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Raising a Globally-Empathetic Child

Author: Shreya Shankar, mother and SCT Volunteer



The notion that the world is becoming a smaller place is not a new one. Nevertheless, having lived and worked in three different continents and now bringing up our toddler in New York, some of the questions my husband and I find ourselves asking each other are:

-How can we best prepare our son for this new interconnected world?
-How do we raise an empathetic, globally-aware child?
-And, in a world filled with prejudices, how do we teach him to appreciate different countries, cultures and people?

I would love to share with you some ideas that we have read about -- or come up with -- and hope to incorporate in our home.

1. Develop empathy through books and toys

From a board book for your toddler to a novel for your pre-teen, try and be thoughtful about the books you select. Look for stories that incorporate diverse characters from different countries, cultures, religions and races. Look for anthologies that compile fairy tales and folk tales from around the world. Your local library could prove to be a great resource as well. We are still building a library for our little one, but a few books I have come across and liked are:

The Cat's Elopement
The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
How the Tiger Got His Stripes
Tom Thumb
The First Strawberries
The Tortoise and the Geese (from the Panchatantra)
The Old Man and the Fig
Swan Lake

As your child grows older, there are some wonderful board games from around the world that you could incorporate in your family game night or slumber parties like:

Pallankuzhi (like Mancala)
Chinese Checkers
LudoAchi (think: cross and knots)
Fox & Geese
Carrom (a table game)
Yut Nori

2. Global Gourmet

Another wonderful way of introducing your child to different countries is through food. For special Friday night dinners, plan (well!) ahead of time. Let your children choose a country, visit a grocery store that carries a variety of ethnic groceries and prepare something different from your usual fare. Think falafels, sushi, chicken (or vegetable) tikka, injira, dosas, tapas or pierogi!

If cooking is difficult for you, dine out at ethnic restaurants every few months and talk about the country whose cuisine you are sampling. You can ask questions like these:

-What's the weather like?
-What animals would you find there?
-If you visited, what would you pack and what would you do there?

3. Familiar customs with a twist

Another fun way to introduce your child to different countries and cultures is by incorporating them in various customs that they are already familiar with. For instance, take the tooth fairy custom, with each subsequent tooth, I'd love to replace the American Dollar with currency from a different country along with a letter from the tooth fairy with information about the country she just flew in from!  

4. Infuse your home with global music

"Where Words Fail, Music Speaks.” I believe it was the very beloved storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen, who once said this.

Pandora, Spotify and other musical outlets today have a host of beautiful music from around the world. Expose your children to the beats, rhythms and instruments of different worlds. Dance around the house, Attempt to learn the chorus and sing along!

If you'd like, go the extra step and buy some simple instruments from different countries. Let your kids enjoy the sounds that will hopefully transport them to another time and place.

5. Languages

This one is fairly straight-forward -- make learning a second language a priority. There are few better ways to immerse oneself in a different country (from your own home!) than learning a new language. Duolingo is a free app for smartphones and tablets with more than a dozen languages to study.

6. Causes

For slightly-older children, build awareness about the issues that different countries are facing today. Talk about them at dinner-time, listen to their viewpoints, encourage volunteering for different causes that they might feel strongly about, try and incorporate ones that transcend borders and are global in nature.  

7. Watch a foreign film

There are some beautiful movies from filmmakers around the world available through Netflix. This is better suited for older children, but a few of the titles that I hope to introduce to my son once he is older are:

Au Revoir Les Enfants
Cinema Paradiso
Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Kirikou and the Sorceress
The Cave of the Yellow Dog
Life is Beautiful
Goodbye Lenin
The Motorcycle Diaries
The Lives of Others