How do I teach my children about multi-cultural Britain?
How do I teach my children about Britain’s rich multi-cultural influences when they don’t see any of it with their own eyes?
We live in an affluent part of the UK, in a predominantly middle-class town. My children are white. All my friends’ children are white. All the children in my son’s school are white. Increasingly I’ve been wondering how to teach my children about Britain’s rich multi-cultural influences when they don’t see any of it with their own eyes.
Children are colour-blind
The number of black or Asian families in our town is tiny – small enough to stand out – but I’m glad to say that none of my children has ever remarked on the colour of anyone’s skin. Physical differences matter very little to young children and I hope this colour-blindness will continue as they get older. My husband and I have come into contact with people from all walks of life as a result of our jobs and neither of us would ever treat anyone differently based on their background. But still there are very few people in our day-to-day lives who aren’t white and middle-class. This is down to a number of factors: where we were brought up ourselves, where we went to school and where we now choose to live.
So how do I teach my children about other cultures? How do I show them how other people live without being patronising? When the only Chinese girl in my daughters’ pre-school is from the local takeaway, how do I impress upon my children that Asian people don’t only take on catering jobs, or manual jobs, or low-paid jobs?
Talk about other cultures
I spoke to my friend Michelle, mother to two children with one on the way. Originally from Northern Ireland, Michelle lived in South London before she had children. “I worked in Brixton, which has a very diverse population,” she told me, “so moving out to the Cotswolds was a real culture shock.” Like me, she worries that her children are growing up with a narrow outlook on what the world is like. “We talk about other countries,” she says, “including Northern Ireland where my parents still live, and we have a good friend who is black, but their exposure to people from other backgrounds is limited.” Michelle plans to talk more about other cultures as the children get older, and is relying on lessons at school to support this learning.
Use available resources to prompt discussion
There are a number of ways I think we can help children understand about other backgrounds.
- Books: we read a lot of books and I try to pick stories which promote diversity and inclusivity. This is Our House by Michael Rosen is a fantastic story about children who learn that whatever your differences (glasses, red hair, tall, short...) everyone can live together in harmony.
- Toys: there are lots of toys which promote an understanding of other cultures. Dora the Explorer will speak to you in Spanish, and dolls come in a variety of skin tones.
- Television: although I’m not a fan of TV, I think it can be really helpful to show children how other people live. Recently I’ve been talking to my kids about accents, and watching television has helped them understand that not everyone talks the same way.
- Travel: I’m not talking long-distance journeys, just trips to places where children will experience new and exciting environments. For us, taking the children to Oxford – just twenty miles away – presents a huge learning opportunity. Foreign tourists, people of all colours and backgrounds, different accents, whacky clothes, people sleeping in doorways: all these can prompt discussions.
Do you have hidden prejudices?
I feel an overwhelming responsibility to bring my children up to be tolerant individuals, respectful of others and unprejudiced. It’s made me question my own values; whilst I am confident that I’m not racist, sexist or bigoted, are any of us really totally free of prejudice? I know that, whilst I’d never change the way I behaved as a result of hearing it, I make an instant assessment based on someone’s accent. It’s one of those irrational, unfair reactions which are based solely on stereotype, and I manage successfully to ignore it. But it’s still there. How many of us make assumptions like this when we look at the way someone dresses? How many of us make throwaway comments when we see someone – or something – different? And all the time our children are watching us and learning from us.
Britain is a hugely diverse, exciting, multi-cultural country. We live in a country where mosques are built alongside churches, Polish grocery stores pop up next to Tesco and where speech is free. It’s our responsibility as parents to help children learn about the many cultures which make up Britain, and to stem any deep-rooted prejudices of our own before we unwittingly pass them onto the next generation.
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