For many newcomer parents, the primary motivation behind moving to Canada is to ensure greater opportunities and a better life for their children. Children who are born in Canada or raised here from an early age find it easy to embrace Canadian culture and adapt to their new life. However, as parents, it can sometimes be difficult to find a balance between raising your children as Canadians and helping them stay in touch with their cultural roots and values.
Teaching your kids to respect and value their heritage in addition to the culture and customs of Canada can help them develop a strong sense of individuality and belonging. In this article, we share tips from two newcomer parents raising Canadian children in touch with their roots. Diana Contreras, who moved from Mexico with her husband and three kids in 2018, and Paula Perez, who moved from Chile in 2007 and is now raising two children, provide valuable advice on how to keep your kids connected with their culture while simultaneously embracing a new one in Canada.
In this article:
- Helping your kids maintain their native language
- Upholding traditions and customs
- Staying in touch with your ethnic community
- Dealing with kids who may be embarrassed by their foreign roots
As newcomer children adapt to their new life in Canada, it’s possible their fluency in English (or French) will surpass that of their first language. While mastering English or French will help your kids thrive in their new environment, it’s important they also learn and maintain their native language skills. This is especially important if one or both parents are new to the English language and communicate mainly in their native language at home.
By learning the native language, your children can continue to communicate well with family members and friends back home who don’t speak English. In addition, speaking, reading, and writing in their first language enables them to experience the many ways their heritage is expressed, such as through literature, songs, and cultural expressions. In a country as diverse as Canada, bilingualism or multilingualism is always an asset and can also open doors for job opportunities later in life.
Learning the language at home
One of the easiest ways for you to preserve and grow your kids’ first language skills is by speaking it in the home. This can be challenging when kids prefer to respond in English, as is the case with Diana who speaks to her kids in Spanish, but often gets replies in English. “It’s easier for them to answer in English,” says Diana. “They push back a little because they’re tired after being in school all day. But I keep at it because it helps them stay fluent.”
Exposing your kids to books and TV programs in their native language also helps maintain the language connection. In Paula’s household, where Spanish is her kids’ second language (because they were born in Canada), she ensures they watch TV shows in Spanish whenever possible, thanks to streaming platforms that have the option to dub shows in different languages.
Your local public library is also a great resource for international movies, CDs, and books in multiple languages––all free to borrow with a library membership. Diana and Paula both insist they don’t want their kids to reach adulthood regretting the loss of their Spanish language. Paula explains, “I don’t want my kids to grow up and say ‘I wish you’d forced me to learn Spanish’ as many people here have said to me as adults.”
Formal language lessons
As parents, taking on all the responsibility for maintaining your kids’ first language can be a lot of work. Sometimes, kids are more willing to learn from a teacher, rather than from mom or dad. You can supplement your efforts at home with formal language classes. Most school boards across Canada offer international language classes, free of charge, for elementary school students on evenings and Saturdays. Check your local school board to discover your options. For example, the Toronto School Board offers language classes for students during school hours.
You can also explore creative ways to make language practice interesting for your kids, such as through summer camps, clubs, places of worship, or lessons offered in your first language. Paula’s daughters attended Spanish summer camp last year, and Diana’s son takes online drum lessons in Spanish, led by an instructor who lives in Mexico.
Honouring the traditions you grew up with will help your kids understand and appreciate your cultural values and find ways to absorb them into their Canadian way of life. Here are some ideas to consider:
Celebrating Canadian and ethnic holidays
In Canada, there are several national and provincial holidays you may choose to celebrate, such as Family Day, while there may be others you are unfamiliar with. Chances are your children will be curious about all Canadian holiday traditions as they become exposed to them through their friends and school.
All cultural celebrations are respected in Canada and newcomer families are encouraged to honour their holidays. Celebrating your traditional holidays is a great way to spark your children’s interest in their culture and keep traditions alive. You may find it easier to expose your kids to annual celebrations by getting involved with your region’s ethnic community where you can be among other families with a similar background. Paula celebrates Chile’s holidays, such as Independence Day, as well as Canadian holidays which she customizes to her culture. “We celebrate Christmas a little differently than most Canadians by following our tradition of opening gifts at midnight on Christmas eve, not the morning,” she says.
Bonding over traditional cuisine
Cooking traditional recipes is an easy and fun way for kids to discover more about their culture. Stories about family dishes and recipes, especially how you ate meals growing up or local ingredients used, can shed light on your upbringing and heritage and help your kids to respect and honour their roots. Cultural dishes also offer an interesting contrast to Canadian-style dishes your kids have grown accustomed to.
Learning about culture through music
Music is a powerful expression of a culture. Singing traditional songs to your children and playing music that you grew up listening to are wonderful ways to share your culture with them. Music has been an important tool in Diana’s family. “My husband plays guitar and we sing Mexican songs and lullabies at bedtime which all our kids like,” she says. You may also discover local cultural concerts to attend with your kids through your ethnic community, as well as organizations that teach kids cultural music and dance.
Building a cultural network will help your kids grow increasingly familiar with their roots. The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” holds true and, even when your children aren’t actively learning, they can pick up values and behaviours from people they interact with regularly. Engaging with people who share your culture can make it easier for your kids to learn about their roots. Stay connected with extended family and friends back home and look for ethnic community groups in your region to expand your kids’ exposure to their native culture.
Today’s technology makes it easier than ever for your children to build strong bonds with family back home, regardless of geographical distance. When in-person visiting is infrequent or impossible, your kids can still connect regularly with family members through phone calls, video calls, and messaging. Diana’s kids use a kid-safe messaging app to chat and share photos with family in Mexico whenever they want. “We also have a family group chat so everyone can share what’s happening in their lives,” she says.
Both Paula and Diana say visiting their birth country for long periods of time is key to helping their children build strong relationships with family and exposing them to traditional customs. Paula visits Chile about every two years with the kids: “I want them to be comfortable with my relatives and my friends’ kids.” Her children enjoy the trips so much, they ask when they can return. Her daughters also rely on their grandmother to help them stay fluent in Spanish. “My mother comes from Chile and stays with us for six months,” says Paula. “She doesn’t speak English, so the kids’ Spanish improves when she is here.”
Finding your local ethnic community
Connecting with other families who share your ethnic background can help your children improve their language skills as well as provide opportunities to participate in traditional customs and celebrations. Children learn from their friends and pick up language skills in the playground from an early age, so make sure their friend circle includes some kids who speak your language. There are several ways to build your social network in Canada, including:
- Seeking out ethnic community groups in your local area.
- Through settlement agencies to direct you to organizations related to your culture.
- Visiting parks in your neighbourhood.
- Attending places of worship.
- Attending or volunteering at cultural events, festivals and celebrations.
Diana has developed strong ties in the community of Spanish speakers in Toronto. “We share the same idea that we want our kids to connect to their culture and language,” she says. In the summer, Diana and her kids meet other Latin American families at the local park and even organize camping trips together. Through a group chat app, the parents trade Spanish resources, such as kids’ books and language programs.
|Tip: Our Taste of Home article series provides tips on finding cultural cuisine, ethnic communities and events, places of worship, and settlement support in various Canadian cities:
Cultural duality can be challenging for kids who value their cultural roots, but also want to belong in their new school environment. As a parent, you want to see your children adjust to life in Canada, but what happens if they are embarrassed by their foreign background? While this can be distressing, understanding the reasons behind the behaviour can help address it.
Your child may struggle to fit in because of language barriers, unfamiliarity with social norms, or other kids’ intolerance. As a parent, knowing the source of their embarrassment can help you come up with solutions to address the situation. Encourage open communication at home and, instead of forcing your children to adhere to your traditions and culture blindly, try sharing your own experience with your heritage, including why you practice and cherish your beliefs.
On the other hand, you may notice your child adapting more easily into Canadian culture than you. It may be tempting to counteract that, or in some cases, become reliant on them to act as interpreters or cultural liaisons. This can disrupt normal parent-child dynamics and prevent your kids from adjusting to life outside the home.
A better approach is to meet them halfway and do more to educate yourself about Canadian culture and learn the language on your own, while taking a genuine interest in your kids’ experiences. A supportive home that practices traditional customs and welcomes Canadian values will help your kids develop resilience and nurture a healthy sense of individuality that bridges both their cultures.
One of the biggest challenges faced by newcomer parents raising children in a new country is helping them adapt to Canadian culture while staying in touch with their own. Many newcomer children struggle to embrace both cultures, but by encouraging open communication, maintaining the bond with family back home, and following some of the tips shared by other newcomer parents, you can help your children find and cherish their individuality.