Lauren Wells, CultureBound’s, Children and Teen Program Director

Children are the world’s best copycats. They constantly watch their parents to learn how to act, what to say, and even what attitude to have. This is particularly true when wading through the uncharted waters of moving into a new culture. In these situations, children look first to their parents to figure out what they are supposed to do.

In one’s home culture, it is easy for parents to teach children about social norms, rules, customs, and values—and parents often don’t even realize that they are doing so. However, when they enter into a new culture, that set of rules changes and leaves both the children and parents unsure of how to move forward.

In a TED Talk, author Julien Bourrelle lists three ways individuals can react when they move into a new culture: confront, complain, or conform. When parents make one of these choices, intentionally or subconsciously, they are also subtly teaching their children how they, too, should navigate this new place and culture.

So, which culture-learning attitude are your children learning from you?

Cultural Learning Response #1: Confront

As Bourrelle explains, this is an attitude of fighting for things to be done “the right way,”—your way. This attitude might come through in subtle ways such as mumbling, “If they would just do it this way, it would go so much faster!” or in deciding that your family will remain American (or whatever your passport nationality is) in every way possible while living in the different culture.

This attitude can either be blatantly opposed to cultural integration, or just subtly unwilling to adapt. Either mindset inherently teaches your children that the passport country’s way is the best way, and thus causes them to also be fighters of, instead of learners of, the new culture. It fosters a prideful attitude that says there is only “one right way to do things” and that the people in the new culture clearly have it wrong.

Cultural Learning Response #2: Complain

It drives us crazy when our children whine and complain, yet sometimes we subconsciously teach them that this is an appropriate attitude toward an unfavorable situation. Living in a new culture can bring out annoyances and push your buttons on a daily basis. Your children are looking to you to learn the acceptable way of responding in those situations.

Unfortunately, in my years in East Africa, I heard many parents complain to their children about the local people and customs. Often, these complaints came in the form of nonchalant or joking comments. This behavior does not foster an attitude of acceptance, humility, and respect, but instead reinforces a “better than” mentality.

Cultural Learning Response #3: Conform

Or, adapt. This does not necessarily mean that you need to change everything from your clothing to what your family values are, but Bourrelle says it does mean learning to live like the people in the new culture do, in some ways.

Adapting teaches your children that there is more than one right way to do things. Willingness to change encourages a love for diversity, a respect for all people, and a positive attitude in the midst of potentially frustrating and uncomfortable situations. As they see you working to adapt, accept, and learn the way that things are done in the new place, they too will feel the freedom to integrate into the new culture.

By living in a different culture, your children have the opportunity to truly become lovers of the world – global citizens – in an intimate, life-altering way that might not be possible if they lived only in their passport country. Be careful to not squelch this opportunity by teaching them to confront or complain. Be vigilant about displaying an attitude that encourages conformity and a positive, benefit-of-the-doubt, response when something looks different than what you, or they, are used to.