A new school year has begun and with that greater opportunity to connect with our immigrant neighbors, new Americans. I am reminded of a book I read with my daughter over the summer, The Hundred Dresses by Elenor Estes. Although this book was published several years ago, in 1944 to be exact, the story is timeless and surely appropriate today.
“At the heart of the story is Wanda Petronski, a Polish girl in a Connecticut school who is ridiculed by her classmates for wearing the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda claims she has one hundred dresses at home, but everyone knows she doesn’t and bullies her mercilessly. The class feels terrible when Wanda is pulled out of the school, but by that time it’s too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda’s classmates, ultimately decides that she is "never going to stand by and say nothing again."” (GoodReads.com)
While it is good that Wanda’s classmate Maddie resolved after-the-fact to welcome new Americans, I want to know, how can I help my kids be on the front-end of welcoming? How can I raise a welcomer?
I offer these four suggestions -
First remember that your children hear you, see you, and know you. Your attitude and language (including body language) is all up for grabs. How do you talk about new Americans? What sort of messaging about new Americans is being aired in your home? Have you ever introduced your child to a new American?
If you want your child to be a welcomer, it starts with you – however encourage your child taking the lead too. When my daughter started PreK, I made it a point to follow-up on play dates that she requested. Sometimes we would plan dinners and ask her, who do you want to invite over? By allowing her to take the lead she caught the hospitality bug yet more importantly the welcomer heart because we validated her choices and attempts to welcome her classmates.
Second, be learner and a listener. New Americans, especially children, are straddling a life lost (one left behind in their home country) and a new life (one that may at present feel awkward). More than ever they need a peer (a classmate) to validate their presence at school. Your child may not recognize this need; help your children to understand this need – talk to your children about friendship, loneliness, and welcoming. Also, you can encourage your child to be a listener and learner by listening to you child with patience and learning from your child with eagerness.
Third, be a student of diversity…with your child. At school your child will encounter things (sights, smells, traditions, etc) that they have never experienced before. Sometimes children are mean to new Americans because they do not know how to respond to their differences. Take your child to cultural festivals, restaurants serving unfamiliar food, and watch foreign films with subtitles or watch films starring actors/actresses who do not look like your children. By exploring different people groups with you children, you supply a comfortable space for them to process and respond to differences.
Side note: It is one thing to teach our kids biblical truths about false gods and yet another thing for children to be taught that someone who eats food that looks or smells differently, dresses differently, or celebrates holidays differently are not worthy of a friendly welcome.
Fourth, talk to your kids about what the Bible says about new Americans (immigrants). As much as it is important for kids to learn about the great Bible heroes like Jesus, David, and Peter the Bible has other important teachings to offer including a sweeping love letter for displaced, vulnerable people (i.e. new Americans). Just as we must read the Bible in whole, we must teach the Bible in whole to our children. Parents, as with other important issues, you should be the source of influence in your child’s life rather then their peers as it relates to being a welcomer. For some this opportunity may reside in a school building while for others it’s a park, library, or community center. I am just glad that we all have the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom – here in America– by welcoming new Americans.