Helping Children Develop a Sense of Cultural Identity
From the moment parents find out a baby is on the way, we make an endless number of decisions about how we will care for the new arrival. Hours are spent considering whether to breastfeed or formula-feed, to use cloth diapers or disposable, not to mention the hand-wringing that attends the question of who will care for the child while parents work! The discussion on what it means to raise a, for example, Jewish, African American, Indian or Latino child in American culture often does not occur until much later. Whether a family is actively part of one cultural group or religion, an interfaith family or minimally connected to a religious or cultural group, the choices about how we want to include culture in family life should be deliberate and intentional. How do we, as parents, help our children develop cultural identity?
The first step is for parents to be clear on their goal. We cannot pass on to our children that which we are not clear-minded about ourselves. If we marry someone of the same religion or culture, it may seem likely to eliminate these conflicts. “We are both Jewish, African American, or Christian, so there is no need to discuss how we are going to raise the kids.” What we fail to recognize is that, like any group identity, we all have our own unique experience of what it means to be part of a particular religion or cultural group. Interfaith families, on the other hand, typically have these conversations much sooner, as they are well aware that they grew up with different traditions.
As we think about how to incorporate culture and religion into the lives of our children, it is important to explore our own childhood experiences. What rituals and traditions brought you joy and which did you avoid? How did you feel connected to your cultural identity as a child? When we have explored these questions ourselves, it becomes much easier to pass along those traditions and values to our children.
Many parents wonder when to begin teaching their children about religion and culture. While it’s never too late, beginning early is recommended. We begin reading to our children long before they are able to read because we know they must be exposed early in order to read themselves when they are older.