Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Multiculturalism when you're a three-year-old boy

So, I've got a question - how do you teach kids about different cultures without emphasising the differences so much that being different starts to sound like a bad thing? This is something I think about quite a lot, because I'd kind of like my son to notice people first, cultures and races second. As you've probably heard me say before, I have a theory that a whole lot of the world's troubles could be solved if everyone travelled heaps, made friends with people from different races and cultures and stopped seeing the world as this race and another race, this religion and another religion, this skin colour and another skin colour. My little utopia!

Anyway, my three-year-old is growing up in a reasonably multicultural country and has travelled a bit to other countries too, and has long understood that people can speak different languages because he lives in a bilingual household. He knows a few Spanish and Japanese words thanks to some books we have around the house (and regular visits to the local Japanese restaurant). One of his favourite words to use is sakasama (upside-down in Japanese). And of course he's reasonably bilingual in German and English (though he nearly always speaks English), but he likes to translate as well and has some great ideas about which words come from which language. For example, he loves all kinds of transport and likes to spot convertible cars. Now, convertible is a pretty tricky word so I guess he assumed it was German, since German words are often longer and trickier. We saw one as we drove along one day and he said "That's a convertible. In English, we say 'no roof'." (I laughed quietly in the driver's seat.)

What people look like, when you're 3
So I think he totally gets languages between different countries. When it comes to race and skin colour, then I think he's still figuring it out. For a start, he has no idea that we are called white people but has noticed that some people he knows have darker, browner skin, so he talks about some people having beige skin and some people having brown skin. (I love that he calls us beige.) He's asked me why, of course, and I've explained that everyone comes from different countries and in some countries they have darker skin. It seems to have satisfied him for now and I hope he just sees it as the same kind of difference that he already knows about with different languages. I don't believe he has a clue that Asian people look any different from us. One of his best friends is Asian and we know a lot of others (and in fact around 12% of the Australian population cite an Asian ancestry), and he's never mentioned that they look slightly different; in fact, my (German) husband has really black hair so our son just says that his friend's hair is the same as Papa's.

Culture and different habits in different countries don't seem to bother this three-year-old either. All he wants to know about is the refuse disposal systems. He found a picture of New York in a brochure and I told him Mama and Papa had been there before he was born and that it's a fabulous city. The picture showed New York by night so he wanted to know that when we went there next (would it be by car or plane, he asked), could he stay up at night there. And then the only other question he asked, as I told him about our experiences there: what colour are the garbage bins? What a terrible mother I am that I was unable to give him a thorough answer!

Rubbish bins or garbage cans - the only cultural difference that really matters

It makes me sad to think that sometime in the future he's going to learn that people are discriminated against because of their race or culture or customs, and worried to think that he could fall into the same trap despite our best efforts. But for now, he knows people speak all kinds of language, they have skin varying somewhere between beige and brown, and all he really wants to know is where they put their garbage. A very acceptable state of affairs, I think.

Help me out: I'd love any tips on helping raise a really culturally-aware kid, so pass on any more suggestions you've got: books, TV/movies, general ideas, anything. Let me know in the comments.


  1. What a great post, Amanda. Unfortunately, one day your son will no doubt learn about racial discrimination and it will upset him. With the grounding you're giving him, by travelling and by talking to him as you do, I doubt very much that he will learn xenophobia. He will take his cues from you.

    We didn't travel as much as you, but we had many friends of different races and because they were our friends, we didn't notice their skin colour so it didn't occur to us to mention it to our children. Consequently all of our kids are blind to race and have friends of different races. They will tell me about their friends, and never mention that they are Asian/Indian/African, etc, and I won't know until I meet them.

    Our eldest daughter has very olive skin, so we'd always told her how 'brown' she was, especially in summer. Given that I just sunburn and get more freckles, we talked about having brown skin as a good thing. When she was four, we visited friends of ours who are Indian. The kids were outside playing when our eldest ran in crying. 'Mummy, they're saying my skin isn't brown,' she said. Then she got the Indian girl's arm and compared it to hers trying to convince everyone that she was as brown as the girl!

    I have a friend, J, whose parents had two biological and very blonde children, and then adopted two indigenous Australian children. When J's oldest son was about nine, he overheard J explaining that the two indigenous children in the family photo were her adopted brothers. After J's friend left, her son was angry at her for telling the friend that his uncle was adopted before she'd told him.

    Anyway, thank you for this post. By the way, I think you're doing a marvellous thing bringing your son up to be bilingual -- what a gift!

    1. Thanks Louise and I absolutely love the two stories you told here (they should be a blog post!). I hope you're right, too, that my son will manage to avoid being racist (just a pity he won't be able to avoid learning about racism all together).

  2. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox is a lovely book illustrating how we are diverse and yet pretty much the same (and Where is the Green Sheep ;)) but seriously, it is a lovely book if you can borrow it from the library and see if he likes it.

    To be honest I haven't given it enough thought. M is a bit like R in that he is aware there are different languages that people speak and he is really interest in this but at the moment his world is pretty beige as R would say. He was in the supermarket where he noticed an African woman and asked why her legs were brown - presumably because of his eye height! We just told him that people have different coloured skin and he was pretty happy with that.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation Kate!
      R's world is reasonably beige too but he does have mixed race cousins in Switzerland (a bit browner!) and mates plus of course there is Jay on Play School (one of his first questions on this topic was about him!). Will be interesting to watch how his understanding grows.

  3. I don't think racial discrimination is going to be as much of an issue for this generation. When I was in primary school I remember there was only one asian kid in the whole year group and I can't remember any other kids from other nationalities. My children have kids from many different backgrounds in their daycare and school classes - they are just used to that - it is the norm for them. Daniel's best friend at school is a little African boy who has 'brown colouring in' on his skin - LOL.
    I think we need to teach kids to be accepting of other differences such as people with disabilities. I also think that it is not so much the kid from Africa that will be bullied in primary school but the kid who is too fat, or the kid who is too short for his age, the kid who likes ballet when all the other boys like footy etc. We need to embrace differences.

    1. I hope you're right about racial discrimination Jenny - but you're very right about other kinds of discrimination, that is something that definitely needs work.

  4. Hi Amanda, I don't have much to offer on raising children, but I have noticed that all the kids at the apartment complex where I live (mixture of expats and wealthy Sri Lankans) are completely blind to each others' difference, they are all just play mates. They all speak English together as the common denominator even though it wouldn't be the first language for any of them.

    Ruben might like to know that here in Sri Lanka they don't seem to have rubbish bin collections. You see huts by the side of the road where they carefully sort all the materials for recycling which then get stacked a mile high into open sided trucks but I don't know how it gets to the huts in the first place. How all the rubbish collection works is a question that is still puzzling me!

    1. Nik, love your Sri Lankan example and I have also passed on your rubbish bin information to Ruben who was fascinated!!!


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