Embracing and exploring cultural heritage

When my son Sebastian attended his first meeting of an after-school Scandinavian club a couple of years ago, and students took turns explaining their cultural backgrounds, he proudly announced that he was…Irish.

He told me this when I picked him up, and I had to laugh. “Um, Sebastian, you are Irish, but that’s not considered Scandinavian. You probably should have emphasized that you’re also part Swedish and part Norwegian.”

I could understand his confusion; we’re one of those families with roots in more than half a dozen countries, if you go back several generations. My husband and I have tried to incorporate some of that heritage into our family celebrations and traditions as we raised our three children.

According to Ingrid Nyholm-Lange, that’s not uncommon. As the American Swedish Institute’s youth and family programs coordinator, she often meets parents who have become more interested in their Swedish heritage because they want to pass on the traditions to their children.

Located in Minneapolis, the institute offers language and culture programs for kids from preschool-age through high school. A popular weekly program for tweens that runs during the school year is Svenska Skola (Swedish school); the institute also offers a summer culture camp during the first two weeks in August.

Nyholm-Lange says the programs and camps explore that there are similarities and differences between modern Swedish culture and the Swedish-American traditions that have been handed down through generations. Students also learn that just as people in the United States celebrate the Fourth of July in different ways, people in Sweden don’t all celebrate an event like Midsommar in exactly the same way.

“By giving our kids these broader experiences, they get a deeper sense of understanding of who they are, and it’s exposing them not only to who they are, but they begin to question and be curious about other cultures,” she says. “It brings a broader understanding that not everyone is the same, and you can still be proud of who you are.”

Developing identities

Norah Rendell, the executive director of The Center for Irish Music in St. Paul, agrees that learning about cultural heritage encourages young people to learn about other cultures, while also helping them develop their identities and better understand their own families.

“With Irish music in particular, children learn a skill that helps them to relate on a musical level to others. For example, we have quite a few students who have traveled back to Ireland with their families and have made friends through the Irish music scene,” she says.

Rendell says about 60 to 70 percent of the students who take voice and instrumental classes at the center have some Irish or Scottish heritage. Others do not have that background, but they are drawn to that style of music, and they become part of the cultural community.

“That’s always really exciting to see—it’s a very inclusive community,” she says.

The center offers classes for children, teens, and adults; it also offers summer camps, which Rendell says provide a great introduction to Irish music and culture.

Tips for parents

Parents who want to teach their children about cultural heritage can start by identifying holidays they want to celebrate, says Nyholm-Lange. Think about the food, music and decorations that are special to that holiday, decide how to incorporate them into a celebration, and invite friends and extended family members to the event.

Another way to learn more about a culture is through technology. Nyholm-Lange says the Swedish TV website svt.se is a great way for kids to hear the language, watch some Swedish cartoons, and gain insight about life in Sweden. Also helpful is the Swedish government’s site, sweden.se, which has answers to basic questions and includes videos and photos.

“I always remind our parents that you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s great to say, ‘I don’t know, but let’s go look it up,’” Nyholm-Lange says.

Rendell says parents should consider taking their children to a variety of cultural events, even if they feel new or foreign to the parent.

“Don’t be afraid to try something new, and encourage your children to be brave and open-minded,” she says. “With the technologies of the modern world, people are yearning for communities based around real face-to-face interactions. Cultural communities based on traditional activities like music, dance, art, and language are often a good place to find these kinds of events.”