Tough Questions: Handling Cultural Diversity with Young Children

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We were at our local grocery store in north London when my four-year-old daughter, Tori, tugged on my sleeve.

“Mommy. MOMMY.” She whispered fervently, eyes wide and face solemn. “There’s a MONSTER over there.”

She then, as children do, pointed. And when I saw who she was pointing at, I was taken aback. Not because of who I saw, but more because I wasn’t sure how to respond in the moment.

She was pointing to a woman dressed in a full abaya and niqab, a black cloak and veil Muslim women sometimes wear, which draped her from head-to-toe, covering everything except her eyes.

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London’s markets are rich with diversity.

I’m going to be brutally honest here. I wasn’t sure what to say to my daughter. What I did say (whisper) was something like, “Oh, no, that’s not a monster, she’s a woman just like me! I think she’s even a mommy! And do you see how by wearing those clothes we are forced to look at her pretty eyes?” And then we kept shopping.

Yeah… I still have no clue if that was the right thing to say. Here’s what I was feeling: “I know it LOOKS like she could be a monster to you. She is wearing the color of Halloween, she has a mask on, and she’s staring out at you through that mask. And you don’t see people like this very often, do you? It sometimes startles us when we see things we aren’t used to seeing.”

But of course I didn’t say that there. We talked about it more at home, but even then it was on the level a four-year-old could understand, and my main point to her was that those women are mommies and sisters and are just like she and I, and are nothing to be scared of, and should be loved just like everyone else.

Cultural diversity is one of the big reasons we chose to take our adventure to London, and we haven’t been disappointed! Tori literally had NEVER seen a woman in a niqab before. In fact, she had barely seen women wearing a hijab (head covering) until we moved here. I’ll be brutally honest again: our corner of Tucson just wasn’t very ethnically diverse. I’m not saying Muslims and Buddhists and people of MULTIPLE different religions, languages and race don’t live there, I’m just saying it’s not nearly as prevalent as in a city like London. (And, admittedly, we didn’t make a huge effort to leave our little corner often…)

Tori's adorable "Reception" class.

Tori’s adorable “Reception” class. She’s the one with the blonde pig-tails :-)

Tori, with her blonde hair, fair skin and light eyes, is a minority at her school. Many of her playmates are bi- or tri-lingual! They speak Spanish, French, Farsi, Hindi, Italian… One of Anders’ friends has an Italian dad and African-Muslim French-born-in-Paris mum! Tori has a playdate with a friend from India this afternoon, our babysitter is from Romania and we’ll be seeing some German friends later this week.

I love that we are here while my children are young enough to have this become a “norm” for them. One of our goals as parents is to provide our children with the opportunity to LOVE EVERYONE they meet, and to be able to look beyond race or ethnicity or religion or any other lifestyle that might be different from theirs, and show them the love Christ would have shown.

But I’ll admit, answering the cultural questions of a four-year-old is HARD. “Mommy, why does my friend wear a scarf on her head every day?” or “Mommy, is that a man or a woman?” or “Mommy, why is that old man wearing a skirt and a funny hat?” or “Why does my friend live with her mommy and not her daddy?” or “Why are there shops in that church?”

Ummm…. :-) It’s been a challenge for us, but a good one. A NEEDED one. We were getting too lazy and complacent in our little bubble. Answering Tori’s questions has forced AJ and me to really be thoughtful about all those topics, and to be very deliberate in answering them in a way that she’ll understand. Or, in some instances, say, “Um, I’m not sure” and go home and do an internet search to find the answer, haha! (Because, I’ll be honest, I had no idea what the Muslim woman’s face veil was called until I researched it, and even now I HOPE I called it the correct name!!)

How DO we want our children to view the world? It’s a very tricky question but one we’re excited to explore answering.

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