Helping Our Children Understand a Multicultural World

Gabriella slid into the chair and grabbed another chicken nugget. This is basically how our visits to Chick-fil-A go: we sit near the playground, they eat, they play, they eat some more, they play some more.

She chomped away and gestured to the Asian father and son still hanging out in the play area. "Mom, where did he come from?"

Not totally sure of what she meant (who is ever totally sure with 4 year olds?), I answered, "They came from in here."

"No, mom. Where did he come from?"

I had heard the father speaking to his son in a language that wasn't English, but I was still really curious if Gabriella can yet identify and discuss ethnicities and difference.

"That door there," I told her, pointing to the exterior door through which they'd entered the Chick-fil-A.

"No, MOM!" she borrowed her exasperation from her future 16 year old self. "I don't mean how did they get into this restaurant, I mean what Guatemala is he from?"

First of all, hilarious way for her to understand countries and language. But secondly, I wasn't sure how to answer. I didn't know where he was from, and that question makes me uncomfortable.

It's moments like these (when you're not sure what to do) for which the WWJD bracelet was created. So, like Jesus, I answered a question with a question: "Was he speaking a language that wasn't English?"

"Yes, mom," she relaxed. Her facial expression saying finally, old woman, you get what I'm talking about. "He was speaking Spanish."

I looked at Billy. He's my go-to guide for who is speaking Spanish or not. He shrugged. "Could be." Then I think we mumbled some stuff about not knowing where he was from and did we want to trade in our kid's meal toy for an ice cream...

She Wants to Understand

My daughter is trying to grasp her world. She's got enough of a multicultural framework to know that some people speak Spanish and some people English. She's also aware that other "Guatemalas" exist.

But, of course, she is still looking for clear categories. (Many adults are, too, but that's not as developmentally appropriate...) I want to help guide her in the world, but I also want her to maintain a lot of flex in her understanding of cultures and ethnicities. I want to affirm that Asian men can be speaking Spanish. And I want to leave his country of origin unknown since we don't know and it could be anywhere in the world, including right here.

In the midst of this conversation, I also had this feeling that we are sort of bumbling our way through this experience of raising a multicultural kid. It was one thing to read diverse books or dress her different clothes, but it's another to answer her questions and try to walk alongside her in a world where everyone has a unique story.

Creating a Flexible Lens

It's important to me that we have open, honest conversations about people and difference and sameness early on and frequently. Here are a few things I'm trying to help her create a flexible, inclusive understanding of those around her.

#1 Never shaming talks about race

It took everything in my being not to shush her when she pointed at a Papa John's employee and announced, "He's brown!" But I don't want her to internalize a feeling that race conversations are shameful or to be avoided at all costs.

#2 Asking questions

As adults, we can sometimes assume our kids are talking about race or ethnicity when they're really not. I try to be careful to jump to conclusions and assume first that questions are without the societal baggage that the rest of us are carrying.

#3 Answering with honesty

Gabriella has been very confused why I can't fix her hair like some of her classmates. I finally said, "Kayla's hair is different than yours." For me, it was helpful to focus on the actual reason I can't style her hair like her friend's than to start creating categories for ethnicity, hair type, and cultural styles.

#4 Diversity and more diversity

Breadth of relationships creates that flexibility in expectations. I want Gabriella to know Latinos in every skin hue to help ward off some of the insensitivities her papa has experienced when people want to match one skin tone to Spanish. I want her to know people of different backgrounds, born in different places to different parents, so that her flexibility in racial categories develops naturally.

How do you speak with your kids about race without perpetuating stereotypes? How do you help them develop a flexible framework for the world around them? 

Side note: I feel like I should start a series "People I Encounter at Chick-Fil-A." First, I was picking up immigrants there, and now new guests were leading our family into awkward, multicultural conversations.

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  1. Michelle11:11 AM

    Sarah I love this! You're a few years ahead of us and I am learning from you now so when Elena starts to ask those questions I have a better response than "ugh Umm" also, "what Guatemala is he from?" -- favorite part ever!! :)

  2. Haha. I know. The way her brain processes life never ceases to crack me up! Thanks for your comment. :)

  3. Great thoughts and suggestions!


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