Ever worry about building your kids’ character in a culture of plenty? Ever wonder if the deck is stacked against you when times aren’t tough enough?
I know I do.
Maybe it’s because I grew up poor myself and I know firsthand the powerful lessons poverty can teach. I’m grateful my husband and I are able to give our children so much I missed, but I’m also painfully aware how those advantages crowd out the character building that comes from never being able to take your school clothes, your medicine, or even your next meal for granted.
And it doesn’t help either that we live in a culture heavily skewed toward entertainment – much of it unhealthy – and based on a me-first! mentality.
That’s why since becoming believers some twenty years ago, my husband and I have worked extra hard to broaden our twelve children’s horizons, to counter the cultural blindness that comes with being too comfortable, and awaken in their hearts the idea that those who look like they have less may often have a little more.
We can add more dimension to our children’s world vision, and better build their appreciation of other cultures by first understanding that children learn differently than we do.
Young children under age 6 are not at all capable of abstract thinking. Words like sacrifice, courage, kindness have no meaning for them. But the concepts can be communicated through pictures and stories which convey those abstract ideas in the things that people do. Children aged 6 to12, while becoming more capable of abstract thinking, still learn more effectively with a multi-sensory, hands-on approach.
So while there are plenty of books at the library to help my children learn about other countries, I‘ve found a few ways to help my children zero in a little more, to feel less on the outside looking in, and to appropriate for themselves some of the more admirable qualities to be found in other cultures.
Sometimes, I’ll pull my kids together for a special project – making a collage illustrating a specific activity like working or playing games, or a value like honoring parents or caring for brothers and sisters.
I explain we’ll be looking for and cutting out pictures of children engaged in doing whatever we’re focusing on, then turn them loose to hunt through the stacks of National Geographics I’ve collected through the years from library and garage sales (going rate about a quarter each). When everyone has their pictures, we discuss them, point out on the globe where the children live, then glue them to a big piece of poster board, adding a Bible verse which seems to cover the subject.
It’s one thing to have your child memorize a commandment. It’s another thing to immerse them in scenes of how it happens all over the world. And because the lessons we learn at an early age are the ones that stay with us all our lives, it’s a way of giving your child a real foundation in the knowledge that we’re all God’s children, that though we may send money to help those who have less materially, they may have as much or more of the things money can’t buy.
If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a movie’s worth a million. And because they involve more senses, they have an even greater impact on children.
One of the blessings of videos is that they bring other cultures right into our living rooms. If you’ve shied away from videos with subtitles, you may be missing more than you think. Everyone in the family can enjoy foreign films. Simply snuggle your pre-readers next to you and quietly read the subtitles -- not every word, but just enough to keep them involved with the story.
There’s nothing like gathering your children together to watch a film that boosts their compassion and teaches them simple, spiritual lessons. Try a gem of a tale like Children of Heaven, nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign film of 1997. Set in Iran, it is a simple story of a boy who picks up his sister’s newly-repaired shoes, then misplaces them while running the rest of the family’s errands. Both of the children are anguished by the loss, as each has only one pair of shoes. They dare not tell their parents, who are already behind in rent and struggling to keep food on the table. And so they come up with a plan to share the brother’s shoes. How they manage, and how eventually the brother finds a way to earn another pair of shoes paints a portrait of selfless love, steadfastness and grace.
All the easier for children to absorb when the main characters are children and the problem is child-sized. What young viewers could ever look inside their own closet – or at their own brothers and sisters – the same way again?
Cross-cultural activities are really about more than supporting missionaries and helping those in need. As Samuel 16:7 says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” We benefit by understanding ourselves and teaching our children that in some important ways, we who look like we have everything are truly needy too.
Barbara Curtis has 12 children - including three adopted sons with Down syndrome - and 10 grandchildren so far. She is also an award-winning author with nine books and 800+ articles in print publications including Focus on the Family, Guideposts, Christian Parenting Today, and The Washington Times.