The Essential Skill You've Never Heard of By Samantha C. Sweeney


I know what you’re thinking. Seriously? Another thing that I need to consider for my kids?     


I get it. Keeping them alive is a big enough job, but this really is a skill you need to consider. And just like reading and getting along with siblings it’s best to start early.   

The skill that I’m talking about? Cultural Competence 

We live in an increasingly diverse world. It’s easier than ever to communicate with people from all over the world and travel halfway across it. It’s becoming more and more probable that your child will have to work with people from other countries when they enter the workforce, no matter the industry they choose.

Diversity is growing closer to home as well. People don’t always stay in the same town forever. People of different races, socioeconomic statuses, and religions are living together, going to school together, and interacting like never before. Gone are the days where everyone you grow up with looks like you, eats the same food as you, worships with you. Differences are everywhere and our lives are much richer as a result. 

So what is cultural competence? Here’s my definition, adapted from the National Education Association and a 1989 article by Cross, Bazron, Dennis & Isaacs:

Cultural competence is having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of others. It is the ability to understand the within-group differences that make each person unique, while celebrating the between-group variations within the country & around the world. This knowledge & awareness coalesces into a set of congruent behaviors & attitudes, that enable a person to work, play, & interact effectively in cross-cultural situations.

Ok, now you know the definition. Great. But how do you do this? How can you build your child’s cultural competence? I believe in a technique I call infusion. Do what you always do, just include diversity awareness in it. Here are a few suggestions for how to do that:

Music: Does your child love music (who doesn’t!)? Introduce new kinds of music to your child. You can find children’s music in all genres and from all over the world. A personal favorite of ours is the Putumayo World Playground CD. YouTube and Pandora are also great for this kind of thing. Throw on some new and different tunes and have a family dance party!

Art: A good art project is always fun. Try this one that infuses diversity: On a large sheet of paper, draw or trace your child’s body. Have them fill it in with words and pictures that represent who they are – their own personal culture. Have other friends and family members do the same and compare and contrast responses. This helps a child start to understand that no matter what people look like they all have similarities – and differences.

Books: Even though the percentage of books with diverse characters is astoundingly low, there are so many great ones out there. Not sure where to start? Check out Culturally Competent Kids for a starter booklist for all kids – from babies to young adults.

I hope that this gets you started. Yes, this is important. No, it doesn’t have to be a drag. Enjoy having a fun with your kids and learning about diversity too!

Dr. Samantha Sweeney is a family psychologist and cultural competence expert. A native New Yorker, she now calls Washington, DC home where she lives with her husband and two young children. Her favorite things do with her family are read books, have impromptu dance parties, and root for the Washington Nationals. (Go Nats!) For more about Dr. Sweeney visit her website here.