What to Remember when Teaching About Cultures

When I created this blog, my heart was to promote parents learning with their children about other cultures. Of course, one of the best ways to do that is to travel, but there are many ways to expose yourself and your children to other countries and cultures. (For some ideas check out this post.)

However, I wanted to give caution when it comes to learning about another culture. Pease make sure you are being respectful and correct in how you view other culture especially when it comes to then sharing that with your children. Though it can be time consuming to wade through enough knowledge of another culture to be respectful, learning about other cultures is fun and beneficial to expanding your view of the world, which means it is worth the effort!

6 Things to Remember When Teaching About Other Cultures

  • Learning about other cultures helps you see how you can respect other people.

Though I don’t think you have to necessarily travel the world as a child, learning about other cultures is valuable in making sure you know your place in the world. Of course, this is not a need for a child in the true sense of the word. However, with the world at our fingertips, it would be unwise as a parent not to show our children what is beyond our city. What I have seen is that when we do not see that there are other worldviews, we tend to think that our worldview is the only correct one. I do not think we would say those words, but we would have a hard time valuing other worldviews and ways of life. The longer you wait to introduce other opinions or worldviews the harder it will be to overcome pre-conceived notions of what is right and wrong versus what is simply different. There is no better time to start exploring other cultures than now!

  • Do not present other cultures in a negative light (especially in a way that contrasts your culture in only a positive light).

Following that line of thought, we want to try to stay away from showing our culture as good and only positive while showing others cultures as weird, bad, or stupid. Just because a tribe in South America does not have modern amenities, it does not make them stupid. They may be ignorant of what they are missing out on, but ignorant does not indicate a lack of being able to learn. Also, try to avoid calling another culture or an aspect of another culture weird. Typically your tone and body language affect the meaning of that word, and how you say something is important in how your children perceive what is being discussed. Weird can simply mean different, but weird (or unusual) from your perspective does not have to be bad. For example, just because you would not like to receive your nutrients by eating a bug does not mean other cultures who do are bad or even beneath you. Food is food, and we want to show our children the amazing options this world provides. Overall, remember that your tone and how you say something can have an impact on the way your children will think about what you are discussing.

  • Make sure your children understand that one book or video or city or piece of artwork cannot encompass every aspect of a culture.

The third point here is a hard one to hear. I will give an example of this first: I grew up in the lovely state of Alabama in the United States. I was raised by a mother who was from the South and a father who was from the North. They are both American, and can relate to much of American culture. However, let us suppose they had someone visit them from another country, and that that person came in and that assumed all of American culture could be summed up by the song “Sweet Home Alabama” by Leonard Skynard. My dad would fall out of his chair (an American idiom for utter surprise)! Though my dad would not be against that song, it most certainly does not show every aspect of American culture.

The stranger sees only what he knows.

African Proverb

As you introduce your family to something from another culture, be aware that you cannot assume that whatever you are looking at or reading describes an entire people. Taking this concept a step further, a short visit to another culture does not make you an expert on that culture. I will be the first to encourage a visit to any place in the world, but when you walk into a country and see 3 days of one city, remember that you are just seeing a small glimpse into a complex and vast culture.

  • Different things are not bad, they are just different.

Point 4 actually goes along with point 2, but it needs to be emphasized: different is just different. Squatty potties and western toilets are just different. Cooked bugs and cooked fish are just different types of food. Art can be different styles. Clothes worn by Japanese peoples are different from clothes worn by Moroccan peoples. Favorite music from tribal peoples in the rainforests of South America are different from those you hear in Bollywood. These examples are easy to picture and the differences probably seem obvious. However, what if you find a culture that thinks every price is negotiable? You may say that just sounds different, but what if someone then came to America and started negotiating the price of her gym membership? (That is a real example.) In America, gym membership prices are not negotiable, but remembering that her perspective is just different will help you be more patient when you try to help her understand.

Of course, when you are learning an overview of a culture these things may not come up, but they do exist. Differences are hard to look past sometimes, especially when what is different is offensive in our culture. (Remember that I am not talking about moral issues, but just things that may make you uncomfortable.) Try to think about things from the perspective of others, and do not place malicious intent where there is no proof of it.

  • Make sure you answer questions before children fill in the blank .

Sometimes as parents we want to avoid a topic that seems hard to talk about or an answer that we do not know how to give in a way that is age-appropriate. However, avoiding answering a question can often be more harmful than is worth the comfort. If you avoid a topic or say something like, “We don’t need to talk about that,” when a child thinks about what was brought up, the child will assume that the topic is bad, no matter what it is. It is much more beneficial to talk about everything, even the bad things, in order to present them in a way that respects the culture. (We apply this to most things in our home, especially in regards to other cultures.) However, if you do come to a topic that you feel simply cannot be discussed, explain to your child what you can. Most of the time my kids do not ask too far into something if we simply give them a reasonable answer.

If you don’t give people information, they make up something to fill the void.

Carla O’Dell

Also, an amazing way to help children understand hard topics is books. With so many children’s books on so many topics, the options of stories to use to help start discussions on all topics are great. As we have looked at other cultures, we have had the opportunity to learn about homelessness, poverty, racial issues, all religions, and more. Many times I have found books that help me talk about the topic in an age-appropriate way, but also in a respectful way.

  • There are always ways to relate to another culture .

One day you may happen to look at a culture that is so different from your own that you think you could never understand it. As challenging as it may be, you may have more in common than you think. In any culture, parents generally want what is best for their children. In any culture, children want to play. In any culture, people need to eat. In any culture, people want to express themselves and many times in the form of art. As you learn, you may even find that you relate to this culture in a way that you did not expect. Be open to loving any culture. From experience, there are cultures I have a harder time relating to, but I know that there are some fundamental human groundings we can meet on. When I let myself push past my comfort zone, I realize I can enjoy learning about any culture.

  • Remember that you will always be learning!

I do not think you can fully understand this one unless you completely throw yourself into another culture. We know expatriates that have lived cross-culturally for many years, and they will be the first to tell you that you never stop learning about another culture. Because your worldview is so engrained at such a young age and you are so engulfed in your own culture, you do not realize how deep that goes until you take yourself out of it. Even down to intricate body language, you have become a master of your culture from the moment you entered it. Your culture is all you have ever known. It is amazing to be able to expand it, but you will never fully understand a new culture quite like you understand your own. (This topic is actually unique when it comes to children who grow up cross-culturally, but that is another topic for another post.)

The Key Element is Respect

Overall, I just want to get you thinking about how you approach learning about other countries. Each country has a culture whose depth and width you may never fully understand. Though this may sound daunting you can remember that you are the holder of your own culture’s depth and width. As you would want others to respect your culture, you can extend that same respect to others. That respect starts by knowing that you need to be considerate when teaching about another country.

What I do not want this post to do is stop you from learning! If you want to see how to explore a country respectfully, check out my newsletter! Each month I feature a new country for you to explore as a family. Click this link for more information!