This is an answer to a question that we feel would apply to all parents in similar situations.
Question: Our family isn't Christian, and we want to help our two children, ages 4 and 7, feel secure in their identity during the Christmas season. Can you help us?
Answer: Indeed, your children face challenges, as do other children who might be Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or any faith or sect that isn't Christian or doesn't celebrate Christmas. Their challenge is to grow to feel secure and proud about who they are when they are regularly reminded that a broader culture in this country predominantly promulgates a faith orientation different than their own.
Individual identity is the sense of "who we are" that shapes our decisions and values. Much of children's judgment about who they are is based upon recognition of their interests, desires and feedback from parents and other important adults. There are also subtle influences based on broader cultural factors. We absorb our culture's values, which is the reason members of any culture have some shared perspectives, to greater or lesser degrees.
Growing up outside the dominant culture
Most Americans identify — and have always identified — themselves as Christian, and our country has accordingly evolved as a culture in which features of Christianity are part of the basic societal structure. Christmas is the obvious illustration. Streets and shops transform through red and green prisms, television shows are suffused with Christmas themes, Christmas music is ubiquitous, Santa Claus is everywhere, and sacred as well as secularized aspects of
Christianity are present throughout many communities.
Your two children face different challenges because they are dealing with different developmental issues.
It isn't just that your 4-year-old wants the toys Santa brings (which she likely does). She also probably "knows" Santa is a wonderful, magical person who visits deserving children. Isn't she good enough for him to visit her, too?
A 7-year-old recognizes that an hour in class dedicated to sharing Muslim traditions during Ramadan, for example, is probably seen as studying something "foreign" to most Christian schoolchildren. It's very different than the celebratory Christmas party, which is an organic part of a whole set of experiences at school. An hour of multiculturalism may heighten this child's sense of difference rather than provide a bridge, which is likely what his teacher intended.
Parents from non-dominant cultures may find their preschool children are uncomfortable or afraid when visiting a pediatrician's office that is decked out with Christmas decorations. These same children will usually feel comfortable going to their doctor. Feeling emotionally safe is closely linked to being in a familiar environment that represents who you are.
What can you do?
Do all you can to create your own supportive micro-culture at your place of worship and through home traditions and relationships with other families of the same faith. Also focus on your children's school, because your children will be most affected by the culture with which they are most connected. You and other like-minded parents can help teachers and administrators understand how to create a multicultural environment that is emotionally safe for all children.
Teachers could consider:
- Foregoing Christmas parties and classroom decorations based on specific religious holidays.
- Describing breaks as winter or spring break.
- Not assigning homework, beginning new topics, or having tests on days that minority children will need to be otherwise occupied, such as High Holy days for Jewish children.
- Eliminating holiday-themed concerts even if there is a small inclusion of music from other traditions.
We recognize the complexity of the issues involved. There are many opinions about how best to balance majority and minority rights, as well as how to balance the rights of individuals to express themselves — by wearing religious symbols, for example — and the impact of this expression on others. We are not presenting a roadmap about how to resolve these conflicting rights in any particular instance, but we are pointing out the impact of these issues on children from non-dominant cultures.
Finally, there are many symbols that are part of the larger culture, on television and in shops. We recommend that you point these out to your children and maintain a continued discussion about them. Help your children know what to say when someone wishes them Merry Christmas and dignify their feeling that it is not appropriate for someone to make an assumption, however well-intentioned.
A dominant culture has blind spots about the experiences of minorities, whether based on religion, race or otherwise. Be your children's advocate and support their reality that they may not always feel acknowledged. Your children will solidify their own identity, and when they do, they will be comfortable living in a larger and, in some ways, different culture.
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