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How to foster cultural awareness at a young age

We learn a lot from our parents-including the things we want to do differently in raising our own children. There are many things my parents have instilled in me for which I now intend to pass along to the next generation, like the importance of cherishing relatives, the pleasure of keeping family recipes alive, a love for all things outdoors, not to mention an ear for great music like The Stones and Dylan (yes, I am a recovering flower child). However, there are things I aim to do differently from my parents in raising my three children (3, 8 and 11) and facilitating their well-rounded development from an early age.

I find that the need to raise children in a way that prepares them for an increasingly global world is an important one in today's day and age where people and technology are proliferating at an explosive rate. This means the global world is becoming more accessible. Foreign languages, cultural and geographical awareness, as well as working knowledge of various belief systems and customs are just some of the things I wish my parents had emphasized more.

The result of an Asian Mom and an Anglo Dad who came from fairly different backgrounds, I was subsequently raised in a fashion where their two backgrounds converged: that is, according to American norms and customs with little connection to any one ethnic heritage. This made me more or less ignorant of cultural differences as a kid, not to mention oblivious of what lies outside the U.S. Once, when our California family flew to the East Coast for vacation, I was under the impression for some time that I had been to the "Other Side" of the world.

Now, not all parents can afford to fly their children around the world or sign them up for expensive private lessons on specialized subjects. The things I am doing to foster an international flare in my young children consist of more everyday matters, which I want to share with other parents as I've found them to be not only enjoyable but wonderfully influential.

One of the most resourceful things I've done is to host an au pair. This has killed two birds with one stone: a cultural learning experience for my kids in our own home, plus inexpensive childcare. Many working parents in the U.S. face the challenge of finding affordable childcare that is, most importantly, reliable. Au pairs are live-in, so they can accommodate to your changing needs from day to day. Allow me to clarify that an au pair is NOT an outlandish domestic assistant for the wealthy, as most people seem to think. With two kids or more children it is often less expensive than daycares or nannies, which charge per child. Au pairs work at a fixed cost which boils down to about $7/hour for up to 45 hours per week.

Our au pair brings an interesting dynamic to the household: the language and traditions of another country. My au pair is from France and she has made it a habit to occasionally speak French with my children. They are at an age where they are more adaptable to the sounds and pronunciations of different words and their French accents are becoming quite impressive! My heart melted when my three year old greeted me home from work recently with "Bonjour maman! Comment ça va?" Our au pair also teaches them to bake French goodies and play games that my children have gone on to share with their playmates. (Hint: escargot, the French version of hopscotch, will keep them busy for hours but beware: your house will be surrounded by chalk drawings of giant snails.)

There are several agencies to choose from when you want to host an au pair. We chose AuPairCare because we were referred by family friends. They introduced us to the local staff member who'd be responsible for organizing activities for our au pair and also supporting us with any issues, and we were sold. At you can view your options for length and costs of hosting an au pair, the different countries and personalities you can choose from, and to read several testimonials to its merit.

Another thing we like to do in our household to teach our children about the world is a little something we like to call "Maptime." We have a large colorful map hanging in the girls' bedroom and every now and then they take turns picking at random a spot on the map. We then go to the library to find stories and pictures about that particular location. The girls mark the spot on the map with little words or symbols they find meaningful about that place. Often they'll become so wrapped up in it that they'll insist on cooking new dishes they learn about, or play dress up to resemble the outfits in pictures they've seen. I feel this not only fosters geographical and cultural awareness, but an elevated sense of self and appreciation for the vast nuances of people, places and ways of living.

I would also encourage parents to take advantage of local museums and performances that are happening in your own community, which often feature exhibits and shows from different places and backgrounds. Our family has enjoyed Irish dancing and a Spanish festival in just the last month. You can find announcements for these events in your local newspaper or by doing a simple internet search. You may be surprised at how many dance troops, art displays, or musical groups that are putting on shows all the time and feature the rich cultural heritage of different locations around the world.
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