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Encouraging Tolerance in a Culture of Diversity

By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed

My first experience with intolerance happened when I was 12 years old. My friend and I had gone shopping by ourselves on a Saturday afternoon (we were allowed to do that then) when my friend decided to buy something and asked the salesperson the cost. The salesperson’s response, directed toward me, was “Tell your friend to talk the right way.” Shelley was deaf with a severe speech impediment. She and I had been friends since we were young children, so not only could I understand her, but I also never realized that she was “different.”

It is inevitable that our children will witness intolerance of others, or perhaps even experience it themselves, at some time during their childhood. How can we help them step out of their comfort zone? How do we encourage them to learn about others and to respect and appreciate the similarities, as well as the differences? How can we encourage them to grow up appreciating who they are, as well as developing empathy toward others? What tools can we suggest for helping them handle situations where someone is intolerant of them?

Here is some guidance to achieve that goal drawn, in part, from “How to Raise Tolerant, Inclusive Kids” by parenting and child expert Michele Borba, Ed.D.:

  • Perhaps the most challenging first step is reflecting on your own attitudes towards tolerance. Are you aware of your word choices or actions when around people who are different than you? Do you avoid situations that represent diversity?
  • Value the differences within your own family and communicate that appreciation. (Same sex marriages, racially mixed couples, different lifestyle choices, etc.)
  • Choose books, games, movies, etc., that show diversity in a positive way.
  • Model tolerance. Borba states, “Traits of tolerance are caught as well as taught. Children learn best by what they experience in their daily lives. We may think that children aren’t listening to us, but we should be conscious that they are oftentimes watching us.”
  • When a child sees or hears someone being intolerant of another, talk with them about the feelings that might cause. We can encourage our children, in those situations, to become upstanders and supportive of the victim. (Being an upstander is the focus of the program “Everyone Counts” for young children offered by JCS Prevention Wellness).
  • Initiate and encourage cross-cultural friendships both for yourself and your children.
  • If a child is called an “intolerant/ugly” name, reassure her that she is a good person. Give them words to use in this situation: “I don’t like you calling me bad names and I want you to stop.” Emphasize that this might not be easy to do and may not always work.
  • Encourage your child to handle situations of intolerance themselves if possible, barring a physical interaction.
  • Emphasize good sportsmanship and respecting others, whether when winning, or losing.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to raise tolerant children who value their own identity as well as that of others, is to practice rituals and traditions within our families to let children know, “they are valued and feel connected to something larger than themselves.” (from “Roots and Wings: Raising Resilient Children,” Hazelden Publishing)

Related programs offered by JCS Prevention Wellness:

“Roots and Wings: Raising Resilient Children” (a multi-session program for parents)

“Be a Friend” (a program for young children on tolerance and diversity)

“Encouraging Tolerance in a Culture of Diversity” (a program for older adults and grandparents)

Susan Kurlander    Susan Kurlander, M.Ed. is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.

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