The Essential Skill We Need To Teach Our Kids

by Samantha C. Sweeney
Geber86 / iStock

I know what you’re thinking. Seriously? Another thing that I need to consider for my kids?


I get it. Keeping our kids alive is a big enough job. But trust me, this one is no longer optional.

The skill that I’m talking about? Cultural competence.

Recent events such as the nightclub shooting in Orlando, the horrific and disturbing shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the shooting of police officers in Dallas highlight what many have known for decades. Discrimination exists. Fear and hatred exist. And getting along with others is hard. As much as we may want to shield our children from these realities, they will eventually grow up and inherit this world that is still very much a work in progress. One day, they will be the adults changing and shaping our increasingly diverse world. So we can’t — and we shouldn’t — try to protect them forever.

So what is cultural competence? Here’s my definition, adapted from the National Education Association and a 1989 article, “Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care,” by Cross, Bazron, Dennis and Isaacs:

Cultural competence is having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of others. It is the ability to understand the within-group differences that make each person unique, while celebrating the between-group variations within the country and around the world. This knowledge and awareness coalesces into a set of congruent behaviors and attitudes, that enable a person to work, play, and interact effectively in cross-cultural situations.

OK, now you know the definition. Great. But how do you do this? How can you build your child’s cultural competence? There are several steps you can take. I think it’s important to introduce the topic by making it familiar, fun, and regular through a technique I call infusion. Do what you always do, just include diversity awareness in it. Then dig a little deeper by having more pointed and direct conversations. Finally, along with what you do with your child, make sure that you do your own self-examination as well. Where do your biases lie? What inadvertent messages are you sending to your children? When you combine all three of these techniques and you are consistent, you will be amazed at the changes you see in your child — and yourself.

1. Infusion

Music: Does your child love music (who doesn’t?!)? Introduce new kinds of music to your child. You can find children’s music in all genres and from all over the world. A personal favorite of ours is the Putumayo World Playground CD. YouTube and Pandora are also great for this kind of thing. Throw on some new and different tunes and have a family dance party!

Art: A good art project is always fun. Try this one that infuses diversity: On a large sheet of paper, draw or trace your child’s body. Have them fill it in with words and pictures that represent who they are — their own personal culture. Have other friends and family members do the same and compare and contrast responses. This helps a child start to understand that no matter what people look like they all have similarities — and differences.

Books: Even though the percentage of books with diverse characters is astoundingly low, there are so many great ones out there. Not sure where to start? Check out for a starter booklist for all kids, from babies to young adults.

2. Dig Deeper

Have Real Conversations: As your kids get older, you don’t have to sugarcoat everything for them. If they know about the recent shootings (and many school-aged kids and teens already do), talk to them about the historical context. Provide information about the why and let them come to their own conclusions. Resist the urge to answer all questions for them — let them wrestle with it themselves.

Connect It to Their World: Make it concrete by applying it to the things and people they know. Find out what (not if) discrimination has occurred in your town, neighborhood, city. What if the victim was your friend or your family member or you?

Encourage Conversations With Others: Which of your friends, family members, and neighbors have experienced discrimination? What did it look like? How did it feel? What do they think could or should have been done differently? Encourage your kids to ask questions, to be curious, to make others feel heard. These conversations are a great way to develop empathy — an essential element of cultural competence.

3. Self-Exploration and Evaluation

Evaluate Your Own Biases: Everyone has biases; it’s not a questions of “if,” it’s a question of “which ones.” Start by taking Harvard’s Implicit Association Test. There are so many options to choose from. Then — here’s the hard part — talk about it with someone: your spouse, your child, your friends. Be able to admit to your biases out loud.

Take a Look at Your Friendships: Do all of your friends look the same? Talk the same? Is everyone from the same area? Do they all have the same family structure? Branch out! Invite over a parent from your child’s school who you don’t usually hang out with. Invite a co-worker to dinner. You’ll be amazed at how much you grow, and you’ll be modeling for your children.

Never Stop Learning: Continue to educate yourself on diversity topics. You will never run out of things to discover. It is not possible to know everything about everyone. Read books, visit museums, have discussions with (your diverse group of) friends. All of these things will help you better understand our world and, therefore, be better able to communicate your thoughts and feelings to your children.

Our lives are so much more dynamic, richer, and interesting as a result of our differences. When violence breaks out, it can be easy to lose sight of this. Yet the world that we live in today will be the same world that we will be handing over to our kids one day. They will take on everything that we’ve given them — the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly. But they will also have the opportunity to change and shape what they’ve inherited. They will be the ones to create a new world — a world that they dream up in their own image.

What do you want that image to be?