Today I want to tell you about a positive story I really care to share. As parents in multicultural families, we sort of expect that our children will be marked as “different”, teased, and possibly bullied. Personally, I dread that moment, but I find it likely to come.
I’ve been talking to Anna, an Italian mother who moved to Finland over a decade ago and now lives in a small town about few hundreds of kilometers North of Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Her husband is Finnish and their seven year old son Marco speaks fluently Italian and Finnish. Anna can speak Finnish, but talks in English with her husband. The community surrounding them is far from international. There are about three other multicultural families in the same 6000 people town and only one other child with foreign nationality in her son’s class. Being bilingual is definitely not the norm in the area.
One morning, Marco didn’t want to dress for school. Anna was surprised, he usually was happy to go. He would complain that no sweater was fitting and when his mother recommended one with the Italian flag, he firmly refused saying other kids would tease him and beat him up. Following that, he bursted into tears and ran to his room. While Anna was trying to understand more and comfort him, he would cry that he was ashamed and disgusted to be Italian, and just wanted to be like everyone else. While Anna was describing the scene on the phone, I felt tears forming in my eyes. For a child to refuse their parent’s cultural heritage, is every expat parent’s nightmare. I’m sure this sounds familiar to many other parents, especially to those who are raising a child with some kind of diversity (allow me the awful term, everyone is different). Marco explained to Anna what had happened: a classmate had teased him because he was Italian. He had asked Marco to say something in Italian and when the latter had refused, he’d hit him in response.
Despite the emotional shock, Anna reacted in the best possible way. She comforted her son, to the point where he would accept to go to school. There, she spoke with his teacher, who was prompt to respond and willing to help and support. She promised to talk to both children and follow up on the matter. When Anna went to pick up Marco that day, the teacher reported that the boys had made peace and shook hands. The other kid provocatively said something in Finnish to Anna and she simply replied: “If you want to hear Italian language, we’ll be happy to have you one afternoon after school and I can talk some Italian to you”. The kid, tempted by the chance to play with new toys, accepted and few days after he visited Anna’s house.
She had prepared an Italian-themed snack (chocolate tiramisu) and made sure to talk Italian to her son in front of the boy. They made a puzzle with the Italian map all together and Anna pointed out the town she was born in, and explained to the boy you need to travel by plane to get there. Her Finnish husband actively provided support by talking in Finnish to their son and to the boy, showing a real example of how cultures can perfectly mix together. At first, the boy was embarrassed and reacted teasing Anna, her not so perfect Finnish language skills and her Italian. However, that feeling seemed to grow out of him and I’m sure he left the house with much more than when he entered it.
Anna told me that after that afternoon together, not only the boy stopped teasing her son, but has been asking repeatedly to visit again. Marco has not forgiven him yet, but he’s been able to move on and his interest in the Italian culture and language has increased. He’s now more engaged and active in the afternoon homework in Italian he completes with his mother’s help.
I think Anna got everything right. She could contain her own pain and escalated the situation to the right people (the teacher), given the seriousness of the episode. She faced the boy with grace and taught both him and her son an important lesson on diversity, other cultures, and dealing with conflict. The fact that Marco could happily move on right after the incident is the proof, and the best reward for her. I wanted to share this story as inspiration for all of us and in the hope of supporting parents who will face similar situations. Diversity can scare some of the people our children will meet and we as parents have a great opportunity to help everyone navigate fear and conflict.
Big thanks to Anna for taking the time for sharing her story and to all of you for reading. Take care, until next time.
Disclaimer: names have been changed for privacy, as requested by the interviewee.