Tips for Teaching Cultural Empathy To Children

Multicultural flags

As we all know, empathy means to share and understand the feelings of others.  ‘Cultural Empathy’, then, is an awareness and appreciation of cultural, religious or ethnic groups and how their values and lifestyles may differ from our own. We can accept the differences rather than seeing them as good or bad, and we empathise with the struggles and challenges of that group.  We will also be sensitive to things which may provoke or offend members of that group.  Most importantly, we will not judge another culture based on our own biases, traditions and beliefs.   

To give a crude example, when a person with cultural empathy sees a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or headscarf, they do not automatically assume that she is oppressed by her family and forced to do so, as is one a common stereotype.  They would understand that there are many factors, such as traditions, family values, and personal choice which would influence her decision to wear it.  

Why should we teach Cultural Empathy to our Kids? 

Our children are growing up in a multi-cultural society, and even if you live in an area without much diversity, at some point in your child’s life, they are going to be in close contact with people of different backgrounds and beliefs.  Cultural empathy will allow them to connect with anyone, regardless of race, religion and culture, and forge solid and lasting relationships with others, be they friends, neighbours or colleagues. 

By encouraging cultural empathy, we’re setting our kids up to succeed.  By accepting other cultures and not judging them by the standards of their own, they’ll be able to cooperate and work productively and positively with others in the classroom and the playground, and this will continue throughout their lives. More importantly, we can be confident that if our children have cultural empathy, they won’t be swayed by the prejudice, racism and sexism we tried so hard to educate them against.  

How do we Teach Cultural Empathy to our kids? 

Contrary to many popular beliefs that we’re either born with or without it, science argues that the capacity for empathy is hardwired into our brains, but it needs to be encouraged and developed.  Parents need to understand, then, that empathy can and must be taught.  In the case of cultural empathy, here are a few simple tips to help you foster it in your kids. 

Exposure – Cultural empathy in children develops with exposure to other cultures. Take your little ones to visit temples, churches and mosques.  Go or a stroll around your city’s China town.  Let them take part in in any celebrations of Hanukkah, Diwali, Eid, Christmas and Vesak in your community.  Check your local community centre for events and music festivals; you might be surprised at how much is going on. 

Encourage Cross-Cultural friendships – As a parent, you can create spaces for your kids to hang out with others from different backgrounds and build strong friendships.  You don’t have to make a big fuss of it, just simple things like organising play dates or inviting other families with kids to join you on days out in the park will be wonderful.  Having friends from different religious or racial backgrounds will be a solid foundation for cultural empathy to build on. 

Educate and discuss – It’s a very confusing world out there, and it’s only natural for children to be curious about things like race, gender and social class, even if they are too young to properly articulate themselves when speaking about them. Shying away from questions on such issues might spare a parent a difficult conversation, but it opens the door for confusion and ignorance in your child’s life.  As a parent, be ready to discuss the hard questions, even if you don’t know the answers yourself.  Teach your child to find the truth for themselves rather than blindly accepting what they hear. 

Move beyond tolerance – While tolerance is indeed a necessary step towards acceptance, we shouldn’t be satisfied with our kids stopping there.  After all, I tolerate a bad cold or a skin rash.  For empathy, we really need our kids to understand and appreciate other cultures and see the similarities that unite us.  And we should always remind them that behind every label of race, religion, language or culture is a human being, a noble soul to be respected and valued.