“We’re having chicken curry with rice for lunch, and you can eat with your hands,” I announced to the kids. They obliged, using their fingers to navigate the rice and get bits of chicken off the bone, and their fingertips to lift the food into their mouths.
You see, this is part of our Indian culture – and it was important for my kids to embrace it. Whether practiced in our daily lives or not, our culture is made up of traditions and beliefs practiced for generations, shaping our experiences and influencing our development into adulthood.
Here’s how you can inject some fun ways to talk to your kids about your culture and heritage, and get them to partake in important traditions from a young age:
1. Share your experiences
Talk to your kids and show them photos about your upbringing, alongside fond stories and memories. Encouraging your young ones to talk to their grandparents (or other relatives) who can give them first-hand accounts about the traditions and beliefs they grew up with brings their culture to life in a meaningful way.
Places of worship and customary festivals are also opportunities for certain traditions to be shared and taught. For example, I recently shared with my daughter that every year during Christmas, when I was growing up, my late mum used to bake a fruitcake for us to share on Christmas Day (a tradition passed down to her from her mum!). Today, I carry on the tradition by ensuring I have a fruitcake ready for Christmas for my family to enjoy as well.
2. Make a family tree
Making a family tree using free online resources, such as a family tree app or Canva (a free-design tool) can be highly beneficial for young ones to get in touch with their roots. This fun project can be a great conversation starter with your kids about certain family members; for example, about where they came from, who they were, and the trials they overcame.
3. Dress in traditional clothes
Traditional outfits or attire are a great way to talk to kids about their culture and heritage. Here in Malaysia, we are blessed to see kids donning the Baju Melayu, Cheongsam and Lehenga, among others, to celebrate festive occasions. For young kids, this can be dismissed as playing ‘dress up’ – but did you know that ‘dress up’ can engage a child’s brain and memory power, and even assist in their emotional development? Talk to them about how what they are wearing is indicative of their national, cultural or religious identity.
4. Explore your culture’s food and recipes
The food we eat has so much of our heritage intertwined with each morsel. The first time I made thosai, my daughter watched me and absolutely loved the end result, which prompted me to make more dishes I grew up with, to showcase my Indian culture. Getting the kids involved, while cooking and talking to them about the ingredients used, can be a great way to enlighten them about the cultural aspect of what you’re making.
5. Learn through travel
Sometime in 2003, I travelled to Chennai, India, to the village my maternal grandfather had grown up in. The trip opened up my eyes to many facets of my own Indian heritage, and helped me better appreciate my family roots. Here in Malaysia, we have an abundance of museums, heritage attractions and cultural sites to visit, which allow our children to not only explore their own cultural backgrounds better, but to understand the heritage and history of other communities as well.
6. Read books or watch movies that celebrate your heritage
Reading books steeped in a culture similar to your own can have great benefits for your kids. Most of the time (in my house, at least), our books come from a Western background. In trying to diversify this, I read this special book to my kids entitled ‘Where Three Oceans Meet’. It’s a simple tale of an Indian grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter, who travel to the southernmost tip of India, and discover new sights and sounds along the way.
Similarly, look out for books and movies that celebrate your culture or heritage, to share with your kids. This can be a great way for them to embrace their roots. You might find some good ideas here.
In all that we teach our children about their culture and heritage, we must mainly teach them to be proud of it – whether it’s by embracing their ethnic name (including empowering them to correct those who mispronounce, or misspell their names), or encouraging them to proudly share learned traditions with their friends.
Most of all, like all things with kids, be prepared for questions, and understand that they may not want to embrace every facet of their culture. Nevertheless, continue to teach, affirm and reinforce these principles, and trust that your children will come to naturally appreciate these as they grow older.
By Hemala Devaraj