When children learns about a culture different from their own, a world of possibilities opens up. New sounds, language, dress, cuisine, songs and stories — all arouse curiosity and inspire exploration. Even more importantly, learning about a new culture cultivates an enthusiasm for understanding and appreciating diverse ways of living, facilitating positive regard and sharing an implicit message: Our differences are valuable and honorable.
“In teaching our children empathy, we are giving them a crucial skill for leading a successful and happy life,” says Harvard University professor of neurology Alvaro Pascual-Leone. “Empathy provides a strong foundation for listening, communications, collaboration and problem-solving — critical skills in a rapidly changing and diverse world.”
Here are eight activities that plant seeds of fascination, appreciation and empathy:
Host a festive evening
Once a month, get the family involved in an immersion experience at home. Incorporate music, expand your culinary horizons and explore cultural fables. Ask that everyone share something they know or want to know about the featured culture.
To get you brainstorming, imagine a Russian-themed evening of your own. You could have an uzhin (Russian for “dinner”) of borscht, a bright vegetable soup made of red beets, and piroshki, baked buns filled with a variety of vegetables and sometimes egg or meat. Recipes for both dishes are easy to find online.
While you’re hard at work in the kitchen, turn up Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” or any of Tchaikovsky’s compositions. Over dessert, share classic Russian folktales.
Listen to world music
Turn on world music any time of day — while driving the kids to and fro, cooking or studying. It’s easy to do and provides a melodic portal into another culture. For some beautiful compilations of world music, visit the Putamayo Kids website.
You can also make music, a stimulating and exhilarating experience for people of all ages, especially youngsters. Take African hand drumming, for example. Kids can really feel what it is like to make powerful sound in a group. To learn more about drumming opportunities for your family, visit Baby Jam (for children 5 and younger) or Seattle Drum School of Music for older children.
Discuss how others solve problems around the world
How are houses built around the world? What kinds of kitchen utensils are used? When are people active during the day? What role does climate play in traditional customs? Get your family talking about such questions to explore how different cultures tackle real problems.
To truly ignite your children’s creativity while delving into how other cultures solve common challenges, ask them to brainstorm what hasn’t been done. A handy website to get the conversation going is Everyday Speech.
Become better acquainted with your own culture and family traditions
To appreciate another culture, it’s worth knowing your own culture in order to provide a foundation of security in kinship and inclusion. Create a family tree and get in touch with relatives to share stories. Discuss favorite family traditions, or create a scrapbook celebrating what your family loves to do together. The Family History Discovery Center in Bellevue is an endlessly interesting field trip to help enhance and inspire your family’s historical voyage.
Throw a cross-cultural birthday party
Your party could relate to family heritage or explore a country of interest. Let’s say, for example, that you decide to have a French fête. Invite that famous elephant Babar and make a colorful “Bon Anniversaire!” sign. Serve crêpes, quiche and French baked goods. During the party, play French accordion music, pass out berets and teach everyone a chanson or two.
Visit cultural centers
Living in the Northwest, it would seem paramount to learn about the indigenous peoples of this region, including Chief Si’ahl (namesake of the city of Seattle) of the Duwamish Tribe. The Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in Seattle features a permanent display of Native American artifacts and art, housed in a traditional longhouse — all for free! The center also hosts ongoing events, such as the upland reforestation project for the center’s property, field trips and classes.
Another gem of a cultural center is the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) in Seattle. NAAM offers creative, interactive youth workshops designed to discuss race and diversity. The museum also has a youth curator program, which inspires the young members of our community to get involved early.
Learn another language
Children can gain so much by learning a new language. The cognitive benefits are wide-ranging, including enhanced problem-solving skills, creativity and communication. But perhaps most importantly, learning a new language promotes self-examination and reflection.
“Learning a new language is like opening a door into a different perception and understanding of the cosmos,” says Josette Hendrix, founder and director of the Northwest Language & Cultural Center on Whidbey Island. “You learn to think differently!”
Consider the English expression “You are right,” says Hendrix. In French, that same expression is “Tu as raison” — literally, “You have reason.” The Bulgarians say, “Ti si prav,” which loosely translates as “You are straight or upright.” All these would be translated in English to mean “You are right,” but each is subtly different in connotation.
Volunteer as a family
Pick a cause to which you and your family feel particularly drawn. It could be taking care of a park, your local library, a museum — any number of organizations need your help to keep the lights on. Volunteering cultivates communication and social skills, and fuels individuals with purpose. It just feels good to help others, and that’s a powerful gift to give our children.
Let’s teach our children to cherish and treasure the world’s beautiful, numerous cultures. Show them that we’re not a monoculture, devoid of magnificence and biodiversity. By introducing your kids to a variety of perspectives and experiences, the world will emerge in vast and vibrant ways, rich with stories, songs, cuisine, art and so much more.