Karen Fisher, whose family is Jewish, moved to a community in Southern Ontario when her kids were young and found that her kids were in classes of mostly Christian kids. Having friends over to share the family’s Friday evening Shabbat became a regular occurrence in her household. The kids were delighted to participate — “They were especially keen on trying out the foods that were associated with the celebration” — and her own children enjoyed sharing their traditions.
At this age, kids are starting to arrange their own social lives, exploring social media and becoming more aware of world events. We’re lucky in Canada to live in diverse communities where children have opportunities to both share their own traditions and explore those of others. When they do that, respect and appreciation can grow. And stressing the positives can help arm your child against intolerant influences as he moves into the teen years. Here are some ways to help:
Celebrate differences Anne Marie Collette is an educator, professional speaker and life coach who now works with the Canadian Centre for Teaching Peace in Calgary. “Classrooms are a microcosm of the world. I always talk to kids about what makes a world,” she says. “It’s important to encourage kids to ask the question, ‘Who are you?’ and to have activities that educate kids about the traditions of others. When they learn the meaning, for instance, behind the wearing of a turban, they no longer fear these things.”
When Collette was a classroom teacher, she held a multicultural event to which the children invited their families. The kids shared traditional clothing, artifacts, ethnic foods, songs and stories from their countries of origin. “I remember one Peruvian girl was so excited because she learned to sing atraditional song in three languages.”
Encourage connections Finding ways to introduce kids to other cultures has been an important part of Nadia Aslam’s work as vice-principal of Al Falah Islamic School in Oakville, Ont. “I remember during an interfaith workshop, we thought the kids would be learning about their differences, but instead they made the connections. They chose to look at it very differently — to see the similarities between fasting during Ramadan and observing Lent.”
Share your traditions When Fischer’s son Jeremy was preparing for his bar mitzvah, the invitations to his friends contained a little guide that talked about what would happen, what the ritual meant, what to wear and what to bring.
Increase cultural awareness Events like community Doors Open events (when organizations welcome people into their buildings for tours and educational programs) are a great opportunity to visit a mosque, a synagogue, a temple or a church. You can also take part in cultural events organized by local ethnic communities: a Greek festival or a Chinese New Year celebration, for example.
When in doubt, ask If your child wants to include a friend in your family’s celebration (or vice versa), talk to the other parents about it. Aslam says Muslim people tend to be more conservative, so a school dance might not be an appropriate activity, but being invited to a birthday party is fine. If you know in advance that Muslim or Jewish kids don’t eat pork, you can plan to have vegetarian pizza at the party.
Meet fear with compassion Collette, who is currently writing a book about peace education, says that kids can sometimes be intolerant of people who they feel are different from them: “I’ve seen bullying, harassment, fighting, unkind notes and excluding kids from play.” When this type of behaviour happens, she says, it’s usually because the kids are afraid of the one who is not like them. “I ask, ‘How do you feel when you’re around her?’ Once the feelings are acknowledged, you can relate it to a universal human need like being included or respected. Kids begin to understand that our feelings are one of the things that connect us as human beings.”