How teaching children tolerance can curb bullying, peer cruelty and stop the cycle of youth violence
REALITY CHECK: Did you know that today’s American youth are displaying intolerant actions at alarming rates-and at younger and younger ages? The FBI tells us most hate crimes are committed by youth younger than nineteen.
Tolerance is a powerful virtue that helps curtail hatred, bullying, violence, and bigotry while at the same time influencing us to treat others with kindness, respect, and understanding.
While tolerance doesn’t call upon us to suspend moral judgment, it does require us to respect differences. This virtue is what helps our children recognize that all persons deserve to be treated with dignity, justice and respect even if we happen to disagree with some of their beliefs or behaviors. And it is a critical component of moral intelligence that we must build in our children.
Intolerance can be demonstrated in many ways-verbally, physically, or in combination-but in every case the perpetrator displays cold-hearted disrespect for his victims targeting their race, ethnicity, age, religion, disability, beliefs, gender, appearance, behavior or sexual orientation. Whatever method the perpetrator uses, an act of intolerance always cause the victim pain.
Why Intolerance Breeds Bullies
Research shows that a key reason for the escalation of bullying is due to intolerance. My work with hundreds of student focus groups across the country verifies that research. After students confirm to me that bullying is indeed a “big” problem, I ask: “Who do bullies choose for their victims? Is there a specific trait they look for?” The number one word I hear: “Different.” “What is so different about the victim?” I ask. The “different” terms kids list for children more likely to be bullied are endless:
Too fat. Too thin. A speech problem. Band kids. Too shy or quiet. A different race. In the special ed class. Gifted or too smart. Cries easily. A loner. Gay. Too pretty. Too poor. Dresses funny. Too artsy. Just moved. Teacher’s pet.” In short, any kid who doesn’t fit in or blend in…any child who looks or acts a little bit out of the norm.
Bullies too often target a victim based on race, ethnicity, age, religion, disability, beliefs, gender, appearance, behavior or sexual orientation. And why? It’s because empathy – the foundation of tolerance – is lying dormant.
Why Tolerance Is the Missing Piece to Stop Bullying
I was in the Portland, Oregon, airport last year and witnessed one of the most powerful yet simple lessons of tolerance I’ve ever seen. About two dozen preschool children and their teachers were on an airport field trip. All were walking hand in hand and wearing t-shirts that read: “Children Are Not Born Racist.” It was quite an image. Other passengers were struck as I was, and many stopped to stare.
One man standing near me said to no one in particular, “If only parents could understand that one message—maybe we could get along.” How right he was! The lesson conveyed on those shirts is what all research confirms: we are not born with intolerant beliefs–we learn them as children from the environments in which we live.
So if we really are concerned about ending bullying (or cruelty, racism, bigotry, intolerance, and hate) we must consciously model and nurture tolerance in our homes and schools and do so when our kids are very young. It’s the best chance we have to help children grow to appreciate and respect others who are different from themselves.
Strategies to Boost Tolerance and Curb Bullying
1. Confront Your Own Prejudices
The first step to nurturing tolerance is to examine your own prejudices and reflect on how you might be projecting those ideas to your child. Chances are that you are communicating those attitudes to your child.
You might begin by reflecting on your own childhood upbringing: What were some of your parents’ prejudices? Do any of those remain with you today?
Take time to reflect on how you might be projecting those old, outdated ideas to your child. Then make a conscious attempt to temper them so that they don’t become your child’s prejudices. Sometimes you might not even know you are tainting your children’s views.
2. Commit to Raising a Tolerant Child
Parents who think through how they want their kids to turn out usually succeed simply because they planned their parenting efforts. So if you really want your child to respect diversity, you must adopt a conviction early on to raise him to do so. Once your child knows your expectations, he will be more likely to embrace your principles.
In 1954 Harvard social psychologist Gordon Allport began to explore the roots of intolerance and published his results in his renowned classic, The Nature of Prejudice.
Allport’s central idea is that children are born with the capacity for tolerance or intolerance. Which of the two they lean towards depends largely on how they are parented.
Children who grow to become tolerant are generally raised in families where there are three conditions: strong parental love and warmth, consistent discipline and clear models of moral behavior. It’s when those needs are not met that prejudice develops.
Allport explained: “Children brought up in a rejecting home, exposed to ready-made prejudices, will scarcely be in a position to develop a trustful or affiliative outlook upon social relationships. Having received little affection, they are not in a position to give it.”
Allport’s findings are critical to keep in mind if we are really committed to raising more tolerant children.
3. Help Your Child Develop Identify and Pride in His Culture
The starting place to help children understand diversity is for them to look at their own ancestry.
The family is where children not only receive experience a sense of belonging but also acquire their primary language, their knowledge of their ethnicity, their spiritual or religious beliefs, and their values. It is through this membership that kids define their identity and develop pride in their cultural heritage.
Learning about their family background helps children connect with their past and develop an appreciation and respect for not only their own national and ethnic background but also for those of their friends and classmates.
As Barbara Mathias and Mary Ann French, authors of 40 Ways to Raise a Nonracist Child, explain: “Once your child has a solid sense of self and pride in her own people, it will be easier for her to find joy in the differences of others.”
So help your child understand his heritage and as well as begin to appreciate just how much the world is a melting pot of different customs and ideas.
4. Refuse to Allow Discriminatory Comments
When you hear prejudicial comments, verbalize your displeasure. How you respond sends a clear message to your child about your values:
“That’s disrespectful and I won’t allow such things to be said in my house,” or “That’s a biased comment, and I don’t want to hear it.”
Your child needs to hear your discomfort so that she knows you really walk your talk. It also models a response she should imitate if prejudicial comments are made in her presence.
5. Embrace Diversity
From a young age, expose your child to positive images-including toys, music, literature, videos, public role models, and examples from TV or newspaper reports-that represent a variety of ethnic groups. Encourage your child, no matter how young, to have contact with individuals of different races, religions, cultures, genders, abilities, and beliefs. The more your child sees how you embrace diversity, the more prone he’ll be to follow your standards.
Use multicultural literature: Jan Arnow, author of Teaching Peace, points out that “only 10 percent of the almost five thousand children’s books published each year in the United States are multicultural in nature. Of those, fewer than fifty titles annually have been written about Native American and Asian peoples.” That is a troubling statistic, because research says that children first become aware of race and gender differences around two years of age, around the time many parents have started nightly bedtime traditions of reading with their kids. Expose your child early to a variety of multicultural literature that features positive images of all cultures and genders. It is one way to increase tolerance as well as reduce or prevent prejudice.
6. Emphasize WE Not ME
Encourage your child to look for what he has in common with others instead of how he is different. A key is raising a tolerant, empathetic child is to stress: WE, not ME.
Any time your child points out how she is different from someone, you might say. “There are lots of ways you are different from other people. Now let’s try to think of ways you are the same.”
Help your child see how similarities outweigh differences.
Encourage your child to look for what he has in common with others instead of how he is different.
One fun way to foster tolerance in your child is to play as a family a simple game called “Alike and Different.” It begins by having family members form pairs. Tell each pair to think of five ways they are alike and five ways they are different. Answers can be written or drawn. “Alike” answers might be, for example, “We are African-American, Baptist, dark haired, brown eyed, sisters, and Williams family members.” “Different” answers could be, for example, “I like soccer, she likes tennis; I play saxophone, she plays violin; I am a fourth grader, she is a second grader; I am 4’5″, she is 4’2″.”
In a larger family, have each twosome report their findings back to the family. From then on, any time your child points out how she is different from someone, you might say. “Yes, there are lots of ways you are different from other people. Now let’s try to think of ways you are the same.”
7. Give Straightforward, Simple Answers to Questions About Differences
Kids are naturally curious, so you should expect questions about differences. Asking questions is one way for them to sort out how they are different or the same from others as well as to learn to feel comfortable with those differences.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” stresses the importance of answering children’s questions simply and honestly even though some issues may seem embarrassing or even taboo. How you respond can either create stereotypes or prevent from forming.
For very young kids, usually a one-or two-sentence answer is enough:
CHILD: Sally is a girl. She shouldn’t be playing football!
PARENT: Girls can play the same sports boys do. Some girls like football, and some girls don’t. Sally likes to play football, so she should play it.
CHILD: Why is that boy sitting in that chair that moves?
PARENT: That chair is called a wheelchair, and it has a motor. The boy’s legs don’t work the same as yours. The chair is what he uses to get from place to place.
8. Counter Discriminatory Beliefs
When you hear a child make a prejudicial comment, listen to find out why he feels the way he does. Then gently challenge his views and point out why they are incorrect. For example if your child says,
“Homeless people should get jobs and sleep in their own houses.” You might counter: “There are many reasons homeless people don’t work or have houses. They may be ill or can’t find jobs. Houses cost money, and not everyone can pay for one.”
9. Live Your Life as an Example of Tolerance
The best way for your child to learn tolerance is for him to watch and listen to your daily example. So ask yourself each day one critical question: “If my child had only my behavior to copy, would he be witnessing an example of what I want him to emulate?”
Make sure you are walking your talk.
The best secret to teaching kids tolerance is not by lectures or worksheets, but through our example. So be a living textbook of tolerance for your child and for all other children. It’s also the best way we have to create a peaceful world for our children and reduce peer cruelty.
10. Sensitivity, Empathy and Tolerance Must Be Nurtured
Hatred, bigotry, prejudice, and intolerance can be learned, but so too can sensitivity, understanding, empathy, and tolerance. Although it’s certainly never too late to begin, the sooner we start, the better the chance we have of preventing insidious, intolerant attitudes and behaviors from taking hold.
Remember: kids aren’t born hateful: prejudices are learned. While intolerance, insensitivity, and hatred can be learned, so too can sensitivity, understanding, empathy, and tolerance.
If today’s children are to have any chance of living harmoniously in this global world, it is critical that parents and teachers nurture empathy and tolerance. They are the best, and over-looked antidote to racism, bullying and peer cruelty.
We must be the change for our children.
Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books. You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.
You can also find dozens of research-based and proven, practical tips to raise empathetic, tolerant children in my latest book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Strategies from this blog were adapted from this work.