting of the world and who model that to their children will have more success raising children who are open and accepting.
Here are three simple ways to cultivate a family culture of acceptance.
We’ve all heard that habits are “caught” not “taught.” This is especially true when it comes to attitudes towards others. Children pick up on attitudes incredibly easily, and they recognize fear or anxiety through body language as well as spoken words. If we as parents want to raise children who are open and accepting of others, we ourselves must be willing to talk with people from all backgrounds. We must display a curiosity towards others instead of fear. We can do this when we meet new people or experience new things. By choosing to ask lots of questions, listen and learn from others, we are showing that we value people and their experiences.
When we are open to new experiences, we teach our children to be open as well. Even if we don’t have plentiful opportunities for multicultural interaction, our attitudes towards others can have a lifelong impact on how our children interact with others.
Cultural norms vary tremendously, and can seem wrong, weird, strange, or odd. When teaching cultural norms, don’t teach them as absolutes. Many cultures have different norms when it comes to table manners, introductions and greetings, hygiene practices, and other basic life skills. When we teach our kids that it is “wrong” to do or not do certain things that are really just cultural norms, we are teaching them that other cultures are wrong. For example, when my kids start eating food with their hands, instead of saying “No, don’t eat with your hands, that’s not polite,” I say “In India people eat rice and curry with their hands, but here in the United States, we use forks and spoons. So, we are going to use forks and spoons today.”
When teaching your kids to shake hands or greet elders, you can say things like “In our culture, we look our elders in the eye and say hello.” Just a simple phrase like “In our culture” is like a little flag that will remain in their minds so that they will be able to later recognize cultural differences without creating a cultural hierarchy. When they are in a country where people bow to their elders or lower their eyes to show respect, they will be better able to understand that this is a cultural difference and not a “wrong” way of approaching people.
Why do Indians eat with their hands and Chinese use chop sticks? It’s simply a cultural norm. One way is not wrong and one way right. One way is NOT the only way.
Whether you live abroad or in your home country, seek out ways to meet people from different cultures. This may mean attending special events, inviting people into your home, hosting foreign exchange students, or hanging out at different places than you usually would. It may take extra effort for your child to play with the kid from a different country whose parents don’t speak your language. It might be awkward to go to a Greek restaurant and try to become friends with the servers. It might seem hard to have a foreign exchange student who needs a lot of extra attention. But all of these things will increase your child’s ability to accept people different from him or herself, and they will help your child learn how to engage with the world around him or her.
There are countless small ways to implement the above practices into your everyday lives. You can incorporate crafts, games, maps, language learning, music, and of course, travel! Who and what your children see as “other” depends a lot on who and what your children are exposed to. If you live in a place with little diversity, you must find ways to incorporate this diversity in your lives so that “otherness” becomes a part of your daily life and not something to fear.
When I say “It’s not wrong,” I’m not referring to moral or value differences, and I’m not asking your family to let go of their own values or morals. Some things are wrong, (slavery, discrimination, violence, child endangerment, oppression of women, and so on) and you should absolutely not let culture determine your values and or cause you to falter on the values that your family holds dear. I’m actually asking you to understand that certain cultural norms and practices hold different values in different cultures. Some cultures show respect and honor by being quiet and reserved; some show respect through kind overtures and direct words of praise. Some cultures value directness, some cultures value soft-spokenness. Some cultures value community and family, some value independence. Acceptance does not mean you have to agree with everything another person or culture believes or values. You can disagree respectfully and yet still accept someone as a valuable human being. This is the true calling of cultural understanding—being willing to accept others even when things they do or believe seem contrary to our own beliefs. Teaching our children to do this at a young age will enable them to move more freely throughout life and to develop meaningful relationships with all those they meet.
What ways have you found to build a family culture of acceptance?
Mary Grace Otis is a wife, mom of three boys, freelance writer, and host of The Global Mom Show podcast, where she interviews moms from around the world about how they connect themselves and their children with a global view of life. You can find her show on iTunes or Stitcher radio, or listen on her website, www.theglobalmom.com. Join her private Facebook Group, The Global Moms Network, to see live streams, connect with other moms, and get behind the scenes episode info. Mary Grace believes you can live a global life wherever you are, and teach your kids to do the same.
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