10 Steps Toward Raising a Tolerant Child

Now is the perfect time to teach our kids that people of all races, colors, and creeds should be respected and appreciated for their differences.

By Kelvin Datcher

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Universal human rights begin in small places, close to home.”

And Tolerance.org, a website from the Southern Poverty Law Center, is helping parents across the country create homes in which tolerance and understanding are guiding themes. “The goal of nurturing open-minded, empathetic children is a challenging one,” says Jennifer Holladay, director of Tolerance.org. “To cultivate tolerance, parents have to instill in children a sense of empathy, respect and responsibility — to oneself and to others — as well as the recognition that every person on earth is a treasure.”

Holladay offers 10 ways parents can promote tolerance:

1. Talk about tolerance. Tolerance education is an ongoing process; it cannot be captured in a single moment. Be willing to talk about differences and understanding day in and day out. Establish a high comfort level for open dialogue about social issues. Let children know that no subject is taboo.

2. Identify intolerance when children are exposed to it. Point out stereotypes and cultural misinformation depicted in movies, TV shows, computer games and other media. Challenge bias when it comes from friends and family members. Do not let the moment pass. Begin with a qualified statement: “Andrew just called people of XYZ faith ‘lunatics.’ What do you think about that, Zoe?” Let children do most of the talking.

3. Challenge intolerance when it comes from your children. When a child says or does something that reflects biases or embraces stereotypes, confront the child: “What makes that joke funny, Jerome?” Guide the conversation toward internalization of empathy and respect — “Mimi uses a walker, honey. How do you think she would feel about that joke?” or “How did you feel when Robbie made fun of your glasses last week?”

4. Support your children when they are the victims of intolerance. Respect children’s troubles by acknowledging when they become targets of bias. Don’t minimize the experience. Provide emotional support and then brainstorm constructive responses. For example, develop a set of comebacks to use when children are the victims of name-calling.

5. Foster a healthy understanding of group identities. For tweens and teens, group identity is critical. Remind them, however, that: (a) Pride in our own group does not mandate disrespect for other groups; (b) Our group does not deserve privileges not available to other groups; (c) Other groups have just as much humanity as do ours; and (d) We should avoid putting other groups down as a way to elevate the status of our own group.

6. Showcase diversity materials in your home. Read books with multicultural and tolerance themes to your children. Bookmark equity and diversity Web sites on your home computer. Assess the cultural diversity reflected in your home’s artwork, music and literature. Add something new. This holiday season, give multicultural dolls, toys or games as gifts.

7. Create opportunities for children to interact with people who are different from them. Look critically at how a child defines “normal.” Expand the definition. Attend religious services at a variety of houses of worship. Visit playgrounds where a variety of children are present — people of different races/ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, family structures, etc. Encourage a child to spend time with elders — grandparents, for example.

8. Encourage children to call upon community resources. A child who is concerned about world hunger can volunteer at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. The earlier children interact with the community, the better. This will help convey the lesson that we are not islands unto ourselves.

9. Be honest about differences. Do not tell children that we are all the same; we’re not. We experience the world in different ways, and those experiences matter.

10. Model the behavior you would like to see. As a parent and as your child’s primary role model, be consistent in how you treat others. For example, how do you handle emotional issues with girls and boys? Do you attempt to distract crying boys but reassure crying girls? Does your voice take on a different tone with one group of people? Remember, you may say, “Do as I say, not as I do,” but actions really do speak louder than words. In a country, indeed a world of increasing diversity, tolerance isn’t just a nice quality to have; it’s an essential one.

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