Raising Kids To Thrive in a Multicultural World

There are many amazing advantages to living in a major urban center, but for me the most rewarding by far is the privilege of raising my children close to a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities.

The houses in my Pike Township neighborhood look plucked right out of Pleasant Valley Sunday; but take a walk on a sunny day, and you’ll notice that though the rows of houses may be all the same, the inhabitants come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

In fact, my wife and I chose this neighborhood partly because after a decade of living in Argentina, we wanted to be near a high concentration of Spanish speakers. We got much more. The entire world was brought to our doorstep: aside from the normal mix of white, African-American, and Latino families, there are also African, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern families as well.

Our subdivision isn’t unique in that regard. This multicultural reality is another example to my family that Jesus’s command to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20) doesn’t require a passport to fulfill.

Racial conflict and anger at immigrants lead the news every night, but I try to remind my kids that we represent a Kingdom different from the world. The Kingdom we belong to welcomes men and women of every tribe and tongue. It never tries to keep out the tired, the poor, and the suffering. Our King is no respecter of persons; he loves all shades of skin and bids the nations come to his throne to find rest and a purpose, and even to praise him in their native language. There are no “English-only” movements in heaven (Revelation 5:9-10).

Crooked Creek South offers my kids the chance to grow up as citizens of the world without leaving Marion County. This is an incredible blessing, not only for their spiritual growth, but also for their ability to thrive in a global economy.

But let’s be honest, many parents live in fear when it comes to the topic of their kids and race. Whether we rock the suburbs while singing Ben Folds to our black neighbors (“It wasn’t my idea. Never was my idea.”), or we notice new stores and shops springing up where English isn’t spoken, or we wring our hands because the test scores in our schools drop as increasing numbers of children arrive who don’t natively speak English, it’s easy to lose sight of the values of God’s Kingdom. We can become obsessed with perceived security issues or property values, instead of being thrilled at the amazing blessing and opportunity presented us to share the gospel.

A few weeks ago, my friend Dante wrote an excellent piece on building cross-cultural relationships. Many of those same principles can apply to our kids too, but here are a few additional ways you can actively help your kids engage with different cultures and points of view. Most of this will apply to any culture, but I’m specifically addressing white parents in this piece.

1. Understand the difference between race and culture

I’ll get to the nations in a moment, but let’s start out with the core idea that most Americans overlook in our post-Obama society. Many white Americans don’t have a race problem at all. They have a culture problem.

Our kids won’t grow up hearing the repulsive theories of white superiority and the inferiority of other races – particularly those of African descent – that were so prevalent a hundred years ago. While this is obviously progress, it’s easy to raise kids who believe in “racial equality” while still holding deep prejudices against African-American culture.

The phrase “acting black” is a painful one because it implies that there is something deficient in the styles, rhythms, expressions and values of many in the African-American community. Most white parents will happily welcome an African-American boy into their homes as long as he looks like Theo Huxtable (or, hey, Steve Urkel). As long as someone dresses like me, talks like me, acts like me, we’re cool.

Simply put, “culture” describes the values, beliefs and behaviors that a group of people share in common. The most obvious expressions are external: styles of dress, speech, food and music. It’s important to note, however, that these external behaviors often have deep roots in collective experience and history. It’s just as sinful to reject people based on culture as it is to reject them based on race.

To reject black culture is to reject black experience. When you start rejecting people’s history and experience, you’re rejecting them as people as well. The truth is, many white parents fear the influence of some subsets of African-American culture, and use that as justification to shield their kids from multiracial experience.

Of course, all cultures and subcultures have to be examined in light of the gospel. Just because something is “cultural” doesn’t mean it’s automatically valid or that you must endorse it. But it is important to first understand the “whys” of a cultural behavior: to grasp the values and beliefs that underpin those behaviors. Once that happens, you can appropriately discern the elements of that culture that reflect God’s truth, as well those that reflect the lies and brokenness of this fallen world. Parents must apply the same rigor to all the worldviews that their kids encounter, especially those of the dominant “white” culture.

It’s incumbent on us to teach our children why people from different backgrounds act differently and learn to accept them as a people – with their history and culture intact, though ultimately subject to the gospel – if we want them to develop meaningful cross-cultural relationships and to become effective citizens in an increasingly small and interconnected world.

2. Talk to your kids about communal sin and guilt

In the book of Daniel, we see a righteous man beg God to forgive him and his nation for sins that were committed long before he was born and in which he never personally participated (Daniel 9:1-19). Many of us in the United States’ dominant culture get angry when racial or cultural issues come up; we feel judged because of the sins of other people, even people who had no relationship to us.

Like it or not, communal sin exists. We see it all over Scripture, from Isaiah 6 to Matthew 10. We have to humbly accept that we live in a broken world. As participants in that world, we share guilt for actions which we did not commit.

If you are white, it’s healthy to help your children understand the history of injustice in this country, even if your family immigrated in 1940 and not 1740. I’ll never forget visiting a bowling alley at 96th and Keystone when I was a junior in high school. I went with an African-American buddy of mine and a few other friends. We were all clean-cut, normal-looking high school kids. I had been to that alley dozens of times; but on the night I was there with my African-American friend, a police officer stopped us as we were leaving and detained us to make sure we paid.

My friend had two wonderful parents. He was a good student and a great guy who lived down the road from me. I tell my kids that story so they understand that their friends on the bus or next door won’t have the same experience with the world that my kids do.

My children attend a school that is predominantly African-American and Latino. Even as minorities in their daily life, however, they are still members of the power structure at the school. The principal is white. Most of the teachers are white. They need to understand how their classmates see the world differently from the way they themselves see it.

It does not matter whether or not our ancestors ever owned slaves or burned a cross or discriminated against anyone. My family is still a participant in and a beneficiary of a sinful, broken system of oppression in this world. It’s okay to confess it, ask for forgiveness for it and seek to subvert it for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

3. Consider moving to a multiethnic neighborhood and public school

You can’t build relationships with people of other cultures if you never have contact with them. If your life looks like an episode of Friends, where “multiculturalism” means this one time Ross marries a girl from England, it’ll be hard to develop significant relationships.

Indianapolis is a heavily segregated city, and I’m going to address this head-on. Many white people balk at living in multiethnic neighborhoods because of one of two issues:

  1. Crime
  2. Schools

Pretending these aren’t the reasons won’t help things change.

First, crime is an issue all over the city. There are no invisible walls that keep out a criminal element. And no, not every neighborhood is right for every stage of life. If you feel there are security issues in your neighborhood or school, investigate to see if they are actually true, and ask what you can do about them.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your kids to grow up in a secure environment, but just because your neighbors might have dark skin doesn’t mean you aren’t safe. Crime is not synonymous with a multicultural environment. So many misconceptions and distrust come from believing that people who look different are inherently dangerous.

As far as the school issue goes, I would encourage you to closely research the local public schools that are available to your children. Please do not take the letter grades applied to schools seriously. The grading of schools is tightly bound up standardized test scores, which are often heavily affected by the presence of immigrant populations.

It’s easy to dismiss a neighborhood because a website saddled a school with a low grade. In reality, that grade is often a signal that there is a real opportunity to interact with other cultures and an open door to making a difference and an impact in the public school.

I say this knowing that there’s no one solution to the school issue that will serve every child. Private and homeschooling may work for your child’s needs, and that’s wonderful; I’m not judging your choice. I am begging you not to rule out public school for the wrong reasons. We need believing families exerting influence and pushing for change in the public schools. Don’t look at the racial makeup of a school and run to get your kids into a “better district.”

The irony is that many parents allow their children to be significantly disadvantaged in their future careers because they shelter their kids from a multiethnic environment. Among the most necessary and desirable skills needed in next 30 years will be a high degree of comfort in a global environment. Attending an ethnically diverse school can teach your children empathy and intuition and expose them to different ways of thinking and relating that will serve them well in the future.

Beyond just schools, there are a lot of ways to put your family in contact with people from other cultures. Some are incidental, and others are more profound.

Consider the following ways of broadening your base of connection with those of other cultures:

  • Shop at ethnic stores.
  • Visit a hair salon or barber that caters to clients of other races
  • Find youth sports leagues for your kids that are multiethnic
  • Visit churches with congregations that are culturally distinct
  • Make your kids take a foreign language in middle school and high school (my path to the mission field was heavily influenced by taking Spanish when I was young)

4. Learn your own ethnic story.

My grandfather’s grandfather came from Ireland to escape the famine. He landed in New Orleans, moved to Iowa, bought a farm and fought for the Union in the Civil War. My great-grandfather started a newspaper. My grandfather fought in a world war and taught public school in Indianapolis, and my father started a tree service. Honestly, I don’t know how much Irish is still in my blood, but I have the name and the history, and it’s a part of me that I happily pass down to my son.

I want my kids to know their story because it helps them understand that other people have a story too. Do you highlight your family’s own ethnic heritage? Whether your ancestors were Irish or African, Cherokee or Korean, everyone is from somewhere. Some of us are from lots of places, but that means more to celebrate, not less.

Teach your kids how your grandparents’ grandparents came to America and struggled. If you don’t know their story, learn about the history of how immigrants from every corner of the globe have built and shaped the United States. No one works harder than an immigrant.

How you talk about other races and cultures will affect how your kids speak of them. Do your words promote understanding and empathy or mistrust and fear? A strong sense of cultural identity makes you stronger, not weaker.

I’ve heard white folks complain that no one celebrates “white history month.” It’s a nasty comment that ignores the fact that most all we talk about 11 months of the year is white history; but apart from that, Caucasian people celebrate all kinds of culturally-specific holidays. Bastille Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, and Oktoberfest all get their own special spin, depending on what part of country you are in.

It’s a lot easier to enjoy someone else’s story if you have one of your own.

Training our kids to be empathetic with those from other cultures is important spiritually, socially and economically. Peter tells us that we are all strangers and aliens, and while we once were not a people, now we are a new humanity in Christ (1 Peter 2:9-12). It’s our responsibility as believers. It’s a patriotic duty, both as earthly citizens and heavenly ones, to raise children who aren’t “colorblind,” but rather champions and advocates of other races and cultures.

Image: "Dinner Party at the Palace in Honor of an Ambassador," by Jean Baptiste Vanmour