Wisdom From My 4-Year Old: "Everyone's Different From Everyone Else."

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My 4-year old daughter came home from preschool last Friday and told me she wanted to go to Australia.

“Why?” I asked her, only half paying attention as I stirred pasta noodles into the soup I was cooking. I expected a typical kid answer like, because I want to see kangaroos, or because someone in my class went there.

Instead, she surprised me — as she usually does. “Because I want to know what the people there are like.”

I stopped stirring. “The people?” I said, not quite certain I’d heard her right. “They’re like you and me. Like the people here.”

She shook her head. “No, Mama. Everyone’s different from everyone else. You’re different than me. I’m different than Daddy. And the people in Australia are different because they grew up with different families, in another place. They do different things,” she continued, checking off items on her fingers. “Eat different food, have different tre— traaaa—“

“Traditions?”

“Yes! Different tra-dee-tons. I want to talk to people in Australia.” She jumped up and down, suddenly struck by an idea. “If we can’t go there, can we call them on the phone?”

This exchange kept popping into my head all weekend. With a few words, she reminded me of the importance of recognizing and celebrating each other’s differences. And not just in a vague, abstract kind of way. But really diving deep into other people’s experiences and learning what we can from them.

This past weekend, I took her to a friend’s birthday party and spent a lot of time chatting with one of her classmates’ dad. I quickly learned he was born in India, and while I would have normally focused on the mundane kind of small talk (“What do you do?” “How long have you been married?” “Do you have any other children?”), that day I found myself asking about his heritage. He was more than happy to open up and tell me, in great detail, about the traditions he grew up with, the values his family instilled, and the many profound differences between living in India, and living in Canada. I walked away from that conversation feeling so much closer to this lovely stranger than I would have otherwise. And my soul felt richer, too. Forging that intimate connection based on truly getting to know someone means celebrating their differences and their similarities, being genuinely interested in their experiences, their past, and the way that cultural heritage has shaped the course of their life.

Because here’s the thing my 4-year old knew that I’d taken for granted: who we are is very much shaped by where we were born. Our perceptions of the world, our religious beliefs, our goals and hopes for the future — all of it might be different if we’d arrived on this planet somewhere else. And whether we’ve lived our entire lives in the place we were born, or our path took us half-way across the world and we set down roots and blossomed by embracing an entirely new culture, who we are at the core of our being will always carry the spark of the place where we initially learned about the way the world works.

When was the last time you stopped to think about how your birthplace influenced who you are? And how often do you ask others about their upbringing, and the way their culture of origin has influenced who they’ve become? Next time you’re making small talk with a new acquaintance, try asking a few (polite, non-prying, non-judgemental) questions about their background. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how quickly and easily people open up when you ask, with genuine and respectful curiosity, about what makes them who they are.