Raising Kids to be Global Citizens

As citizens of the globe, we are all global citizens.  How do we expand our horizons, learn more about different cultures and places? And then, how do we pass it on to others? This post is designed to specifically stimulate ideas with kids in mind, but the topic will be addressed again in the future for the rest of us!

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As we think about raising and educating kids, we want to spark and ignite interest. We want to move past teaching respect and building tolerance – although those are very important foundations. We want to grow awareness of the world around us. We want education, interest and curiosity, understanding and APPRECIATION of other regions and countries.

My underlying principle here: You model the right attitude and behavior. If kids hear parents or teachers stereotyping, they start to accept that as fact. If they hear and are exposed to unfortunate adjectives in reference to people from different cultures, it diminishes that group of people and can start to create a “they are not like us” mentality.  An illustration not directly related to the topic comes to mind: my young son was riding in the car with his Dad. The driver next to him did something unexpected and his Dad exclaimed, “You moron!”  When they pulled up to the light, my son pointed to the car next to them and asked, “Is that the moron?”  Every parent has had things like that happen – I certainly have. (Forgive my using the husband example instead of one of my own, but I think everyone can relate to this.  I laughed until I cried when he told me about it.) Unintended references can stick and we need to be careful about it. It is not just what we say, but what loved ones say around our kids as well. I have a zero tolerance for that and have had to ask someone I care about not to use that reference in our house.  I said it gently at first, and then when the situation repeated I had to be more direct. I said it with my son listening, because I wanted to demonstrate that I don’t think it is right and that I don’t condone it.

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Here are some tips to help expand our kids’ world at an early age:

  • Expand your neighborhood by getting exposure to all types of cultures. Visit festivals, museums, parades and other places where kids will see things that aren’t in their neighborhoods. Find a Cinco de Mayo festival with traditional Mexican dancing. Irish celebrations are generally easy to find. When you do, try to involve a variety of senses – food, music, costumes, and trinkets or something to touch.
  • Eat food from all sorts of cultures and talk through what the country’s culture might be like.  Look it up on a map. If the kids aren’t into experimenting, make it just a snack instead of the whole meal.
  • Talk to your kids when they’re little about respect for ALL cultures.  Just because someone looks different or eats different food doesn’t make you better than them.  All people are created equal.
  • Take advantage or create an opportunity for kids to learn another language, something they might be able to use later. It can be a new language related to your cultural heritage, Spanish (which is always a safe bet), or sign language. Better yet if the whole family takes it together – this way you have someone to practice with and are setting an example.
  • Buy a globe and put it in a room that is accessible and visible.  Sticker where you live and talk about the other areas on the globe. Show places you have been, people you know, where it is cold and where it is hot. Think about things the kids can relate to. nick gh kids
  • Discuss interests in terms of the globe. Sports, nature or animals are all good topics to connect to a larger world. Where do Zebras live, where is the World Cup winning team located? (Learning the US can happen similarly with professional and college sports teams.)
  • Movies, television and books are a great place to relate. When Dora is in China look at where China is located, talk about what Chinese people eat, check out traditional costumes. If they are older, where is Ravi from in the Disney Channel show Jessie and where does Mr. Kipling (the 7 foot monitor lizard) likely come from? (You know, at this point they are probably learning Google search skills as well.  It is all good!)
  • Talk to your kids about pets or animals that come from other countries (i.e. Russian Poodles, Japanese Bichon).
  • When eating ethnic food, connect to the country. Explore where Mexican food originated; where is Mexico? What do people wear there?
  • Encourage your grade school or kids classroom provides an Ancestry Day and be sure you participate when they do (kids dress up based on their lineage and bring food from their background). I made Irish Soda Bread for those time and time again!
  • Currency differs from country to country and is another way to connect. I know a family who collects foreign coins. When acquaintances visit other places, they send some examples of currency. But they don’t just “bank” them.  They research and learn about the country as they receive them.

While incorporating new ideas, it is important not to overdo.  If it feels like school and is mandated, it may have the opposite effect you are looking for. We want an age appropriate sized dose of fun and when they are done, deem it good. It shouldn’t feel like work. Don’t try and incorporate all the ideas, but grab a few that seem to work with your family dynamics.

One of my all time favorite children’s book is Kids Just Like Me: A Unique Celebration of Children Around the World by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley and UNICEF. Amazing pictures and just the right amount of information that is of interest to kids (and me!). A second book is Kids Just Like Me: Celebrations.

nick and susie folk

What about for older kids? Music is a great way to connect. Music and dance has its roots from so many places. There are endless ways and places to connect. When my son started studying Spanish, his very wise teacher Mr. V told the kids not to just learn the language, learn the culture.  He encouraged them to attend Latino Club. Then Latino Club encouraged them to dance the Latin dances.  He ended up dancing the traditional Mexican dance called Folklorico. They learned the various regions of Mexico (not in a classroom!) and the music and dance they are known for. This all happened organically – learning accidentally, or informally, happened. No curriculum was developed!

Travel is something that can globalize the entire family. There is no better way to expose the family to other cultures, global art, language, food, customs, holidays and daily life. So, as you can, take a family vacation to other countries (outside of your own). While you’re there, go to a supermarket, eat their food, talk to people, tour neighborhoods, figure out what people do for fun, buy keepsakes to help you remember, take photos, create scrap books or a video of your trip and revisit them throughout the year to remember all that you learned and did. Go to Epcot.  They do a great job of starting a bit of the understanding of culture differences amongst countries.  If you do not have a budget for travel right now, look for ways to visit economically, like through a church or temple international mission trip or volunteer program. Or travel locally to visit cultural festivals or attractions that are not available where you live.

Create a family tree, including heritage in the lineage.  It is a great conversation starter to involve kids in the education. Check out student exchange programs if that is of interest. Befriend an International Counselor from your kids camp, or a teacher at the school. During family holidays, talk about how other friends or family may celebrate holidays that are different from yours.

People often ask me how I caught the global passion.  I was a Midwest girl, living and working in 6 different Midwestern states. It shaped my values. In my mid twenties, I took a vacation to Europe. It was life altering – going from country to country and seeing such diverse cultures right next door to each other. I had no language skills and relied on gestures, pointing to maps, laughing and kind strangers for help. I had no idea about menus and would walk around the restaurant to locate something I wanted to order. (Oh, wait. I still do that.) It inspired an interest in cultures and in the exotic.

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I was blessed to be able to take my son on a humanitarian trip to Ghana when he was in elementary school. We helped to open a school in Kumasi and it was a life expanding trip for both of us. He came back and was invited to numerous classes and schools to present what he learned – with Ghanaian drums, clothes, beads and jewelry, and more. We also had the opportunity to go on a mission trip together to India, where we worked with some amazing groups and people.  Global travel and cultures have definitely positively impacted our family.

Thanks to Regina Shupak for her thoughtful contributions. She is a global citizen, born in Belarus, Mink (speaking Russian) and educated (started speaking English at age 5) and raised in various parts of the US. She is the Deputy CEO for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. Her life altering trip was to Thailand.

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4 Responses to Raising Kids to be Global Citizens

  1. Anup Soans says:

    I agree that to have a global perspective, one has to begin early. India is so filled with diversity, it helps one to appreciate ‘others’ if the upbringing is progressive. Great article will share on my network..

  2. Mary Wagoner says:

    I appreciate your comments regarding keeping it fun, a little bit of learning at a time. The way you, Renie, share your curiosity and exploration also helps. You are not afraid to ask questions. If we demonstrate to our kids we don’t know but can learn, we set the tone for them to wonder and explore.

    One of the teachers in our world sent a packet home every week for review and a parent signature with optional comments. My husband started the tradition of choosing a different language each week to write “thank you.” It was a fun 5 minutes as we looked at the characters used in various languages and sometimes used the pronunciation application to listen and practice.

  3. Renie says:

    Thanks, Anup, for the share. And Mary. What a great idea. “Thank you” in different languages – kid sized learning and creating curiosity and exploration. Perfect.

  4. Regina Shupak says:

    Hi Renie and all,

    I love this topic, so I decided to come back to it. I am now planning a trip for my kids to Israel. They are 13 and it seems like the right thing to do. We will start by providing information via web on all of the amazing history that can be found there. Then we are visiting a museum here in Chicago to learn even more of the history. We’ll read a few things as well before we head out this Summer. So looking forward to it.

    If anyone has any other ideas, please let me know.

    Best regards, Regina Shupak

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