Identifying your culture and cultural values
If you do an internet search on connecting children to their cultural identity, you’ll mostly find articles for adoptive parents connecting their child to a culture of origin that is different from that of the parents. You’ll find a handful of articles for parents who are part of a religious or ethnic minority group. There is little about how people from any background might do it.
I think people who view themselves as part of “mainstream America” may often not think of themselves as having a cultural identity. I have heard people, when asked their identity, respond “umm…. white?? American?? I don’t really have a cultural identity.”
But clearly, we are shaped by our background. I have a friend who is my age, Caucasian like me, and “American.” But I was raised in a church-going, military family of four in Wyoming. She was an only child raised by a liberal single mom in Berkeley in the early 70’s. So although that friend and I have a lot of common from our current perspectives, we’ve certainly run across times when we have very different assumptions about ‘how the world works’ and ‘how things are done.’
And that’s what defines cultural identity: what are those unconscious assumptions about big picture ideas like how the world works, what is our role in the community, and the significance of the family. It’s also the little things: when we get up in the morning, when we eat dinner, what we eat. Sometimes you don’t understand something is your culture until you encounter a different culture. Again, it’s sometimes in the little things: at my family’s holiday meals, the cook worked hard to get everything to the table hot and at the peak of perfection – to wait to eat it would have been horribly rude. In college, when I visited friends, I discovered (after some shocked looks sent my way) that in other families, it is horribly rude to start eating before everyone (including the cook) is seated.
Like a fish learning to describe water, the first step of connecting your child to a cultural identity may be for you to figure out what that identity is!
Here are topics you may want to think about:
- What is your cultural background?
- How might that be the same or different from other people in your child’s community?
- What are some of cultural values that resonate with you? Are there values or attitudes you would like to leave behind?
- What things in your life have helped you connect to your cultural identity?
- What traditions or rituals do you want to continue to follow?
Sometimes talking with other people about their culture, or reading books from diverse cultures, can help you to understand your own better. I would recommend Parenting without Borders as a great introduction to other cultures’ approaches to parenting.
Beginning to talk about culture
We don’t have to wait till children are “old enough” to understand religion and culture to begin talking about it. Like everything else in their lives, from food to books to dressing themselves, we talk from the beginning about all the things they experience, and trust that their understanding of it will grow and deepen as they get older.
Young children are very concrete. They learn through hands-on experience, and through observing the important people in their lives. They don’t really learn through abstract conversations about abstract ideas. They also learn through repetition, so as you begin to think about what parts of your cultural identity and values you want to reinforce, keep that in mind.
Culture: Routines, Rituals, and Traditions
For a toddler, life often seems unpredictable and random. Routines create a reassuring sense of structure in a child’s life – the more they know what is coming next, the more manageable life seems for them. They appreciate the sense gained from daily routines that ‘this is how my family does things.’ Ritual and traditions take that to the next level: ‘this is how my people do things and how we have done things for a very long time’. For example, from annual holiday traditions, they gain a sense of how time passes, bringing with it lots of change, but also retaining some important cores.
Some places to consider adding rituals or traditions:
- Daily: How do you begin your days together? What are mealtimes like? What is the typical rhythm of the day? What’s the bedtime routine?
- Weekly: Could you do “family date nights”? Weekly dinners with extended family?
- Holidays: Which do you celebrate? How do you celebrate? What are the special decorations? Foods? Gifts?
- Special occasions: Does the tooth fairy come to your house? What do you do for birthdays? Weddings?
- Other family traditions: Do you have nicknames or family in-jokes or songs? Stories about the funny quirks of relatives?
Some ways to include cultural identity in your child’s life:
- Tell stories. Talk about your childhood, how your family did things, about their grandparents’ childhoods, and so on.
- Read books about your culture, listen to ethnic music or the music your parents played/sang when you were young, eat foods that were traditional where you were raised. (That’s Jello salad and snickerdoodle cookies for me!)
- Learn the language of your culture. (Or share with your children the regional dialect of English that you were raised with.)
- Go to religious services or cultural festivals.
- Make scrapbooks with information about your family’s history: a family tree, photographs, documents of your family’s journey