Starting the Conversation

In my last post, I encouraged parents to break their silence and be proactive in the teaching of tolerance and respect. I use the word “tolerance” with reservation because I am looking for more than tolerance. I think we tolerate tooth aches and tolerate loud music. To me, being tolerant means you are just barely able to deal with something unpleasant. I want to push you to move way beyond tolerance. I want to push you to embrace and respect differences. Don’t just tolerate them. Value the differences and teach your children to value them too.

How do you do this? Many people, especially those who find themselves in the majority or ingroup, have very little experience talking about these issues. It’s one of the advantages you may have if you were born with light skin, straight, male, cisgender, or are part of a majority cultural or religious group.

When I first started learning about cultural differences, I was working in an international preschool on the campus of Cornell University. We had children in our program from across the globe. It was a fascinating and deeply enriching experience. I was working with children and their parents across language barriers, cultural differences, and religious beliefs. How do you make everyone in such a diverse environment feel respected and honored?

What I have learned over the years is that being respectful of differences involves the ability to adopt a worldview that is comprised of three separate, yet related, elements. These three elements include the ability to:

  1. Acknowledge cultural differences.
  2. Find similarities in spite of these differences.
  3. Respect the differences, without judgment.

These elements also need to be an integral part of the conversations you have with your children about diversity. For example, let’s imagine your child notices that the eyes of her Asian friend are a different shape than her eyes. She asks you, “Why does Shuji have funny-looking eyes?”

A culturally competent response needs to include all three elements described above. For example, your response may be:

“I don’t think Shuji has funny-looking eyes. He has eyes that are a different shape than yours (Element 1). Shuji’s eyes are almond-shaped just like his parents’ eyes. Your eyes are round, just like your parents’ eyes (Element 2). Both you and Shuji have beautiful eyes, even though they are different shapes (Element 3).”

Preparing your children to understand and respect differences is one of the best gifts you can give them as they enter a world that is increasingly diverse. It starts with the ability to talk about cultural differences in a healthy and respectful way. As long as you include all three elements in your conversations, you will send a healthy message about differences to your child. In doing so, you will help your children develop cultural competence, a beneficial and necessary asset to have in today’s world.

By |2017-10-06T00:16:56-05:00October 6th, 2017|Tags: , , , , |1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Brandon December 19, 2017 at 9:48 am - Reply

    Laura, I understand your example of Asian eyes. Of course, we should accept and love people with superficial differences in appearance.
    I think it’s tempting to think that getting along with people who are different than us is as simple as recognizing that they are perfectly nice people who happen to look different or celebrate different holidays than we do.
    It’s easy to be nice to other “nice” people. The trouble is that people of other cultures, capabilities, and personality dispositions often have behaviors that we consider to be rude, inconsiderate, incompetent or even immoral. The real work is learning is to keep an open mind and compassionate heart in the face of such differences and ask if our way is the best way or just one way. Even if we decide that another’s behavior is unacceptable, I think we are called to respect that person’s humanity and to empathize with his struggle.
    I know of a man who is not well liked because he comes off as arrogant, inflexible, and condescending. These are they traits of a person we might label as being a jerk, but are also traits that could be linked to a subclinical case of Asperger’s Syndrome. Personality has a large genetic component, just like eye shape. Questions have been raised about whether this man is competent to perform his people-facing job. The questions are fair. I am not sure the tone of conversation is the compassionate one we aspire to.


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