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Faith column: Author gives parents tools on teaching kids about world

March 20, 2010

Faith column on an author whose book gives parents great ideas to make their kids more culturally and religious literate.

Author suggests ways to help kids learn about world cultures, religions

To hear Homa Sabet Tavangar, a petite woman with curly black hair and a contagious smile, talk about teaching children to embrace the world’s diversity, you can’t help but feel inspired. The world “out there” is increasingly the world “right here” as our communities become more diverse culturally and religiously. If you want your kids to learn about Buddhism or Islam or sample Mediterranean food or explore West African dance, you can do it in Austin.

So it’s not surprising that Tavangar’s book “Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be at Home in the World” is resonating with Central Texas parents. A woman waiting for a South by Southwest shuttle spotted Tavangar holding a copy of her book and insisted on buying it from her on the spot.

The book provides ideas and resources for parents who want their kids to be culturally and religiously literate and to see people of other backgrounds not as “the other,” but as members of the same human family.

Tavangar was in Austin last week to discuss her book at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference and also spoke at the Austin Baha’i Center where the suburban Philadelphia mother shared her own global experiences.

The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Tavangar grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., has lived in countries around the world and worked as a corporate consultant, helping companies “go global.” In 2007, Tavangar and her three daughters — at the time ages 13, 11 and 3 — embraced that concept while living in the Gambia, a predominantly Muslim country in West Africa.

The mantra she shares with international CEOs is the same she recommends parents teach their kids at home: Be a friend to the whole human race.

“Growing Up Global” outlines a variety of ways parents can help their children appreciate the world’s diversity — from learning greetings in different languages to listening to ethnic music to eating with chopsticks.

The book also touches on the subject that most interests me and no doubt poses the biggest challenge for parents: religion.

First, a disclaimer: Tavangar is a Baha’i. For her, making global connections, especially on the religious front, flows directly from her faith. The Baha’i faith promotes world unity and the notion that the major religions have been progressive revelations from God. The quote she likes to share with kids and adults — “Be a friend to the whole human race.” — comes from Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the Baha’i prophet Bahá’u’lláh.

“I explain in the book that I grew up thinking this way,” she said. “This was my mind-set.”

She knows that many parents won’t be as comfortable taking on the religious component. We’re told not to discuss religion in polite company. Some of us worry that exposing our kids to another belief system will confuse them. Others might feel ill-equipped. So many of us just don’t know anything about faiths other than our own.

In the chapter “What Do They Believe?” Tavangar suggests taking baby steps. People don’t have to visit a mosque or a Baha’i center to introduce children to other religions, she said, though ultimately face-to-face interaction is ideal. But parents can talk about common religious values, such as each tradition’s version of The Golden Rule. They can read Bible stories or look at Islamic art. They can use metaphors to describe the world’s faiths. An example: Lamp shades come in a variety of colors and styles but all rely on a lightbulb to illuminate them.

The chapter provides Web sites and books parents can use to grasp the basics of different religions.

Listening to Tavangar made me realize how fortunate I am to be plugged into Austin’s diverse religious community and to be able to share that with my child. During the past year, I’ve taken my 13-month-old daughter to a rabbinic ordination ceremony, an Emergent church service, a Buddhist baby blessing and a Burmese monastery. She’s not old enough to understand or remember these visits, but we’re building a foundation. Eventually, she will ask questions about religion, and I’ll be able to show her what Zen meditation looks like, what incense at a church smells like, what a call to prayer sounds like.

Tavangar is right. Religion can certainly be one of the most intimidating topics to approach with children, but it’s a key part of helping them understand the world and their place in it.

“You can be whatever your faith and heritage is, but to adopt this world-embracing vision … it’s such a gift for yourself and your kids,” she said. “I’ve lived that and now I see my own daughters … they’re excited about the world.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2010 9:14 am

    Fabulous! What a wonderful blog you have here, and this post in particular I find very interesting and like-minded to my own thinking. Keep up this important work! We at Tree of Life Interfaith Seminary also work hard so that everyone sees the world’s residents as equal brother and sisters – not segregated into different sects and levels.

    Love, love, love your blog!


    • eeflynn permalink*
      March 23, 2010 9:45 am

      Thank you! What an encouraging comment.
      I have to admit, I wasn’t familiar with Tree of Life Interfaith Seminary, but I just checked out your site. How cool! Glad to learn about the important work you’re doing.

      Take care,

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