Xenophobics Anonymous (Diversity 101)

Diversity has some crucial foundation stones, and the idea of welcoming and including others into your life is one of them. David Sretenovic serves up some morsels from applied linguistics and parenting his toddlers, to give a message of hope for lovers of diversity.

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Over the years I’ve gained some expertise in Applied Linguistics, and there’s one particular concept which stands out head and shoulders above the rest; for me, it’s possibly more powerful and worthy of attention than any other in the field. And I think it holds some of the keys for unlocking and harnessing the depth of human diversity. It is captured by the term “an additive environment”, in the sense of “more value, quality and information” being introduced. In its original usage, an additive language environment contrasts starkly to an environment where another language, or even culture, is undervalued to the point where it gradually atrophies and eventually disappears. Here in Australia, it may come to as a shock to my friends that nurturing an “additive language environment” may in fact be an historical weakness for us as a nation, considering the hundreds of languages that have become extinct since Europeans arrived… but many of us are keen to reverse this uncouth trend! And every time someone uses the word “diversity”, they are echoing this sentiment of historical reversal. When we call for diversity, we are calling for inclusiveness of others… but walking the talk wasn’t easy when Europeans first arrived, and it ain’t easy now. But read on if you love the ideas of diversity, community, inter-generational connection and reciprocal respect.

Inclusiveness. It’s inclusiveness that gives us access to the gold mine which resides within our neighbour (in the biblical sense). But the reality is that living inclusively is hard; moreover, it requires a paradigm shift away from the “fluffy” and “rainbows and candy” slogans which governments and the media use to depict diversity and multiculturalism. It’s so easy to share a meme which lampoons anti-immigration, or to vote for the political party which is welcoming refugees…even go to a candle-light vigil. But including these foreigners, and carrying their burdens… understanding their culture and appreciating which parts of it are sacred. Getting to know why they struggle. Visiting their ghettos and being confronted by the violence in their worlds. Man, that’s life-interrupting stuff. It takes time, effort, money and Saturdays. Public holidays. Sacrifice. Oosh.

I find myself struggling to include my kids sometimes. Well, actually, sometimes I struggle to include anyone but me. Don’t even mention my long-term, Aussie next-door neighbours… let alone the indigenous community on the outskirts of town. The refugees being resettled locally are way down the subconscious priority list – most people ought to admit that to themselves. It’s like step one at AA. I think Australia needs to go to an AA type meeting over this, actually. Xenophobics Anonymous? XA we can call it… hmmm, that’s a bit weird, maybe XO? Yeah that’s better: Hugs’n’kisses Anonymous. And we can advertise it with free beer! I’m being tongue in cheek, of course, and a little harsh too (Australia is awesome!)… but a bit of fair dinkum introspection can go a long way.

Now, although I’m as selfish as any other bloke, I do think I have applied the right idea with my kids from time to time. My daughter, Andje (3 years of age), and Jet (2 years of age), will be sitting and playing beautifully: giggles, interactive banter and intelligent imagination – such a delight to a parent’s ears! But then Jet might pull her hair a little too much. She’ll react, and he might not stop yanking. This spirals into raised voices, shrieks, banging … I’ll be holding back from intervening in the hope they can mediate for themselves. But inevitably sometimes they need me to provide some scaffolding. I’ve pondered what the best forms of intervention are and I think there’s a qualitative difference between these two interventions:

  1. “Jet, stop pulling your sister’s hair!”
  2. “Jet, listen to your sister… she’s upset.”

There are variations on these interventions, but the latter has captured my imagination because I feel like I’m shifting the focus away from me, and onto them. It’s no longer about stopping the screaming (so I can get back to what I was doing, or even to stop Andje’s discomfort). It’s now about engaging with the kids and making this a moment of personal growth and care for one another: I am actively mentoring Jet; Jet is being directed towards empathizing; and Andje is being listened to. Our day’s activity becomes less about an external goal and more about our relationship, shared experience and making space for each other’s very different worlds.

I’ve had to lay down what I’m doing more. I’ve had to let my Saturday plans go sometimes. I’ve had to give up some career ambitions. Oh man, but to see my children’s eyes widen with the discovery of each other and themselves… to see them enjoy the sense of family in all its diversity: it’s so worth it.

To me inclusiveness encapsulates the ethos of an additive environment: adding the priorities of others to your own life without sabotaging yourself. Sure it takes time and energy, and a meaningful sacrifice in order to include the young, the old…those with different languages, strange cultures. But there is a way you can do this without excoriating your own identity and values, or expecting them to either.

Jet’s Moment of Truth

David Sretenovic retells a story of a moment which revealed something beautiful about how his toddler-son was growing to handle conflict.

Some moments of truth just take your breath away — especially when it’s your toddler’s personality which is being revealed. There have been moments when my two-year-old son’s expression of frustration has made me wonder how he will handle conflicts; some kids cower, others lash out, some have the knack to stand their ground. With Jet, I’ve seen much more of the latter two. But today was a wow-moment: I saw something which impressed me and truly made my heart burst.

Taking some time to be with my Aunty Maria at a local cafe, we’d unleashed Jet and his elder sister on the indoor children’s playground. It’s a veritable wonderland for kids, and there were dozens of them racing around and playing, ranging from rug-rats to primary school aged. At one stage Jet was manning the toy cash-register at a mock restaurant when a much older and bigger kid — literally almost double his size — joined him and helped himself to Jet’s operation. Jet wasn’t too happy with this and redirected the boy’s hands. The boy persisted in reaching for the controls but Jet pushed his hands away again. This happened a couple more times with Jet verbalising, “No!” to no avail. He even tried moving the boy away with gentle nudges to the chest. At the point of near exasperation, Jet turned to face him. He stretched both his hands out, as wide as he could, and looked at the boy earnestly as he hugged him with tender vigor. Having pacified the situation and given up the cash register, Jet happily rounded to the other side of the boy while motioning towards the other play-equipment. He was moving that way but had to halt as he realized his new mate wasn’t in tow. He turned and called out, “Come me! Come!” whilst beckoning him with his little waving hand. Despite his pleas, the new friend wasn’t coming, so he ran off to play anyway. He’d already forgotten about the cash-register because the ball-pit was calling.

My Aunty Maria had also witnessed the little altercation and she remarked, “Wow, he’s so resourceful! He tried one way and it didn’t work, so he tried another way. Beautiful boy.”

My precious little boy — what a winner you are! God bless you, my son, and may your generous heart and caring spirit blossom as you grow, in Jesus’ name. These are the gifts of God’s Spirit in you!

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Cherishable Chores

Just had to pen a beautiful moment from my life as a stay-home Dad. A gift to me from God.
— David Sretenovic

Pacing the room, cradling my 20-month-old son, his head beginning to get heavy on my shoulder. The only thing that changed was that I reached around to embrace him more deeply, along with the melting of my heart. To any outside viewer, I would have been doing exactly the same thing, but for me the two activities were literally worlds apart. One moment I was putting him to sleep – a chore. The next, I was cuddling him for all he’s worth, for all I’m worth, with every atom of my beating heart, aware of the fleeting treasure I held: a beautiful young boy, growing into a man. In a breathtaking moment, my chore was transformed into my privilege and a task which I cherished; instead of seeking the task’s rapid completion, I spontaneously poured myself into the moment and felt it expand to meet my open soul. I have seldom had my day “interrupted” in such a powerful, meaningful way. I see it as a move of the Holy Spirit. It was an interjection of a spiritual force with eternal qualities; a gift of eternal life, entering my temporal life. I see it as God. A blessing!