Kids today live in a global community, where technologies bring cultures together and communication is swift and frequent from one side of the world to the other. In this 21st century world, parents can do more than ever to promote global citizenship and open their child's eyes to the people and places beyond America, and unlike her own culture.
Hamish Taylor, an organizational development and strategy consultant in Dollar, Scotland, has done just that: his family lived in Japan for over seven years – where his daughter was born and his son spent the majority of his life – and then moved to the United States. “My wife and I, by chance, became citizens of the world – our kids were born into it and have known nothing else,” he says.
Research has shown that American high school students lack general knowledge about their home country and the history and government of the United States. According to the Common Core report Still At Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now, 17-year-olds correctly answered only 67 percent of 33 basic history questions. And a National Geographic survey found that just 37 percent of Americans, aged 18 to 24, could find Iraq on a map, and only half could locate the state of New York.
Taylor's children’s immersion into international schools and foreign cultures is an uncommon experience, and many families won’t have the opportunity to live abroad or may not have the time or budget to vacation in far-off places. Study abroad programs or other enrichment activities, too, may be out of reach. How, then, to introduce global awareness and thinking to your child?
If your family is unable to travel or experience foreign places in a more traditional sense, there are ways to introduce your child to the world around her. “Cultural exploration is neither difficult nor demanding – it just takes some imagination,” says Taylor.
Movies, books, museums, zoos, and libraries offer unlimited opportunities to experience the world, says Michael Szarek, the director of recruitment at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J. And if you look around in your neighborhood, you may find neighbors with cultures different from you own, adds Setsuko Dalrymple, a Montessori teacher in Columbia, Md.
Depending on your child's age, what she learns from interactions with people from different cultures may vary. If your child shows discomfort when she’s introduced to something culturally new – a Dia de los Muertos festival, a milkshake with tapioca balls, a new language – it’s completely natural. Even if your child is uncomfortable, she will almost always be curious about why something is different, which indicates the budding mindset of a global citizen.
“I believe that children are intuitively citizens of the world, respecting the people they meet for who they are,” says Szarek. “They are instinctively hungry to learn about new worlds, cultures, and peoples and only learn biases as time goes on.” That said, what are ways to encourage this innate curiosity and guide your child to become a citizen of the world? Here are some tips:
- Resurrect Culture Day. In the past, many elementary and middle schools established a “Culture Day” on campus, where students shared food, music, national costumes, souvenirs, and other items from their home countries, says Taylor. If your child’s school doesn’t offer such an event, suggest it to the administrators, or propose getting a culture club into the extracurricular mix if it doesn’t yet exist.
- Explore the culinary universe. Eat at restaurants that offer dishes outside of your child’s comfort zone. “Food is a great reflection of a culture,” says John McDermott, a learning and performance consultant in Angel Fire, New Mexico. Allow your child to experience and understand a bit of a culture through a meal. Eating doesn't have to be a dramatically different experience, says Taylor, but enough to open up your child's mind to why other people eat different things. If you’re enjoying a bowl of udon or ramen a Japanese restaurant, for instance, alternate eating with a fork and chopsticks. Illustrate how people eat in unique ways. But don’t worry if your child is initially squeamish to try something new. “Introducing children to different cuisines of the world at an early age is a way to make them curious about the cultures later,” says Dalrymple.
- Find a video pal. While exchanging letters with a pen pal could never be replaced, using a webcam to chat with a friend overseas is convenient and often free. “With Skype, I can talk to friends and colleagues in other countries and even see their faces. They can show me their homes, their schools, and their friends,” says McDermott. Your child’s school language program should incorporate web conferencing or video calling to other countries, he suggests. Figure out what types of resources are available at your child’s school, or recommend organizations such as ePals to the language department, which connect students, teachers, and schools worldwide in a kid-safe online network of emails and blogs. A tip for home: if you chat with relatives overseas, use Internet calling software, such as Skype, or install a free video chat tool – the Gmail add-on works well – instead of talking over the phone. It’s a simple, visual way to engage your child.
- Watch a foreign flick. Foreign films with subtitles are an entertaining way to experience new cultures and languages. “Foreign films have the ability to bring people closer by showing the commonality of human existence,” says Matt Newman, a father of three and teacher of elementary and test preparation classes in Fresno, Calif. “At the same time, they offer glimpses into other cultures and ways of thought and are readily available and inexpensive.” Try The Red Balloon for a whimsical glimpse of French culture, or Spirited Away for an animated look into Japan.
- Cover your wall with the world. “Maps, globes, and atlases in the home are great resources,” says Katina Fontes, a map enthusiast and former education program specialist for the New Jersey Department of Education Bureau of Bilingual Education. Traveling and learning about other cultures are major aspects of Fontes’ family life. She suggests purchasing a laminated map that can be marked with a dry erase pen and using it to discuss current events, family ancestry, and places you’d like to visit. “My daughter, in particular, loves to mark it up with all the places she's visited and hopes to visit in the future. It has also been great as a quick reference tool,” she says. Try to avoid the Internet, however, as a geographical reference. “I believe there is no substitute for a child exposed to a visual representation of our world on a daily basis,” says Fontes.
Introducing the life of a global citizen is a gradual process. Hopefully, these ideas provide springboards to other ways to immerse your child in the vast, diverse world.