Identity is something that many if not most all of us wrestle with whilst growing up. However, like most minorities, this is perhaps even more so for many mixed roots, multicultural and third culture kids; from dealing with being treated differently by others and searching for groups to identify with, and feel a sense of belonging, to learning multiple languages and cultures. As previously mentioned, language and culture are integral parts of our identity, and kids who have or develop positive attitudes and feelings towards all aspects of their identity tend to be better adjusted and happier. However, as parents, how can we help our kids to deal with the inevitable bumps along the way?
Whether in print, downloaded or read online (e.g. Dino Lingo Books), stories, especially traditional ones, span generations, keep culture alive and help children to connect with their roots, even when living outside that community. In an increasingly globalised world, it’s also wonderful to be able to read stories from cultures that aren’t our own, but may help our children connect and understand friends in an increasingly number of internationalized classrooms (see the Culture and Diversity selection, for example). Many books also help children to address the challenges they may face, from being the odd one out and bullied to being the new kid at school.
Furthermore, for parents these days, there are numerous helpful starting points to deal with issues of language, culture, and identity as they arise, from books and blogs to communities that meet face-to-face and/or on social media. They share a wealth of invaluable information and support at local, regional, and international levels. Here are three, all by people sharing from firsthand experience in order to help others:
Multilingual living is the home of Multilingual Living Magazine, a popular digital publication dedicated to families raising bilingual and multilingual children. It’s a place to “… find inspiration, tools, advice, wisdom and support!” There is a host of helpful articles, including ones written by guest experts, and questions sent in from readers, on issues ranging from top 10 things parents should never say to their bilingual/multilingual child to top 10 reasons your children aren’t speaking your language and what to do when you’re feeling left out of the conversation and isolated.
Bilingual Monkeys offers “ideas and inspiration for raising bilingual kids (without going bananas)” with a weekly newsletter, resources for parents including ‘fun stuff’, a blog and collection of articles covering topics like 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and the tongue-in-cheek How to Fail Miserably at Raising a Bilingual Child.
Multilingual parenting has a weekly newsletter, blog, community and coaching. The Q&A archive includes a wide range of topics from what to do if your child’s teacher tells you to stop speaking a family language to several posts addressing how to raise kids with three or more languages. Searching the site for the topic of identity, you can find a number of posts that support the acceptance and development of our multilingual and multicultural selves, and Rita Rosenback, when writing about Many Languages One Identity, asserts:
“All my languages are an intrinsic part of my identity. Every single one of them has helped me understand other people and cultures and thus contributed to the person I am today. They do however not split my identity, they consolidate it.”
As parents, for example, we can support our children’s journey towards this position of self-confidence and self-acceptance, not only with encouragement and acceptance of their developing identities, but also by providing as many positive encounters with their languages and cultures as possible. On this note, here are 3 of the things that me and my sister think our parents got right for us (Anglo-Celtic-Japanese growing up in England): Celebrating our cultures, visits to Japan, and varied groups of friends.
Celebrating our cultures
I feel very lucky to have grown up with Robin Hood and King Arthur & The Knights of The Round Table as well Japanese folk stories and anime. We were somewhat spoilt in having two sets of cultural festivities, but now my kids have three (Malay, English, and Japanese), insomuch as we can keep it up! Building a positive affinity to each culture, in the long run if not the shorter term, serves to develop interest, the desire to learn the language, and positive self-image.
Visits to Japan
Although it would take 3-4 years to save enough funds to go to Japan with assistance from grandparents, every trip was an amazing 4-6 week affair where all our relatives went out of their way to make up for lost time, so much so that we’ve never felt the physical distance in terms of how close our relationships were. When I first travelled to Japan on my own steam, aged 19, and then again a few years later, it was invaluable to be familiar with places as well as have family and friends I was comfortable with since childhood.
Varied groups of friends
In addition to school and neighbourhood friends, we also had our mum’s circle of Japanese mothers whose children we played with regularly. Whilst it was our parents who helped maintained our ties whilst growing up, our friendships continue to this day, not least because we’d always try to get together whenever we visited Japan. Also, when my mum heard of a new Japanese family or mixed family (i.e. English married to a Japanese), she’d also make an effort to reach out and bring us all together. Meeting other kids ‘like us’ was inevitably something we always looked forward to, and benefitted from, as our similar circumstances formed a good basis for shared understanding and empathy, as well as healthy cross-cultural conversations and debate from the mundane to the more complex:
“Shoes on or off?” one friend asked when comparing typically English and Japanese homes.
“Definitely off!” we replied to nods of agreement.
“So what do you speak at home?”
The language of play and its crucial role in language development and children’s immediate needs and desire to join in and make friends, can never be overstated. Moreover is often key to breathing life into a minority language that a child might otherwise have limited encounters with outside the home.
Whilst everyone’s experiences are different, I hope that by sharing a few of mine, you might find something that connects. And please feel free to share yours, too!
Last but not least, it’s always worth knowing how to find other groups and information relevant to us for any given place or time in our lives. Some of the more common terms I’ve found helpful in Internet searches include mixed race, interracial, mixed roots, mixed heritage and multicultural, but half, double, and hapa can also lead to new discoveries as I found in Japan. And these days, many groups are thriving with the proliferation of social media. But if there isn’t a group in your area, now may be the best time to start one.
by Philip Shigeo Brown