The 5 most common challenges a parent faces while raising a multicultural kid and how to address them

[ 0 ] 13/09/2022 |

5. The 5 most common challenges a parent faces while raising a multicultural kid and how to address them by Vivian Chiona, Dr. Brigitte Vittrup, Elisavet Arkolaki

Click here for the index and access all the chapters.

A dialogue between a third culture child (TCK) and his classmate. When the latter asked, “Where do you come from?”, the TCK replied, “My father is from Brazil, my mother is from the States, and my brother lives in Canada.”

“And you are..?” the classmate asked.

“Blessed,” he replied.

And blessed are our kids indeed! Recent studies now debunk old myths that predict isolation and confusion for children of mixed cultural heritage. On the contrary, they suggest that these children demonstrate a stronger appreciation for diversity. They develop an ability to understand multiple sides of controversial issues, thanks to their own multicultural heritage. They also appear to have enhanced creativity when it comes to problem-solving.

Before getting there though, as is the case for every child, the road that leads to a strong sense of self-identity can be bumpy. Identity is a complex thing, and for people of mixed cultural backgrounds, it can be even more difficult to define themselves and figure out where they belong. It can take a while before they are able to see themselves as whole persons, rather than a pie chart, split up into percentages. It takes proper guidance and support from their family and community in order to grow up with pride, confidence, and a strong sense of self.

When parents and professionals, who are here to give us pointers and assistance throughout our parenting journey, work together, we can expect our children to thrive.

1) Maintaining the minority language(s) by Elisavet Arkolaki

One of the most common struggles comes in the form of maintaining the minority language(s) at the same level as the community language. There is still no world statistics but it is generally believed that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual. Even though multilingualism is as normal as monolingualism, yet, there is a genuine struggle to keep all spoken languages at the same level.

Traditionally, the “one person, one language” (OPOL) approach has been regarded as the best method for bilingual language acquisition. Though, as Chontelle Bonfiglio from Bilingual Kidspot wrote, “Just because you speak to your child in your native language, it doesn’t mean that they will automatically start to speak it back, especially when everyone else around them is speaking another language.  Sure they might understand everything you have said, but speaking back takes a lot more effort and sometimes children tend to go with the easier option.” Each family is unique and we often need to follow different approaches in order to meet our family’s needs. 

An excellent resource is the article 40 tips for raising multilingual children by Dr. Annabelle Humanes (Ph.D. in Bilingual Language Acquisition). Her children are exposed to four languages and she shares lots of research-backed information on her website. Credible and well-researched information can also be found on Dr. Ute Limacher-Riebold’s website and Rita Rosenback’s website

2) Cultural Transition and Adaptation by Vivian Chiona

Moving to a new culture can be a very stressful experience. The good news is that what appears challenging right now, will pay off in the long run. The majority of the kids who have been through such a transition eventually arrive at the conclusion that this experience helped them learn more about themselves and develop greater confidence in their ability to navigate new situations.

a) Healthy Goodbyes for Healthy Starts  

According to Vivian Chiona, we often find ourselves avoiding proper closure or not knowing how to handle it. We need to accept and pass it on to our children, that going through the sadness of an ending is normal and healthy. “Goodbye” represents that closure and helps with a smoother transition. Closing the cycle gives you a strong foundation as you begin again. A healthy goodbye also helps you to savor the good parts of your experience; it holds these as treasures from your previous chapter and into your new one. This can give you strength; it can give you love. It can give you the power to continue when the transition is difficult.

A good idea is to turn the focus of the kids on the positive while anchoring and reassuring them about maintaining established relationships (ie communication via Skype until you meet again). In the meantime, help them recognize and accept all their emotions, good or bad, and process them. Give them space to express themselves. Vivian suggests that assertiveness is one of the greatest skills; being able to express what we think and feel without blaming others but focusing on ourselves, and with the good intention of making our relationships better and “more real”.

b) Raising our children’s cultural intelligence prior to the move 

Cultural intelligence can be broadly broken into 3 sub-dimensions:

Cultural knowledge refers to our ability to understand what culture means and how it can affect our behavior;

Cultural skills describe the ability to learn from interactions with others, expand our understanding of diversity and its consequences, and modify our behavior to fit a specific situation;

Cultural metacognition is what helps us to better understand and be understood. It occurs when we reflect on the role that culture plays in explaining our own behavior and consciously think about using different ways of communicating when interacting with individuals from different cultural backgrounds.

Cultural intelligence is the competence that each and every one of us needs to improve our interpersonal skills within a multicultural set-up.

The journey toward raising our children’s cultural intelligence begins with the parents being positive and well prepared for the transition. It can be very helpful to talk to the children about the new culture and its communication style before expatriating thus minimizing the chances of a complete cultural shock. Much of the learning will happen when the family arrives at the new destination, but learning about it in advance helps the family members be more open-minded and less critical of the perceived differences.

When people from different countries interact, they project perceptions and feelings formed by their native culture. Without a basic knowledge of what culture is and how it affects our personality, people tend to get offended or feel like an outcast, or even unintentionally insult those who don’t share their values.

Only when the perception filters are put aside, our understanding of other people and cultures broadens and expands. As a result, our relationships will deepen and our acceptance of diversity will bring us together. Acceptance towards ourselves and towards others is the key to happiness.

3) Where is Home? by Elisavet Arkolaki

A well-known proverb says “Home is where the heart is” which can be interpreted as wherever our loved ones are, that is our home. Secondly, it can mean that a person’s heart, their love, will always be tied to the place they live, the family home. For multicultural children, and in particular, the children that move from one place to another, the aim is to help them find a home within them, and carry it in their hearts wherever they go.

“The ache for home lives in all of us,” writes Maya Angelou, “the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Marianna Pogosyan, in her article Finding Home Between Worlds, is well aware of the fact that for some, whose childhoods were scattered around the world, home is a tapestry of foreign memories. For some, whose answer to “Where are you from?” is all but straightforward, the home has more than one address. For some who call themselves Third Culture Kids (TCKs), the ache for home is constant and insatiable.

So how do we help our children who live in between worlds find out where home is for them?

As a starting point, I would recommend you watch an insightful TED talk titled Where is Home by writer Pico Iyer, who himself has three or four “origins”. He meditates on the meaning of home, the joy of traveling, and the serenity of standing still. He contemplates the idea that home has more to do with a piece of your soul rather than soil.

Another inspirational TED talk that poses lots of questions, and challenges our perception of how and why things are in certain ways, is Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local by writer Taiye Selasi.

Vivian Chiona, in her article How I Became My Home talks about her own experience, how she found and redefined her very personal concept of ‘home’ and the process she went through.  

Regardless of how you and your children will eventually define “home”, what matters the most is to help the children find peace with where they are right now and where they are heading to in the future and to be able to enjoy their life without feeling like there is “always something missing”.

It’s important to introduce them early on to the concept that “Home” can be wherever they currently find themselves, but that it can also be who and how they are. A home is mostly a place within. Marianna Pogosyan on In Search of Home reflects on what it takes to build a feeling of “home” in a new country and how we can begin to know that we’ve found it.

4) Dealing with Prejudice by Dr. Brigitte Vittrup

Multicultural families are more likely to face prejudice from society, which entails preconceived, negatively-biased thoughts or beliefs. As a result, the most vulnerable members of the family unit, the children, can be severely affected. The family, the teachers, and the community need to stand up for them. We need to open a dialogue with the kids affected by prejudice but also with the kids who are prejudiced towards the ones that look or behave differently. But most important of all, we all need to be positive role models. Children absorb and understand much more about the world through our behavior rather than our words. When the two don’t match, the children are left confused.

I wrote the article How silence can breed prejudice: A child development professor explains how and why to talk to kids about race. There, I explain why it is of paramount importance to not shy away from but talk to our children about races, skin colors, differences, and diversity. I clarify that ‘silence from the parents’ side sends a very loud message to the children that this topic is taboo. While the intended message may be “Shhh… race is a sensitive topic in this country, so be careful what you say out loud because we don’t want to offend anybody,” what the child is more likely to hear is “Shhh… there’s something wrong with these people, so let’s not talk about them.”  

Silence about race-related topics is common among adults. Often this silence is inspired by discomfort (because race is often treated as a topic “we don’t talk about”), lack of practice (many of today’s adults did not grow up in homes where race-related issues were frequently discussed), and the desire for children to be color blind. Unfortunately, our society is not colorblind, and neither are the children. Research shows that children as young as ages 3-4 have begun to develop ideas and attitudes about race and ethnicity, which later leads to biased perceptions. These biases are perpetuated by stereotyped portrayals of racial and ethnic minorities in the media. Therefore, if we as adults do not have intentional conversations with children about these issues, the children are left to figure it out on their own, and often that leads to inaccurate and often biased ideas. In addition, silence about race-related issues can send the unintended message that the status quo (prejudice, inequality, and discrimination) is normal and okay. In addition, children whose parents do not discuss these topics are more likely to perceive their parents as being biased, and this, in turn, can influence their own development of racial biases.

In my research, I have asked many parents and teachers about the types of race-related conversations they have with children. Often, the responses include statements such as “It doesn’t matter what people look like,” “We’re all the same on the inside,” and “God loves everyone.” These are well-intended statements, but unfortunately, they don’t convey any practical messages to children about race or culture. To be effective, conversations have to be direct, explicit, and continuous across time.

When talking to children about race-related issues:

  • Be honest and factual. You may not always have the answer to children’s questions, but that is okay. If you have to look up information or even say “I don’t know – let’s find out”, it leads children to believe that their questions are valid, and this is a topic that is okay to discuss.
  • Present the information in an age-appropriate manner. Young children understand the concepts of fairness and being nice to others. Older children understand more complex concepts about stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.
  • Ask children what they know and what they think. State the facts and engage children in conversation. For example, “Some people don’t like….”, “Some people think that [minority group] are…”, “Have you seen/heard [news, events, experiences]?” and then ask “What do you think about that?” or “What would you say/do if you saw/heard…?”
  • Use books, videos, websites, or news stories as springboards for conversations. Discuss the topics presented and then branch off to discuss how this relates to your own life and experiences, about what is right and wrong, and what we can do to make things better.

We need to deal with our own personal discomfort and engage our children in a conversation on these issues. Subjects that we might consider ‘sensitive’ are in fact the most important ones to be addressed. The objective here is not to come up with the perfect answers; there aren’t any.

Note from the editor: it’s also worth reading Erin Winkler’s article Here’s How To Raise Race-Conscious Children.

5) When a child expresses negative emotions by Vivian Chiona

It is important to pass on the message of embracing and celebrating the blessings of expat life. It is also essential to convey an optimistic message: that these uncomfortable feelings will lessen over time. This too shall pass… Every thought, form, feeling, and the situation in life is temporary. Isn’t it comforting to know that one’s sadness will have an end?

Here’s a story to tell your child that contains this pearl of wisdom:

According to an old Sufi fable, there was once a king in the Middle East who was constantly torn between happiness and despair. The slightest thing would provoke a strong reaction in him. When he felt happy, it would swiftly turn into disappointment or hopelessness.

The king eventually became so tired of this that he decided to call for help. He was notified of a man in his kingdom who was said to be enlightened. The king pleaded for the wise man’s help. When the wise man arrived to see the king, the latter said: “I want to be as you are. I want balance and clarity in my life – and I will pay you any price you demand for that insight.”

The wise man responded: “I might be able to help you, but this insight is so valuable that the entirety of your kingdom would not be enough to pay for it. That’s why I will give it to you as a gift if you will honor it.”

The king agreed, and the wise man went on his way.

Weeks later, the wise man returned to the king, bringing with him a golden ring with these words inscribed on it: “This too shall pass.”  

“What is the meaning of this?” the king asked, baffled. The wise man told him to always carry this ring on him and to look at it before he judged any situation again. “Do this and peace will be with you always,” the wise man said.

So, this too shall pass… Every thought, form, feeling, and the situation in life is temporary. Isn’t it comforting to know that your sadness will have an end? Yes, this too shall pass, just as other sad moments in the past have done. And isn’t it a treasure to learn to appreciate every single moment of happiness is precious? This awareness of knowing that all things have an end – that no matter the situation, it will pass – gives us both the strength to carry on and the wisdom to enjoy what we have.

NEXT CHAPTER: 5 mistakes parents make when trying to raise bilingual children

Click here for the index and access all the chapters.

Category: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: