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Cultural and Spiritual Nurturing in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Children are more likely to become adults who identify with their cultural and spiritual heritage if they grow up feeling included in cultural and spiritual communities. Parents can take an active role in shaping children's cultural and spiritual life by providing them with frequent opportunities to interact with peers and adults of all ages (e.g., extended family members, friends, neighbors, school staff) who share children's heritage or belief system, or who can otherwise function as cultural role models. Young children who see others practicing the same customs and rituals as they do themselves will feel a sense of belonging and pride.

Young children are very concrete. They learn through their direct experience and through observation of other's behavior, and not by way of abstract discussion. It is of little use to explain the philosophical, historical or religious basis for a given cultural or spiritual practice to young children. Instead, children will best learn particular practices by participating in them. Religious or traditional cultural festivals, holidays, and rituals are perfect teaching opportunities, as are opportunities to teach children about traditional foods and dress. Children's participation in holidays and rituals and cultural activities teaches them that they are valued members of a particular community. Such memories form the ongoing basis of children's cultural and religious identity, and become the building blocks of tradition.

Besides immersing children in the ongoing practice of cultural and religious traditions, parents can also foster children's appreciation of their heritage through celebratory games and crafts. For instance, children may enjoy making books about historical family members or filling out a family tree so as to learn about grandma's mother and father. Children can also be encouraged to make scrapbooks documenting their participation in family occasions, and special cultural or religious celebrations. Filling the pages of homemade books with special photographs, drawings, labels, and short stories will help children create cherished keepsakes that reinforce their familial, cultural and religious identity. Making family movies or videos can achieve a similar effect.

Though learning about one's own culture is paramount, it is also important to teach children about other people's cultures. Neighbors, family friends, and school peers can be recruited to help teach small children about other cultural practices including music, language, food and dress (if applicable). Exposing children to other cultures at an early age helps develop their tolerance and appreciation of cultural differences and diversity; skills they will need to navigate the complex and culturally interdependent modern world.

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