For the past year, we have been inundated with messages that stoked our worst fears and sought to marginalize, degrade, and dehumanize those who are different. In this negative and hostile atmosphere, parents and teachers are rightly concerned about the lessons that children are picking up from politicians, media, and society. Indeed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which works to fight hate and promote tolerance, American teachers have witnessed a spike in both bullying and anxiety.
It’s clear that we’re living in difficult times. So, what can teachers, parents, and concerned adults do to promote cross cultural competence in an environment where everything seems to work against them?
Start with the golden rule
In this era of incivility, we could all use a refresher course on the Golden Rule: treating others as you want to be treated. It’s an excellent place to start with children, because it is simple and uses language and logic that anyone can understand. Even toddlers grasp that they want people to be nice to them and that they should also be nice to other people. Teachers can insist on a classroom culture that values kindness and respect. Meanwhile, all adults can speak up when they hear hate speech, so that the speaker does not benefit from the impression that silence equals support. In this way, adults communicate strong messages about their values and what is and is not acceptable in our diverse society.
The key message is to affirm our shared humanity and the need to treat each other with dignity.
Then go beyond it, to cultivate empathy
However, if we base our treatment of others entirely on our own preferences, we are essentially making them come to us, instead of meeting in the middle. A better approach is the Platinum Rule*, or treating other people as they want to be treated.
And how do we know how other people want to be treated? We listen. We spend time with them. We suspend judgment. We learn that they have their own stories, feelings, thoughts, and perspectives. And we let ourselves see the world through another person’s eyes – even (and especially) when that view conflicts with our own.
We can promote this ability in children by modeling it ourselves, and by gently asking guiding questions that help them make connections in their own immediate lives. For example, how did the child feel during a conflict with a classmate? How does she think the classmate felt? Why does she think that, and how does she know? These conversations can also take place in family conversations, while reading aloud, or after watching a movie or TV program. The idea is not to decide who is right, or to even agree with everyone on everything, but to recognize that different people approach situations with different perspectives – and that’s okay.
Here, the message evolves to one of uniqueness and diversity within our sameness. We see that we need to do more than meet others on our own terms, we need to develop empathy.
Distinguish feelings & choices
We might accept these Rules in the abstract, but get overwhelmed by negative feelings and judgments when we encounter cultural frustrations in real life. This is completely natural, but can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we let it dictate how we act. So, the next step in developing cross-cultural competence has less to do with attitude, and more to do with skill. Specifically, children need to develop self-management techniques.
The first component is self-awareness. Adults can help by voicing how their own mind, heart, and body feel during tense moments*. For example, they can say, “I think I’m having a hard time right now. When we disagree like this, my head starts to hurt. And you know what, I think my feelings hurt, too. How about you? What are you feeling?” They can also ask guiding questions that help children to consider their own feelings, perhaps in journal exercises or in private or group conversations. Critically, the purpose is not to eliminate feelings – or to tell kids how they should feel. Rather, it is to empower children to become aware of their inner lives, and to help them bring clarity to the murkiness and yuckiness where a lot of conflict originates.
Once we become aware of our knee-jerk reactions, we can decide how we really want to respond to a situation at our highest and best. This is where children learn that you can be upset and still think clearly, that you can disagree but still choose to act kindly and civilly. This lesson is especially powerful if adults can model it themselves. For example, a parent can say, “When I see the news about terrorism, I feel afraid, too. But even though I feel afraid sometimes, I don’t want that to shape how I treat people. I can’t control everything in the world, but I can control how I respond to it.”
Here, the key message is that our feelings are valid, but we are still responsible for our choices.
The art of the apology
An unfortunate truth is that we all make mistakes when crossing cultures, even when we are being as nice and considerate as possible. (This is especially the case if you come from a cultural position of power, because it is easy to take for granted that everyone thinks like you do). Regardless of intent, these assumptions and biases can cause hurt, embarrassment, and unintended consequences.
Therefore, we need to teach children – and learn for ourselves – how to be graceful, humble, and apologetic when we mess up. Adults have an important role in modelling this behavior, so that children can see what this looks like in practice. While it should be sincere and not scripted, a great starting place is something like this: “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings. I didn’t mean to, but when I look at it from your perspective, I see what you mean. Can we move forward together?”
Regrettably, another fact of life is that not all mistakes can be corrected, and not all apologies are accepted. And some times, there will be disagreements about whether an offense has even occurred. This is true in any relationship, and is all the more complicated when different cultures are involved. There’s no one way to respond in these cases, but if children are raised to treat each other with empathy and to manage themselves, they will also have a better chance of navigating the stormy seas of cross cultural conflict.
Here, the key message is that we all make mistakes, and that we can try to make amends – and that even when this isn’t possible, we can treat each other humanely.
A journey, not a destination
There are too many cultures in the world to ever know them all, or to accurately predict which specific ones your children will interact with in the future. Therefore, it’s important to help them develop a growth mindset so that they are continuously learning about the world and their place in it. This means both providing opportunities to experience difference and framing cross-cultural competence as a process, rather than a destination. And above all, it means using the daily routine of childhood to practice the fundamental interpersonal skills that are necessary for successful families, communities, and organizations in the twenty-first century.
Finally, the key message is that intercultural competence is a worthy goal, but just like any aspect of personal development, one that will take a lifetime to perfect.
Times of change are never easy, but the way we respond now will impact the ability of future generations to live and work together in peace. I have outlined an approach that is based on the universal message of the Golden Rule, the principle of empathy and the Platinum Rule from the intercultural field, and concepts from psychology. These are all rooted in my own cultural backgrounds, and they are by no means the only way to approach this topic. Rather, consider them a starting place, as tips to build on and tweak to your own cultural and community needs. And when you’re ready to go deeper, or want to explore specific issues that arise, just let me know. I’m here for you!
The Platinum Rule was developed by Milton Bennett. Among other places, it can be found in his book, Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Selected Readings. 1998, Intercultural Press.
The concepts of self-awareness and self-management as they relate to intercultural competence are articulated in the book Personal Leadership: Making a World of Difference: A Methodology of Two Principles and Six Practices by Barbara F. Schaetti, Sheila J. Ramsey, & Gordon C. Watanabe. 20098, FlyingKite Publications.