I reminded myself of this – the virtue of teachable moments – as the 4-year-old girl whose mother stood in line ahead of me at the supermarket checkout stared and pointed at me.
Just 30 seconds earlier, the harried mother of this little girl was challenged to ring up and pay for her items while keeping her precious princess tethered to one place. She was losing the challenge. In an attempt to regain ground, she pointed out the placidness of my toddler – which, by the way, is a miracle – as we waited in line. “Look, Sweetheart. See the little boy and how quietly he waits? Say hello to the little boy.”
But instead of seeing the little boy and mimicking his composure, Precious Princess zeroed in on me, or, better yet, a distinguishing characteristic: my huge afro. This discovery did succeed in keeping her still. Well, except her mouth. “Mommy, look at her hair!”
Her mom, sensing where this was going, tried to head it off by saying, “Yes, isn’t it beautiful on her?” (Um, why the “on her” qualifier?)
“No. No. No. No. No. It’s ugly, Mommy.”
The little girl’s mother flushed as red as the beets in her shopping cart and attempted to reason with the child that she was wrong, simply wrong. I smiled, offering that she was entitled to her opinion, even if it is wrong (my hair is awesome).
A teachable moment, wasted.
Studies show that between 6 and 18 months old, a child will begin to differentiate features that are familiar from those that are foreign – in other words, physical traits that don’t look like Mommy and Daddy. Have you ever observed your child staring at someone? They might be working out the physical differences between that person and you. It’s natural. It’s neutral. And how we respond to their questions and observations could make all the difference in how they adapt, embrace and learn about the world of people around them. We can raise an ambassador or a bully.
Think Globally, Parent Locally
There are benefits to raising a child who examines and adjusts to racial, ethnic, cultural and physical differences, and they go beyond just saving face at the checkout counter. Helping children to thrive in a global marketplace with rapidly shrinking borders begins in, well, the grocery store.
Adrian Tan, Ph.D., a Southern Methodist University sociologist who specializes in Mexican-American ethnic identity in children, believes it is important to expose a child to as many cultures and socio-economic groups as possible. Otherwise, he says, they’ll grow up inward-looking, myopic and apathetic to the needs of others. Multiculturalism can only benefit the child; the more they interact with others, the larger their world becomes. As they mature they’ll be better able to adjust and thrive among new environs, new circumstances and new people. They’ll learn to take pride in their own culture but see value in others.
Children who experience different cultures and learn to speak another language actually display greater cognitive and analytical skills, Dr. Tan says.
Exposing children to other types of people teaches sympathy and understanding and helps them avoid the pitfall of judging individuals and groups based on stereotypes.
But how do you do that – seizing those teachable moments – when, in fact, your neighborhood and school are the opposite of multicultural?
Breaking Out of the Bubble
Michelle Saenz is passionate about meeting people, which is why she loves working as a clinical social worker at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. With her own children, she’s made a conscious decision to break out of the bubble of racial, cultural and socioeconomic sameness. Making connections with people is a life skill she’d like to teach her two sons.
One of the reasons she values their public-school education is because it allows her boys to interact with many kinds of students. But that isn’t always easy for her or her kids. “Insularity is something that we must constantly overcome,” she says. “Not only that, but we have to overcome the insularity of others in order to reach out to them.”
Michelle and her husband have found creative ways to conquer the fear of reaching out, by organizing regular social gatherings on their block or taking the DART line to events: “It’s a good way to meet people and get out of the bubble,” she says. Michelle’s boys volunteer to help watch toddlers at their church. “My faith in God is what motivates me,” Michelle says. “We’re all made in God’s image, so I should treat everyone that way.”
Catalina Murcia founded Art of Peace Montessori in North Oak Cliff because she believes in instilling a world focus in children. Her curriculum incorporates international food and music, and she’s intentional about showing images of people of all colors to her student body, which is about half Anglo, 40 percent Hispanic and 10 percent African-American. Parents at her school have told her that relating to people from different socioeconomic backgrounds can be especially challenging. Children, however, are the great equalizer, Murcia says. Mothers have a common bond when it comes to wanting the best for their kids, and everyone has something valuable to bring to the table when it comes to parenting.
Many parents share a desire to bring their children up to respect and value different kinds of people. What’s tougher is translating that ideal into practical parenting. Moms and dads who’ve embraced the ideal of raising multicultural kids often discover that friends and family don’t necessarily applaud their choices.
You might, in fact, encounter a host of inside and outside challenges while trying to raise your kids to be fluent travelers in a diverse world. I know first-hand.
Being shunned by your own community for interacting with outsiders. What will my friends think if I allow my child to sleep over at a friend’s house who isn’t part of the “circle”? As parents, Tan says, raising children who are culturally aware might mean pushing back from some of our friends. They’re not the only ones swayed by peer pressure, after all: We are too. We must model courage for our children.
Accusations of not being proud of one’s own heritage. Embracing other cultures doesn’t mean we don’t love our own. I’m a Bronx-born yankee; I root for the Giants when they play against the Cowboys. But Dallas is now my home, and I love my local friends and family, wide-open spaces and incredible Tex-Mex food. But my heart still skips a beat whenever I fly over the New York City skyline or hop on the subway.
Fear of being viewed as a trend-follower chasing silly ideals at your children’s expense. Again, our job as parents is to model good character for our children. We must look to create teaching opportunities not only for them, but for the adults around us too. Our daily choices say a lot to our kids: who we hang out with, who we talk to, what we speak about sympathetically and what we classify as “other.”
Just how far should I go with the exposure-to-other-cultures thing? Look around you and open your eyes to the people in your own sphere who are different. It’s usually as easy as a trip to the library, or the theater, an exhibit at the museum or an ethnic restaurant.
The truth is, venturing into the unknown can be daunting. Breaking out of one’s comfort zone is never easy, and it’s probably not convenient either. But the benefits far outweigh the obstacles, especially in the long term.
Under Your Skin
Simone (not her real name), a former Dallas resident, works alongside two Ethiopian women in a home in another country that helps abused or disadvantaged little girls from various Middle Eastern countries. “Race is a huge issue,” she says about the country she’s in. Abuse of domestic workers – usually women from poorer countries such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Madagascar – characterizes the tangle of racial/ethnic hierarchy. Adults in this country adhere to a pecking order of ethnic worth, based on skin color and language.
“Filipinas are at the top of the list, because they are fairer-skinned and speak English,” Simone says. “Sri Lankans or Bangladeshis are the lowest and pretty much only fit to clean bathrooms or pick up trash.”
Simone, who is white, finds herself trying to counter the cultural beliefs entrenched in the little girls’ minds – beliefs they picked up from their elders. Simone recalls an instance when she saw the skin-color bias up close. “I hate her face!” one of the Palestinian girls said to anyone who’d listen – including her Ethiopian house mother. She was describing an effervescent, chubby-cheeked and dark-skinned 5-year-old who’d come to live in the home. Simone explains that the worst insult the Palestinian girl could think of was to describe the Bedouin girl as dark.
Simone has concluded that while it’s good to expose children to differences in language, ethnicity and skin color, it might not be enough. After all, the girls she works with are constantly exposed to people of different backgrounds. “I think frank, real conversations are needed in addition to a lifestyle that exemplifies acceptance,” Simone says. “Kids need to be told what is right and what is wrong.”
Where Simone chooses to speak explicitly about skin-color differences with her girls, Robert and Erin Sumner are taking a different tack: emphasizing commonalities rather than differences. This white Plano couple has raised their black 6-year-old daughter Lucy since they adopted her as a baby. Because the adoption was trans-racial, Lucy came equipped with a DVD. The DVD from the adoption agency centered on how to wash black hair and what products to use. “We were battling with her hair from day one,” Robert says with a laugh.
The Sumners initially worried about how to raise a black child – should they expose her to African-American culture? Would raising a black child be as foreign a parenting experience as doing her hair?
“I asked a black co-worker about how to reinforce Lucy’s heritage,” Robert says. “She laughed and said, ‘What are you going to do – make her listen to hip-hop records?’ She said her mother raised her to be a good person.”
This conversation sparked a parenting shift for the Sumners. Their aim today is to provide Lucy with a solid foundation and make sure she knows she’s unconditionally loved, not as their “black daughter,” but simply as their child. They hope to instill in her that while she might have some different physical characteristics from other kids in her class, that doesn’t mean she’s different on the inside. Hair is still hair. Skin is still skin. They may vary in shade and texture, but we all have them.
A Grocery-Store Redo … on the Couch
My husband is the sixth of eight children in his family. He’s white; I’m black (and an only child). I’m the mother of an 18-month-old boy, who I hope to raise to honor and appreciate difference. I’m also the happy aunt of 12 nieces and nephews, all 8 years old or under. They are naturally curious about the caramel auntie in a sea of peaches and cream, and I have trained myself to seize teachable moments.
One of my nieces curled up next to me on the couch one day. “Auntie, your hair is black and curly,” she said.
“Yes! It is. And yours is blond and wavy.”
“And my eyes are blue, but yours are brown,” she continued. “And your skin is chocolate, and mine is vanilla.”
I smiled. I love delectable food comparisons. “Yes,” I said. “How great is it that we get to be in a family with both curly and wavy hair, brown and blue eyes, and yummy-flavored skin colors.”
“It is so great!” my niece replied. “I think your hair is pretty. Do you think my hair is pretty?”
“Thank you. Your hair is beautiful,” I said. “You are beautiful! It’s amazing that there are so many people in the world with hair and eyes and faces, but with all sorts of different combinations. Like how your mommy has brown eyes and brown hair and Daddy has hazel eyes and brown hair, and you love them both.”
My niece thought for a moment.
“People are the same,” she said. “They just come in different flavors.”