“While our children might not be able to verbally communicate about complex ideas like culture, they are watching us and learning rapidly.”
Appreciate their cultural identity? You may be thinking, my toddler just tore off her diaper and kicked it across the room like a soccer ball. She’s not ready to talk about culture.
While our children might not be able to verbally communicate about complex ideas like culture, they are watching us and learning rapidly. How we model self-appreciation now can lead to a lifetime of benefits. We want our kids to be comfortable and confident in their own skin.
I come from a mixed background: My dad is Palestinian and moved to the United States when he was in college. My mom is a military brat who eventually settled in North Carolina when my grandfather retired from the Navy. Growing up, I have memories of sitting in my grandmother’s living room with all of my cousins on Eid day (the holiday to celebrate the close of Ramadan). We would anxiously anticipate hearing our name called because our grandfather would hand us an envelope with our name carefully written in Arabic. The twenty dollar bill inside always felt like a million.
Childhood for me was also dangling my feet off the bridge at the Pumping Station at Lake Mattamuskeet. Fishing pole beside me, I would grasp a crab line between my fingertips and ever so carefully lift it up while my brother stood ready with a net.
While I have such a wealth of memories from both parts of my life, it wasn’t until I studied abroad in high school that I realized the importance of Arab culture in informing my identity. Growing up in the United States, celebrating Christmas was normal. Eating bacon for breakfast was normal.
I never believed that being Muslim and Arab was bad, but I knew it was “different.” As a teen, that’s the last adjective I wanted to describe myself. When I traveled to Egypt with the National Security Language Initiative for Youth program, my worldview was turned upside down (note: parents of high school aged kids—I highly recommend this program).
For the first time, I saw what the world looked like from the majority’s point of view. The call to prayer was publicly announced via enormous megaphones five times a day. The food, the same food which I brought to school and was met with “ew, what is that,” was served in restaurants. Everywhere I walked I could hear people speaking in Arabic.
“I never believed that being Muslim and Arab was bad, but I knew it was ‘different.'”
Now that I’m a parent of an 18-month-old and with another baby on the way, I’m keenly aware of the importance of framing cultural identity for my children.
As an educator, I know that all children experience questions of identity no matter how loving and rooted their parents are. Below are three strategies that can help your child to love and appreciate their diversity.
1) Taste the Rainbow: Expose Your Child to “Foreign” Food
Toddlers at mealtime is an age-old backdrop for the perfect horror film. There’s always a possibility for a fair amount of screaming (internal parental agony counts).
When I pack lunch for daycare, I usually include at least one bowl of leftovers from the night before: Stuffed Grape Leaves… Molokhia and Rice… Kofta. It almost always comes back to me uneaten, but I send it anyways.
To my mild irritation, the food my daughter eats at home she usually refuses at daycare. To be fair, she also does a good amount of refusing at home, too. One day she’s scarfing down a meal. The next, she shouts “No!” to the same exact meal. Frustrating!
However, research tells us that this is perfectly normal behavior for toddlers. I know that the reason she probably eats Arabic food at home is that we are sitting down together and eating the same meal. I can’t eat with her at every meal, so I make a point to do it as often as I can at home.
According to this study, “there is consistent evidence that the responsive ‘do as I do’ approach has a stronger positive effect on children’s consumption patterns than the unresponsive ‘do as I say’ approach to parenting.” As parents, we have to model the eating habits we desire. Make time to sit down for dinner with your toddler and eat the same meal.
The short version: Keep on eating that delicious cultural food. Make sure to do it often and in front of your kids! Eventually, they may love it too.
2) Language of Love: Encouraging Your Child to Speak the Mother Tongue
One of the most significant missed opportunities of my life is not having learned Arabic fluently as a child. My mom doesn’t speak the language and my dad always spoke to me in English. I had a little exposure from a couple of years at an Islamic school and being around my dad’s family, but not enough to gain fluency.
There are many advantages to learning a second language and it is exponentially easier to learn as a child. I can speak Arabic conversationally now, but I’m still far from fluency. My husband speaks to our daughter in Arabic and as much as possible I try to expose her to the language in other ways.
If I’m going to listen to Moana’s “Where You Are” on repeat 5,264 times a day anyway, it might as well be in Arabic (thank you Youtube!). My daughter loves playing with our phone and so I help her to use it to video chat with my in-laws (who do not speak English at all).
No matter which strategies you use to teach your child another language, remember: the the point is to help them appreciate it. Don’t use the second language simply to discipline or carry out daily tasks. Be sure to also use it to joke and play! Positive associations with a language will encourage your child to practice and speak it in the future.
3) Media and Marketing: Help Your Children See Themselves in the World
Culture and diversity can be specified in many ways. Whether you identify as a minority in terms of race, ethnic heritage, language, family make up, etcetera, it’s important to seek out opportunities to see your family portrayed in the media.
Although it’s difficult, I purposefully seek out books and TV shows that portray Muslim and Arab characters. This is a great way for my daughter, even as a toddler, to see herself in the world.
Kids are inundated with media. I try to be conscious of balancing out the images that my daughter sees. If she only sees people who act and look different than her, then she may grow up feeling like an outsider. This concept is beautifully expressed in a TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story” given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
No matter their background, I hope your children grow up loving themselves and their place in the world around them. Being “different” is an absolutely precious and beautiful gift to share with your child. Children from multi-faceted backgrounds benefit from seeing the world through more than one lens. They will eventually be able to share that important perspective with their communities.★
Runda Alamour is a mother, teacher, and writer from Asheville, North Carolina. She has a passion for working with her high school students and strives to help them find themselves (and their connections to others) in the literature that she teaches. Outside of work, Runda loves to spend time gardening, raising farm animals, and exploring the outdoors with her daughter and husband.