IT’S SOMETIMES HARD to know what’s best for our children. An ever-changing world with constantly evolving technology means that our own childhoods are no longer touchstones for our kids; the running joke of not understanding the words teenagers say is true (What even is a Yik Yak?). One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is teaching them how to function and thrive in an evolving global marketplace, and the best way to do that is to inspire curiosity and appreciate other cultures.
There have been multiple studies showing amazing benefits to doing volunteer work. Teens involved with volunteer activities report higher grades and more self-motivation towards schoolwork (and work in general). A 2013 study showed that adolescents who volunteered had increased empathy and altruism, which actually decreased their risk of cardiovascular disease. Families who volunteer while they travel report stronger bonds between parents and children, and meaningful non-verbal communication with local residents. Volunteering allows kids to reach out into communities and contribute in a meaningful way; they can interact with people who have very different backgrounds, and develop life skills they won’t get anywhere else. Kids need exposure to people of all backgrounds, skin colors, and cultural mores. You can read them “Heather Has Two Mommies” until the cows come home, but encouraging your teen to volunteer at the AIDS hotline will make a lasting impression on them, and on the people who they help.
2. Learn a language.
There is some evidence that a “critical period” exists for language learning: namely, that children need to start learning a language before a particular time if they expect to speak it like a native. Some say the period ends at puberty, while others say it ends at 5. No matter what, immersing your child in another language can only help their brain growth and their understanding of multiple cultures. Being able to watch TV programs from another country or carry on conversations with exchange students can help your kids grow in ways that they would never experience otherwise, and it also opens up future opportunities (such as work and study abroad) that they wouldn’t otherwise have. I went to French Immersion school in Canada, from grades 1 to 8. I didn’t study French after that, but have remained a semi-fluent speaker for most of my life simply because I started young enough to internalize the basics. It was still hard to learn vocabulary words as an adult that I hadn’t learned before I turned 12, but it was much easier than learning the foundations of grammar from scratch.
3. Travel when you can and let them have a say.
Obviously, you can’t let your three-year-old have final say in trip planning, or agree that every vacation would begin and end at the ice cream store. But as your kids get older, suggest options that they might enjoy, and allow for some family discussion. Kids can pick outings within larger vacations, or have input into the length or location of your destination; encourage research and children advocating and explaining their reasoning; however, don’t be afraid to set limits and say no — your child is not the boss; you are a collaborative unit and you work together. This helps children feel respected, allows them to learn research and reasoning skills, and teaches them how to accept compromises and listen to others. These are skills they will not pick up in school these days, so it’s time to learn them at home.
4. Get a library card and use it.
Libraries are vast treasure troves of useful information, and I don’t just say that as the daughter of a librarian. Libraries host language-learning workshops, on-the-spot tutoring, robot-programming classes for tweens, and, of course, they have all these books you can take home. Your local library is a great resource, and it can bring in materials from other libraries when needed. Kids can watch foreign films, read books from Australia and about Sweden, and play games built by other kids in India. They can also develop a lifelong love of reading and learning, both of which come in handy on their quest to become global citizens.
5. Find out local cultural events and go to them.
Unless you live in the country, chances are your city has a number of cultural festivals. Take your kids out and let them experience West African drumming or Cuban dancing. These experiences don’t, and shouldn’t, have to be limited to annual summertime events, either; you can engage with local immigrant communities through classes or partnering programs. Your kids can make lentil pilaf with your Syrian neighbors and go Greek dancing with your language teacher. If you engage in multicultural hobbies, your kids can tag along. Kids are mimics, so if they see you engaging with people of all cultures, they will see it as normal, and do the same.
6. Study abroad or get an exchange student.
Encourage your children to investigate ways to study abroad. I did a three-month Rotary exchange in Italy as a 16-year-old, and it was amazing — I learned not only Italian, but Ladino (the language spoken by the residents of the Dolomites mountain range in Northern Italy), and played Dungeons & Dragons with a bunch of grateful Italian teenagers who used my fluent English to translate their manuals. I went on a class trip to Paris, visited Padua and Venice, and spent hours a day trapped with my own thoughts while wandering through the Italian Alps. Similarly, having an exchange student come to stay with you exposes your child to totally different ways of life; my best friend in elementary school had an exchange with a girl from Dominica (the Caribbean island) who was in a pretty different socio-economic place and had never seen an escalator. Kids need culture, and getting them to travel on their own not only prepares them for the rest of their lives, when they’ll have to be living and traveling without your assistance, but lets them have fun and exciting experiences that they share with you when they come back.
7. Allow internet time but with an explanation.
Everything in moderation. Children will interact with people of all cultures and backgrounds online, that is true, and can make strong, lasting friendships that result in lifetime bonds. Unlimited and unmonitored internet use, however, can put kids at risk of bullying, stalking, and worse. For digital natives, it’s unreasonable to expect them to step away from the screens; screens are not only how we communicate most of the time, but an intrinsic part of work, school, and even play. Children need to know how the internet works. They also need to learn critical thinking, learn how to recognize predators or just plain assholes, and learn to develop compassion in the cyberworld as in the “real” world. Teaching your children communication methods that can be applied to the virtual world, and teaching them that social media is as much reality as their dinner table, can go a long way towards preventing problems that can arise from internet addiction or overuse.
8. Teach them about their own heritage.
In order for your kids to feel comfortable in the world, they need to feel firmly grounded in “home” — whatever that is. What is your family’s background? What are your cultural touchstones? Develop and investigate your own heritage. Look for books with characters of your own background or ethnicity and read them with and to your child. Celebrate holidays or perform traditional crafts. Set up opportunities for your kids to meet with artisans or language keepers. Study your family history: I remember sitting with my mom in a restaurant and trying to tease out our family tree as far back as she could remember, and it was fascinating. Kids absorb information through exposure and action, as well as through direct communication, so making samosas together will often go further than talking about what it means to be Indian (but both are good).