How to prepare kids for the world

Many parents, teachers, and well-meaning adults find themselves in an awkward position: They want to protect young people from a world that seems unpredictable and scary, but also recognize that intercultural skills and global competence are increasingly important in communities and careers. Meanwhile, immersion experiences like international travel and language summer camps break most family budgets.

What is a busy, anxious adult to do?

Model lifelong learning

Do you feel like you don’t know enough about the world? That’s okay. The world is a big place, and it’s not possible to be an expert on everything. By admitting that you don’t know it all, while emphasizing that it is worthwhile to learn more, you can serve as a role model and prepare the young people around you for a journey of lifelong learning.

One way to do this is to sprinkle new information into mealtime, transportation, and classroom conversations. For example, you might share with enthusiasm something interesting you heard about (like a new technology developed overseas). Or, you might express concern for humanitarian problems to help your young person recognize that it’s important to learn about – and care about – people, even if they are far away. When conflict strikes, you can be honest that the event was scary and upsetting, and (depending on their ages) talk about ways that you can learn more in order to make sense of it.

Be a discerning consumer

Speaking of learning more: Information is everywhere – but not all of it is helpful, especially when it comes to international news and world cultures. Instead of scrolling through fear-mongering headlines, reach for well-written analyses that offer context and multiple perspectives. By taking a buffet approach and reading across sites, you can prevent your mindset from becoming skewed by a handful of editors. It might feel like more work at first, but it’s a lot less exhausting and more satisfying. And, you might actually be able to explain to your kids and students why the world is the way it is.

Know your own values

There is a troubling misconception that in order to work with people who are from another culture, we must deny, hide, or abandon our own. On the contrary, the word intercultural refers to an encounter between people from different cultures – not people who have no beliefs, values, or opinions, or who automatically agree on everything. What’s more, having a strong identity can actually facilitate intercultural exchange, as long as it’s not based on arrogance or dependent on denigrating others. Just as self respect and dignity are essential components to a healthy relationship, kids who have a solid footing in their own culture(s) can also learn to respect another’s.

Talk about acceptance

The trick is to help kids learn that it is great to be who they are, but it is also okay if other people see the world differently. And, it is worthwhile to get to know each other and build relationships, even (and especially) if they don’t have everything in common. This isn’t just about tolerance, but involves fundamental skills like listening, sharing, being kind, taking turns, being patient, and choosing words with care.

Be aware that explicit, positive conversations seem to matter more than simply avoiding racist comments. Research* shows that when adults don’t talk about difference because of their own discomfort, they inadvertently convey to kids that difference is taboo (and therefore bad). This can make kids assume that people who are different are also somehow bad – not the message that most well-intentioned adults mean to convey.

– and privilege

And while we’re on the subject, it’s important to make kids aware of social justice issues – especially when they don’t directly affect them. This doesn’t mean that you should heap all of society’s guilt on their young shoulders, but if kids don’t learn about the ways in which their country has served people with certain identities at the expense of others, they will have a difficult time dealing with the reality of those legacies as an adult. This isn’t about being politically correct, but about being socially literate: ignorance and incompetence can translate into damaged relationships, embarrassing faux-pas, and even losing a job.

Encourage respectful curiosity

That said, a key part of providing kids with a foundation for global competence is encouraging their curiosity about the world. Unfortunately, the way kids learn can be difficult for adults, especially when they ask embarrassing questions at inappropriate moments. Rather than shame or silence children, provide guidance on when, where, and how to respectfully ask about or comment on people’s cultures.

Note that it’s important not only to create a safe space (that is, a place where they can share their curiosity without getting in trouble), but also to be consistent. If you say you’ll answer questions when you get home, but then you always seem to get too busy, you create an incentive for kids to blurt things out on the street. If they express opinions that seem biased, try to gently uncover what they mean and steer them in the right direction rather than freaking out or getting angry.

(Just to be safe, you might also want to prepare an apology or explanation for moments when the lesson doesn’t stick. And teach them how to apologize, too).

Find opportunities to meet the world

A good way to bring all of the above together is to look for child-friendly opportunities to get up close and personal with the world’s cultures. Does your town have international or cultural festivals? Art exhibits? Local concerts in the park? A range of restaurants? A library with movies, music, or stories from around the globe? Is it possible for your school to arrange guest speakers or artists in residence from other cultures? Does your community have any groups dedicated to promoting diversity? Is there an intercultural expert nearby who would be willing to give you some tips or even design a program? Or, best of all: are there neighbors from different backgrounds who you could get to know?

The best place to start is with resources that are already available and as affordable as possible. These won’t automatically lead to actual intercultural skills, but they provide a valuable portal to experiencing difference and sparking the curiosity mentioned above.

Do what you can

Finally, remember that children are developmental works in progress, and so is the research on how they can become culturally competent. Your job is to try to help them be as ready as possible for the diverse communities and globalized world they will lead and live in as adults – not to make sure they enter that realm as fully-formed experts.

Most families and classrooms are busy and strapped for resources, but that doesn’t have to be an insurmountable barrier. There are little things that adults can do every day to broaden children’s minds, enhance interpersonal communication skills, inspire curiosity, promote empathy, and help them acquire knowledge. Much of this doesn’t take a ton of time, and doesn’t cost a lot of money. And, best of all, it is often fun!

What has worked for your family, classroom, and community? Please share your tips!

*Research includes these works:

Vittrup, B., & H0lden, G. W. (2007). Why white parents don’t talk to their children about race. Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Boston.

Vittrup-Simpson, B. (2007). Exploring the influences of educational television and parent-child discussions on improving children’s racial attitudes. Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin Repository, Austin, TX.

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