BY SUSAN K. PERRY, PH.D.
How can you help your child gain an appreciation for cultural
diversity before prejudice takes hold? Here are ways to do that.
Exploring cultures with your child is fun and worthwhile, and it doesn’t have to be limited to learning about foreign countries and peoples. You can also investigate your own neighborhood, community, and country—even explore your family.
Culture, basically, refers to commonalities that run through a group of people with a shared heritage. Your child probably believes that her culture—way of doing things—is the “right” one and that others are a bit “funny.” As you begin to look at other cultures with your child, aim for an appreciation of differences. Eventually this will lead to an increased appreciation of the incredible variety of human attributes, flexible thinking, and less prejudice and stereotyping.
The activities in this column are highly adaptable: take a hands-on approach with young children, and use the ideas as starting points for discussions with post-primary-grade children.
Learning About Arts, Food, Language
Encourage your child to create and play homemade instruments that resemble instruments from other cultures. For example, make a xylophone styled after those found in Ghana: Set pieces of wood across a shoe box and play it with a pencil. Pot and pan lids can easily double as gongs like those used in Southeast Asia. Panpipes used by Peruvian Indians can be approximated by joining together a series of different-sized tubes. Stretch a string across a board, raised slightly at the ends by bridges; this resembles the Appalachian dulcimer or the ancient Egyptian monochord.
In the Islamic religion, it’s forbidden to use images of living creatures in art. That’s why much of Muslim graphic art consists of floral themes, geometric figures, and Arabic script. See if your child can draw a picture using geometric figures and the shapes of letters in artistic ways.
Take your child to see a Chinese, Japanese, or Hmong dance troupe. Many Asian dancers use facial expressions and hand gestures to communicate the message of the dance. Suggest that your child make up a dance in which facial expressions and hand gestures alone tell a story.
Venture together into restaurants that offer authentic ethnic foods. Examples: Many kids have tasted egg rolls, tacos, and spaghetti. Why not try something from Ethiopia, Thailand, India, Israel, or Germany?
Some languages have more than one word for what English speakers think of as a single entity. Since ice is so important in their lives, the Inuit people reportedly differentiate among the various kinds, from slush ice to black ice. Have your child choose something important to her—stickers, ice cream, or telephones, for example—and make up words for different kinds. Get some tapes, computer software, or videos which teach foreign languages, and learn some French, Spanish or Italian with your child.
Nodding the head to signify yes is not a universal gesture. To some people from Greece, Turkey, and various Middle Eastern regions, nodding means no. The way many Westerners wave good-bye is the same way some Middle Eastern cultures indicate “come here.” Suggest that your child make up some entirely new gestures, such as puffing her cheeks to indicate impatience.
Each family has its own folklore. Suggest that your child interview you or other relatives. Ask what region or country the family came from, whether the interviewee recalls special games or food from childhood holidays, whether she knows any dances, songs, or language from “the old days,” and if she knows of any special “family rules”? (For instance, one boy and his sister set the rule that you can only eat one piece of popcorn at a time out of the bowl.)
Holidays Around the World
• Your family might enjoy adopting one or more of the following: The Hindu Festival of Lights, called Divali (also spelled Dipawali), is an autumn celebration culminating in a holiday that lasts nearly two weeks. Although the practices of Hinduism vary by region, most Hindus consider Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, to be the reason for the festival. Believers build a temporary altar inside their homes, where they place coins and other symbols of wealth. Sweets are exchanged, and lamps are lit both inside and outside homes.
• The Chinese New Year is a traditional spring festival celebrated by many people of Chinese descent. Find out what “year” it was when your child was born; 2001 ushered in the “Year of the Snake.” To determine Chinese years, talk with a local Chinese restaurant owner or merchant or visit this site: www.mandarintools.com/calconv.html
• Another cultural New Year is Tet, the seven-day celebration of the Vietnamese New Year. The word is an abbreviation of Tet Nguyen-Dan, which means “the first morning of the first day of the new year.” During Tet, many Vietnamese families plant a New Year’s tree called Cay Neu in front of their homes (a bamboo pole is often used as a Cay Neu). Leaves are removed from the tree so that it can be wrapped or decorated with red paper, which symbolizes good luck.
• Other ethnic celebrations to commemorate: Japanese Girls’ Doll Festival (March 3), Greek Independence Day (March 25), Asian-Pacific American Heritage Week (the first week in May), Cinco de Mayo (May 5), and American Indian Day (usually the fourth Friday in September).
• “London Bridge” has a Latin American variation which your child might like to play with her friends: Each player is given the name of a fruit, which must be kept secret. The arch (made by players’ hands) is dropped on the person suspected of having the name of the fruit being sung about (“Here’s a woman selling apples, selling apples, selling apples . . . “). If the guess is wrong, the player is released.
• “Maq,” the name of an Inuit game from the Canadian Arctic, means “silence.” Players sit in a circle. One player enters the middle of the circle and points to another player. That player must say “Maq” (pronounced “Muk”) and then remain silent and straight-faced while the person in the middle uses gestures and expressions in an effort to make the other person laugh. If the person in the middle succeeds, the one who laughed replaces him or her in the middle. Consider playing this game at your child’s next birthday party.
Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is the author of Playing Smart and Loving in Flow. For more info, visit Susan at www.BunnyApe.com.