• "Teaching children to value and respect diversity helps encourage acceptance of individual differences..." (Getty Images/E+)
Children learn empathy and social skills from a very young age. So is it possible to create a more accepting Australian society by simply teaching the next generation to embrace cultural diversity?
By
Jo Hartley

21 Sep 2016 - 1:04 PM  UPDATED 21 Sep 2016 - 1:19 PM

Australia is one of the world’s most culturally diverse countries, so never has it been more important to raise our children to be both culturally aware and inclusive. 

But why is this so important?

“Teaching children to value and respect diversity helps encourage acceptance of individual differences, and helps develop connections to promote socially cohesive communities,” says Dr Lyn O’Grady, National Project Manager at KidsMatter.

Children learn to do this through interactions with their peers and through the encouragement and modeling of the adults who care for them.

When children are not provided with positive support and modelling which is respectful of cultural diversity, there’s a risk that racism, stereotyping and discrimination can occur.

“Core elements of children’s social and emotional development are to have a strong sense of identity, as well as an ability to get along with others,” says Dr O’Grady.

“This includes the capacity to empathise with a broad range of people and to respond with care and compassion.” 

When children are not provided with positive support and modelling which is respectful of cultural diversity, there’s a risk that racism, stereotyping and discrimination can occur.

“This can be extremely damaging for children, families, and the education settings and communities they belong to,” explains Dr O’Grady.

“When education settings are not culturally safe environments, all children’s learning and development may be negatively impacted.”

Dr O’Grady says that children and families with a sense of belonging and inclusion will be more likely to have positive mental health.  They also feel more comfortable engaging in activities within education settings and communities.

So, at what age do children become aware of cultural differences?

“We know from research that even preschool children are aware of cultural differences, having been influenced significantly by the messages they receive from adults around them,” says Dr O’Grady.

Because of this, she says that adults need to be vigilant in monitoring the messages children hear.  They also need to continue to develop age-appropriate ways to show children how to be respectful of, and embrace, cultural diversity.

“We know from research that even preschool children are aware of cultural differences, having been influenced significantly by the messages they receive from adults around them."

 

Culturally aware activities for parents and children 

Reading stories of a cultural nature

“Reading stories is a great way to promote a spirit of inclusion,” says cultural educator and children’s author, Melina Mallos.

She recommends picture books in particular to facilitate remembering positive images about multiculturalism, and also suggests looking online at Global Kids.

Other book suggestions by Mallos include “Multicultural me’, which describes the author’s move to Australia from Zimbabwe in 2002, and her own book, Catch That Cat which is based on her childhood experiences in Greece.

Attending cultural events and festivals

Attending interactive cultural events connects children on a human level and promotes the celebration of cultures in a fun way,” says Mallos.

Her recommendations for popular cultural events in the calendar include:

  • St Patrick's Day (17 March) - Ireland
  • Chinese New Year – China (dates vary each year) 
  • NAIDOC Week (dates vary each year) - Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander's celebration throughout Australia.
  • Bastille Day (4 July) – France

Music and podcasts

“Encouraging children to listen to online radio stations or podcasts from particular countries is a good way to help them understand different cultures,” says Mallos.

“In ‘Multicultural Me’ on iTunes, Taku shares her stories and answers children’s questions, so offers listeners a first hand account of a ‘real’ person living in the Australian community.”

Mallos notes that music can also help children learn to hear the diversity of rhythm, tempos, and musical instruments used worldwide.

She recommends the world music series for kids, Putumayo World Music.

Other ways to educate children about culture

  • Researching different cultures online and through media.
  • Cooking and eating different cuisines. 
  • Learning the basics of another language.

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