When my son Andrés was born in Spain I received congratulations cards from all over the world, in at least five languages. My family from Poland, my husband’s relatives from Venezuela and Dominican Republic, our friends from France, Italy, UK, Mexico, Brasil, Canada and many other countries, they all sent us gifts and wished us all the best on the phone, Skype and Facebook.
When he turned one, we celebrated his birthday with a dress-up Disney party in a group of family and friends from six countries. As a toddler he spent a New Year’s Eve in Paris, carried in our arms to the top of Eiffle Tower and sleeping in his buggy as we were wathcing fireworks over Notre Dame cathedra.
And it wasn’t until now, when he turned 5 that I started to think how much he’s influenced by his multicultural upbringing.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to brag about a kid who knows by heart all the world capitals, spends Saturday afternoons on interactive visits to the museums and prefers exotic restaurants to ice cream. Andrés is a noisy, energetic 5 year old who loves Thomas&Friends, fart jokes and little racing cars. He doesn’t like to sit still and when his classmates work on a “boring’ task, he hides under the table with a few toys. When I showed him BigBen, we was more interested in watching Thomas on my tablet. A child is always first and foremost a child and nobody should question that.
However, multiculturalism has enriched his life in many wonderful ways.
What are the its major benefits for a 5-year-old?
Andrés’s class at a Spanish preschool consisted of children from more than ten different ethnic groups. He was used to be playing with kids that had different colours of skin and spoke to their parents in different languages. Unlike our Spanish neighbours, who used to spend all the summer pool and all the Sundays at exactly the same beach spot, we liked to go to different beaches, playgrounds and parks with friends from preschool, Polish weekend school and sometimes just us and the kids. We liked to try new activities, like workshops for kids, soft play centres and reading together at the library. Both in Spain and in Poland Andrés used to hang out with kids from various backgrounds; kids who lived in small flats and big houses, kids who had four siblings as well as no siblings, etc. While most of his Spanish friends’ mums stayed with kids at home, were wearing flip flops and shorts, he also knew kids whose mums, just like me, were going to work everyday in suits and high heels. All of that made him open-minded and tolerant kid, who never criticizes people who are different than him.
When we visited Hyde Park in London, a young Indonesian girl came up to us and asked to take a picture with that “cute boy”. Andrés agreed immediately and gave her a big hug.
The girl spoke with him in simple English for a while and then asked me there are many Muslim women with veils in Poland and if he likes it as he was totally at ease with her.
I translated her question to Andrés who said “No, but I like your veil. I …just like everybody”.
Sigh. Wouldn’t the world be a nice place if all the people “just liked everybody””?
As a toddler my son was shy and insecure. Aged 3, he would spend the first hour of every birthday party in my armd and he refused to play even with kids he knew very well from the neighbourhood or the nursery.
Exposure to varied groups of kids, frequent conversations about the value of his multicultural heritage and lots of love he gets from family and friends in many countries made him a confident, self-aware and happy boy. He knows that his grandma from Venezuela saves money all the year and takes a flight of over 8 hours to see him in the summer (he’s always impressed to see the flight route on the map ;). I often talk with him about advantages of speaking Polish, Spanish and English and praise him for his efforts to join all family language-related activities. He’s proud to be able to translate for his Dad and my family or Polish-speaking friends and he likes to tell his friends and preschool teachers about his life in Spain and immersion trip to UK. Even my colleagues from university, fellow language teachers, translators and interpreters often tell Andrés that they envy his language skills; is it right for a 5 year old to learn three languages naturally while they had to work so hard for it? 😉
3) Friendliness and sociability
Exposure to different groups of children, travelling and meeting new people turned my little shy boy to a social butterfly, who’s always willing to make new friends. He’s the first one to say hello on the playground and he acts as if he knew his new friends for the whole life; he immediately gives them hugs, tells them about his life and invites them to our house. He isn’t shy with adults, either; my son is famous at preschool for coming up to his friends’ parents and asking them to arrange play dates.
His other skill is introducing kids who don’t know each other and making sure nobody feels isolated. “Dagmara, this is Julia, her mum is a friend of my mum. She likes princesses, so maybe you two can play together?”Or “Do you have a little brother? I have a little brother, too, his name is Michał. He’s there, in the sandpit. Maybe your brother could play with him? Michał, come here, I got you a friend!”.
However, his teachers are not always that happy about his social skills; when the class has to work on a boring task, my boy is the first one to organize a happy group of deserters under the table 🙂
A 5 year old who has lived in 4 flats all together in 2 countries, who travelled a lot and who is often exposed to new experiences, is not obsessed with routines. Everyone agrees that routine gives a kid the sense of stability; this is why some things in Andres’s life, like bedtime routine or story time have never changed, no matter where we lived and what we were up to.
However, given that since a very young age we talked with him sincerely about changes to his routine and benefits of different experiences, he became a flexible and easy-going kid.
Staying with Grandma because Mummy and Daddy are going out? Cool, grandma loves to read stories and lets him stay up late! Mummy has to do a very long translation and won’t play a board game with the boys as planned? Great, they can watch more TV and do anything they’re up to as long as they are quiet and let mum work.
Unfortunately, he’s not flexible at all when it comes to food. He’s that kind of kid that can have a strawberry jam sandwich for breakfast EVERY SINGLE DAY and will never risk trying new food especially if it includes vegetables. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
My son is definitely not a little Einstein, he gets bored easily with tasks like drawing or handwriting and seems to have “ants in the pants” syndrome as he constantly has to be in motion. However, his multilingual upbringing in Polish, Spanish and English , lots of reading in all the three languages and conversations on a variety of topics contributed to his general knowledge. Andrés has a wide range of vocabulary, he likes to talk and he’s not scared to speak even in front of big groups of people.
Since I talk with my kids sincerely about jobs, money and even crisis in Spain, Andrés often surprises my friends saying things like: “you know, we left Spain because there’s crisis, people don’t have money and can’t buy toys, here my mum and dad have better jobs and can spend more time with us”.
He often talks about his family and friends in different countries, places he has visited and people he has met. He likes to bring books to preschool, ask questions and relate to his own experiences. “Did the three bears (from Goldilocks) have porridge for breakfast? It’s disgusting. People in England sometimes have porridge for breakfast and you know what? They drink tea with milk, I have tried it”.
Languages are definitely a competitive advantage in academic and professional life, but also general knowledge and storytelling skills make my boy a fun and interesting companion. His interest in the world is appreciated by teachers and his stories make everyone laugh. And when I look at my son, I see a happy, confident boy, who loves his parents, little brother and family, who has many friends and knows how to keep friendships. I’m thankful for our multicultural way of life that has enrichened my son in so many ways .
How has multicultural upbringing influence your kids? I’m looking forward to hearing from all the parents of multicultural toddlers, preschoolers, older kids and teenagers. Tell me about your experience!