David J. Smith, Author (This Child, Every Child, If the World Were a Village, If America Were a Village)
One spring, when I was just a boy of about 7 or 8, my family took a road trip. We lived in the Boston area at the time, but my parents decided we would visit Cincinnati — where my mother had been born and raised. It would be a two-day drive. I’ll never forget loading the car, climbing in and then feeling excitement — and trepidation — when my dad handed me a map and said, “OK. You can tell us how to get there.”
To my father’s great credit, he followed my instructions. Of course, I didn’t navigate perfectly. The trip likely took longer than it would have had my dad been determining our route. But my parents’ encouragement, patience and lively sense of adventure allowed me to take risks without fear of failure or reprimand.
I’ve often reflected on the importance of that road trip in my life. I believe it taught me so much — not only about the importance of maps in our lives, but also about the reality that I was living in the context of a much wider world.
My dad didn’t throw me into the proverbial deep end that day. He and my mother had been preparing me for that experience for years. There were always maps on the wall and plenty of books in our home. When I would ask a question, my parents were wise enough to not just give me an easy answer, but to say, “Let’s see if we can find out together.” Learning was encouraged. Passion for learning, exploration and discovery of the broader world were modeled.
Today, I like to describe such passion as having a sense of “world-mindedness,” and I believe that teaching children to be world-minded has never been more important.
We inhabit a common planet with 7 billion other human beings. They all lead their own lives, speak different languages, eat different foods, practice different religions, experience different cultures. But we’re all human, and, as I like to say, “we all sit down together at the same table.”
Just as it’s easiest to start young when teaching children a language, it’s best to begin fostering world-mindedness now — right where you are. Encourage the youngsters in your life to ask questions. Join them in finding the answers. Model the behavior you’d like to see. Make connections with people from other cultures and backgrounds in your community; don’t just say, “They’re not like us.”
Understanding is one of the greatest tools for developing empathy. And empathy is the foundation of learning to care for one another and for this beautiful world that is our common home.