Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Traveling with kids & teaching tolerance

The flag of the United Nations.

November 16th 2011, is the United Nations' International Day for Tolerance. This day has been on the UN calendar since 1995, and its purpose is to promote tolerance globally. To quote the UN's webpage:
...tolerance is neither indulgence nor indifference. It is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance recognizes the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. People are naturally diverse; only tolerance can ensure the survival of mixed communities in every region of the globe.
"People are naturally diverse". There's a truth if I ever saw one. That diversity is one of the reasons why traveling is such a wonderful thing: you get to experience some of that diversity up close and personal. That diversity is also one of the reasons why I like traveling with my kids.

Travel gives them the opportunity to learn about the world, and the people in it. It also gives them the opportunity to learn that there are different ways of speaking, eating, living, and doing things, and that these differences are not just OK, but actually normal and something good.

Traveling & tolerance
I don't necessarily preach about diversity and tolerance to my kids when we travel (preaching is very often lost on 4 and 8 year olds, at least in my experience), but I think even seemingly small things can make an impression:
  • Using a foreign language - If you travel to a country with a different language, I think it makes sense to teach your kids a few words in that language. It's fun, educational, and might make your kids feel that other languages are fun and interesting. Even simple phrases like "thank you", "please", "hello" and "goodbye" are often very much appreciated. For example, I know my 8-year old got a lot of special attention because he happily used a few Spanish phrases when we went to the Canary Islands this past spring.
  • Eating foreign food - This can be a challenge when you travel with picky eaters (I do). Still, trying new foods is a very direct way for kids to experience and hopefully appreciate a different culture. It might also help them realize that food doesn't have to look or taste exactly as it does at home in order to taste good. My daughter surprised me in Gran Canaria by downing an entire portion of local, freshly-caught fish. Other ideas are to try some fresh, local fruit and vegetables, or noodles, breads and cheeses.
  • Talking about differences - Kids often notice and comment on things adults either don't think about, or don't like to talk about because we want to be polite. They might ask very direct questions about why people look, dress or act differently than they're used to. I think the best response is to a) not assume your kids are trying to be rude, and b) answer their questions as simply and directly as possible. I don't want my kids to get the idea that anything that is "different" is weird or wrong. Instead, I try to let them know that there are different ways of doing things, and that one way isn't necessarily right or better than another way. After all, life and the world would be dull if we were all the same!
  • Teaching respect for others and ourselves - I believe that traveling helps my kids experience and appreciate diversity, and hopefully practise tolerance. I also think that teaching them to respect and value the way other people do things, can help them respect and value the way we do things in our own community, and in our own family. This means that I don't want them to just practise tolerance, I want them to expect it from others as well.

Tolerance at home
Many of us, my family included, live in communities where we encounter diversity and learn to practice tolerance every day at school, preschool, the grocery store, the public pool, and everywhere else, simply because we live in places where people have different mother tongues, different traditions, celebrate different holidays, dress differently, and have different cultural and religious backgrounds.

One of the reasons I love living in Canada, and specifically British Columbia, is the diversity and tolerance I see everywhere around me: people from all over the world have moved here and made new lives for themselves. It isn't totally un-problematic of course, what is?, but I think it makes this place richer, and a more interesting place to live and grow up in.

To quote the UN's website once again:

Education for tolerance should aim at countering influences that lead to fear and exclusion of others, and should help young people develop capacities for independent judgement, critical thinking and ethical reasoning. The diversity of our world's many religions, languages, cultures and ethnicities is not a pretext for conflict, but is a treasure that enriches us all.

UN-flag, thanks to the United Nations official website.

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