Oh What a Difference

Dear Mr. Dad: A Korean family has recently moved in next door and our 8-year-old son became friendly with their boy, who is the same age. However, he now says that he no longer wants to play with this child because he “looks funny.” How do we teach our son to look beyond the differences?

A: If you live in a small community or a rural area where there haven’t been very many people of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, it’s understandable that your young son may be confused by a child so visibly different from anyone else he’s used to seeing.

What you have here, however, is a great opportunity to teach your boy some valuable life lessons, the kind that will, hopefully, instill in him a little cultural sensitivity, tolerance, and open-mindedness. After all, diversity is part of our national identity and should be embraced rather than shunned.

If he doesn’t already know this, now is a good time to explain to your son the whole American melting pot thing, that we have a long tradition of welcoming people from other countries and that immigrants have made many positive contributions to our nation. In this spirit, he (and your family as a whole) should extend your kindness and hospitality to these neighbors.

It’s also possible that your son feels uncomfortable around his friend because his skin is a slightly different shade, or because he uses chopsticks instead of silverware, eats kimchee, speaks with an accent, or doesn’t know the rules to the games your son is used to playing. However, even at eight years old, he’s plenty old enough to understand that the world is made of all kinds of people who should be valued regardless of the color of their skin, where they were born, physical or mental disabilities, cutlery preference, language skills, or any other differences he may perceive.

You might also want to ask your son to imagine how he’d feel if your family moved to a country where he was the one who “looked funny,” or sounded funny, or had trouble communicating.

Hopefully, the two boys will start building a friendship based on finding common points of interest instead of only having similar backgrounds and experiences. Who knows, maybe they’ll both end up loving baseball or Playstation games, or whatever activities fourth-graders are into these days. If not, invite the neighbors over for dinner, or offer to take their son to see a ball game or try something completely American (does pizza qualify?). And encourage your son to ask the neighbors to introduce him to a few elements of Korean culture. He can also do his own research on kid-friendly sites such as National Geographic’s
http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/places/ or http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/games/geographygames/

This is especially important because a literacy study performed a few years ago reported that young people in America have very limited knowledge of the world beyond their borders – and in some cases, of their own country as well. Ignorance, as you certainly know, breeds fear and intolerance, while knowledge leads to understanding and acceptance.

Hopefully, finding out about the neighbors’ origins will spark your son’s interest in discovering more, and he can ask his friend about customs, traditions, and other facts from his native land. If you can open your child’s mind by creating curiosity and genuine interest in the world and people around him, he’ll continue the learning process as grows up.