7 Ways To Pass Culture Down To Your Kids


As a first generation South Asian American, the ways my family did and still pass culture down to me were not as blatant as it says how to in books and articles I read today.

The culture that I inherited came through my senses. The smell of fresh ghee, the sound of my grandmother crushing cardamom with a pestle, the echo of my mother’s voice during her meditative chanting, the whispers of ancient stories my grandfather told me as my eyes fluttered to sleep as a young girl.

It wasn’t until I had children that I really started thinking about it all. My husband and I chose to move to California from New York, where we had spent most of our lives in the company and comfort of the Indian homes of our extended families and friends. It was when I had kids I realized that what I missed about home was not transferrable over an iPad screen.

So when my daughter made her way into my life, I found myself learning how to make ghee for her baby food, grinding spices for our family dinners. When my son was born, I was chanting and reading stories of ancient celestial battles and magical forests to the two of them.

It’s what I know of as culture and childhood, of home, and it’s so deep within me that I was surprised how much I figured out on my own once I moved away.

I often get told by my friends who stayed in the same town as their parents how surprised they are at the traditional indian dishes I make or at how much I study yoga philosophy.

“My parents just make food and drop it off, easier than me doing it!”

Without that luxury for my kids in their early years, it was up to me, just as it was for my own parents when they moved thousands of miles from their parents and motherland to carry on the turmeric infused love.

Now with my parents close by, I don’t always have to call them up to ask what spices I need for certain dishes since they bring it all over as saviors on my busy work days. However I notice that when I do things myself, it allows me to feel confidant that one day, I would hopefully be able to tell my grown up kids what they need when they call me while at the stove.

Often, my own parents and Indian in-laws wonder why I know about things like Ayurvedic herbs, parts of their heritage that they never looked back upon or even have knowledge of after leaving their country decades ago for a better life in America.

And just so you know, I wasn’t always like this.

As a first generation American, I adapted quickly to the red, white and blue of summer BBQ’s, watched the latest Disney movies and even had a crush on Johnny Depp during my teenage years.

But the colors of Navratri festivals, fresh coconut from the temple, my father’s savory Sunday vegetables simmering in masala that filled the air of our home were just as evident as American Thanksgiving feasts for me, whether I wanted that or not.

For many years, I grew up in an extended family. My parents were the first of both their families to move to America from India, so for much of my childhood, we had relative after relative come live with us until they got on their feet. My dad’s sisters and their families, my mom’s sisters and my cousins, and even my mother’s parents eventually came on over.

There were times, I remember like many first generation children feel, that these things were embarrassing.

In the “ew, what are you eating” at school lunch at my packed pooda, to “why aren’t you allowed to sleepover” when birthday party sleepovers became a craze, the “how many people live in your house?” when someone came over to the awe at high school dating rules of many Asian families: “you can’t have a boyfriend until you want to get married???” Or even my red face when a friend would ask what the smell was in the car if my grandfather drove us somewhere and we caught whiffs of his coconut hair oil, (I use coconut oil for everything these days).

It’s why I flocked to the other first generation Indians, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Israelis and immigrants in my schooling days.

They got it when we had to cover up if boys were going to be at a party. They knew how important getting straight A’s were.

And then as I got older, this gift my parents gave me, this culture, became not so embarrassing as my non-Indian friends gawked at the beauty of my flowing saris and boys asked me the meaning of my name in college, (opposite of when kids made fun of it on the playground).

Now as adults, my husband and I eagerly invite our friends who are South Asian and many that are not for Diwali in our home, who all equally love the flavors, sights and sounds as much as we do.

It fills my heart in a way I can’t describe when my daughter asks if she can wear a bindi to school, when my son tells me loves eating “green wheels” (an indian okra dish I make) or when I see them both in child’s pose breathing alongside me.

And they spend time with their grandparents, I love how much they offer our kids in forms of sweet ladoos, Sanskrit songs and our mother language, Gujarati.

This is their culture and I hope that I can gift them with all the beauty of it. So here are 7 ways I try to do just that in daily life:

1. Talk the talk. I’m so guilty of not working on this until now and wish I had done more earlier, but better now than never! The best way for a child to learn a language is for us mommas to start speaking to our children in it. Dedicate a certain day to do this if you have a hard time doing it everyday or all the time and also a certain time once a day to talk to your husband in it to if he happens to speak it also. It could be at dinner or breakfast, just try to at least once a day and stick to it. Also assign one person per language. You can be ‘assigned’ a language if it’s your mother tongue and your husband can be English or his language if your child is a mixed ethnicity. While there are plenty of flash cards and books out there, this is one thing that we have to talk out for the best results. We recently started Sanskar Teaching classes and loving them so far!

2. Adventure in the kitchen. At least once a month make a dish you have never made before from your culture. It could be a total flop or a big hit, don’t worry so much in the outcome, enjoy the process, focus on the love and intention of it. We have Indian food once a week (if not more) in my home so I can expose the kids to how good it can be. If you aren’t into cooking or simply don’t have the time, order in from a local restaurant or caterer that serves your favorite dishes from youth. Tell your kids your memories of it. It’s just about the experience. My friend is Polish and she rarely cooks, but every Christmas Eve, she invites us all over for a traditional dinner with home-made pierogis and borscht. You can just taste the love!

3. Go to festivals. If there’s a Holi festival at a local park, I always make plans to go to it. For a bonus, dress up in your traditional clothing if your child loves “dress up” as much as mine does. Most cities have websites now that list the cultural events. It’s fun to celebrate your culture with your community. And go to other cultures’ events to immerse your kids in new knowledge as well! This year it was different due to the COVID pandemic, so here we are in our backyard having a HAPPY Holi instead of a park event.

4. Find that world in books. There are so many books out there on all cultures that it’s great to check them out of the library or invest in them for your little one’s book shelf. Some of my faves for kids on Indian culture:

5. Sing songs. Kids love music and one night I was putting my daughter to sleep, she kept asking me for different songs. We sang hymns my grandmother sings, regular nursery rhymes like Ba-Ba Black Sheep and randomly a few French songs I remembered from studying the language years ago. She recalled all of them the next day, even the French ones, word for word! It goes to show how much they learn through song.

6. Create a ritual. My husband and I try to recite mantras together with our kids every Sunday. Of course some weekends are crazy, but for the most part, we do it because it brings us together. Whatever you do together just shows your child the importance of that small ritual as a family.

7. Go to classes or workshops. A girlfriend of mine teaches the classical South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam and Bollywood classes. Pre-pandemic, I used to take my daughter and it was so fun. I teach yoga to children and started a class at a local studio where her and her brother could attend as well. But you don’ need to go to a class! Just do an activity with your little one on a regular basis. It could be as simple as making a mandala together.

I once heard the saying that culture is the widening of the mind and the spirit. I hope for that with my kids as I expand my own learning as a mother too.

Written by: Puja Shah, Chai Mommas, Chief of Content and Strategy


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