We must encourage curiosity among young children about other cultures, their food, music and customs.
By Shaira Mohan
I am still reminded of an innocent conversation with my classmate that I had back when we were in kindergarten. My friend had asked me who I would marry when I grew up. “My brother!” had been my simple and matter-of-fact reply which my friend accepted with equally innocent alacrity.
My married, 32-year-old self can’t help but grin at this innocuous banter from three decades ago, but the new mother in me finds many more emotions coming to the fore with this reminiscence. The mental building blocks from which my five-year-old self had concocted the idea that only sisters and brothers can partake in matrimony with each other reveals the over-protected and guarded nature of the periphery within which the soil of these building blocks were allowed to develop.
Growing up in a small town usually garners a significantly higher level of conservative caution and strictness by parents. My parents, not that they went to any great, drastic lengths to ensure that our young, impressionable minds were kept adrift of malicious influences, did keep a tight ship when it came to our night outings and monitoring the kind of company we kept within our friend circles.
Ethnicity and religion never featured as a concern at that time as even our school classrooms never really saw any Muslim or non-Indian students. It wasn’t until I went to England for a year for my postgraduate studies that I encountered and befriended foreigners. It was the first time I had met and befriended a Muslim from Lahore. An entertaining, comedic boy who constantly had us all in peals of laughter. The glaring differences and clashes between our countries were for once, superseded by a more important, unifying bond within the confines of that University— that of friendship. It was the same with the bespectacled African American, the jovial and paunchy Maltese man, the brood of Asian girls in my corridor, the Greek gods and goddesses that took up one entire floor and so on. I had never seen so many people from so many different places in one room before. It was an incredible experience.
Apart from some gruelling lessons and assignments that helped prepare me for the corporate world ahead, that one year of studies abroad taught me a lifetime of valuable life lessons that I can hopefully pass on to my son who is five months old at the moment. An important one of those is to learn, be curious about and appreciate people from every race, colour, gender, religion, country, culture, sexual orientation and ability and embrace the diversity they bring with them.
In a recent article for US News by Dr. Michela Borba, an educational psychologist of international fame, Dr. Borba has enumerated some ways in which parents can help children to learn tolerance and become inclusive. She too, stresses on the importance of triggering this learning earlier in their childhood rather than later. Exposing young children to multi-cultural food, toys, music, books, games, experiences and customs is an example. Encouraging them to be curious and ask questions and then answering those questions in a manner that will not give birth to stereotypes is key. It is also important to shun discriminatory remarks of any kind towards other classmates and in fact, encourage them to include boys and girls of every race, gender and religion in their conversations, playtime and house visit invitations.
Many teachers around the world are increasingly focussing on spreading inclusivity in their classrooms by engaging children in games and activities specific to different global cultures so that questions can be raised and an open, healthy dialogue can be initiated on each other’s backgrounds and cultures. Like bringing culture or country-specific toys or books to school or introducing a country-specific clothing day, for example, where the idea is to talk and ask questions surrounding each other’s cultures and traditions.
As Marguerite Wright, psychologist and author of I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children put it, “If you don’t acknowledge differences, you fail to prepare your child to live in a multi-ethnic society.” The adage holds true for various differences and disabilities.
This education of embracing diversity is important in classrooms. But before it reaches there, the seeds need to be planted at home.
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