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Teaching Tolerance

We all want our children to be tolerant of other people's differences. We don't want them to stare at someone in a wheelchair, or shun a child of another race, or make fun of a foreign accent. We don't want them to have racial, religious, or gender prejudice. We want them to wait without complaining when an elderly person holds up the checkout line because he's having difficulty counting out his money.

That's a tall order: The complex mosaic of tolerance changes as our children grow older. Understanding how your kids perceive differences between people and how they feel about them at various stages of development will help you to guide them toward being more open-minded and understanding. And it will help you to have realistic expectations of your children as well.

Contributing editor Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at Harvard University and the author of five books on child development.

An Early Start

We like to think that young kids don't notice racial and ethnic differences in people. In fact, children — even infants — try to fit their world into patterns. They're very aware of differences and similarities. Categorizing things makes their world more predictable and less frightening.

If you show a 6-month-old a picture of a duck, researchers have discovered, she'll look at it for a few seconds, seemingly taking it in and trying to make sense of its characteristics. If the duck is new to her, she'll look at it for a longer time than if she's seen it before. Then, each time she sees a picture of a duck, she'll probably pay increasingly less attention to it because she's developed a mental construct or a category for "duck." But if you then show her a picture of a cow, she'll look at it longer because it doesn't fit into the duck category. It's different.

The same is true for photographs of people. Show a baby pictures of people of the same gender who have approximately the same skin color and she'll probably look at each successive one for less time, but she'll really study photos of people whose skin color or gender is different.

So most children, even as infants, can recognize physical differences in people. This means that they're not inherently "color-blind" and "gender-blind," and it's up to us to be vigilant about the messages they're exposed to.

One of the main sources of early information (and misinformation) about people who look and sound different is television. Many of the programs that appeal to children, especially old cartoons and slapstick comedies, are filled with racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes. Cartoon villains often speak with thick accents. Some groups of people are presented as stupid or incompetent. Women are shown in limited social and professional roles and are valued more for their appearance than for their intelligence or physical abilities. (Even that bastion of multicultural public television, Sesame Street, waited 24 years — until 1993 — to present a prominent female Muppet.)

Children who live in homogeneous neighborhoods or who attend schools in which most people look and sound like they do are most likely to accept such stereotypes as true. In fact, even if they know individuals who contradict the images they see repeatedly on television, they may view those real people as exceptions to the norm rather than reflections of it.

Dealing With Differences

While kids are aware that all people don't look and act the same early on, what they do with that knowledge depends on their age. Toddlers don't pay much attention to physical dissimilarities among their playmates. Preschoolers do, but sometimes not in the way that adults expect.

I remember talking to the mother of a preschooler with multiple physical and mental disabilities. All of her classmates had readily accepted her until midway through the school year, when another girl became noticeably upset. It turned out that what was bothering her was that her disabled friend couldn't color inside the lines. While the teachers and the girl's parents thought nothing of this, it really worried the other little girl because it was an important skill that she had mastered but her pal hadn't.

Preschoolers begin to associate physical appearance with differences in personality. This, too, is reinforced by television as well as by children's stories. After all, how many books show pictures of pretty witches and ugly princes?

When kids reach school age, they may make fun of someone who's disabled, say, or seriously ill. It's common for children to go through a stage in which they view such things as "contagious." By denigrating the other person, they're protecting themselves from the thought that they may suffer the same fate.

The best way to handle this is to address the child's underlying fear and emotions: "I can see that you're upset that Jimmy is in a wheelchair. That's because he can't move his legs. But the rest of his body and his brain are just fine. You can't catch it from him. And he really likes Pokémon cards and Star Wars movies, just like you."

The Role of Empathy

When Amanda MacInnis overheard a friend make a rude remark about a person of a different race, the 8-year-old from Bayville, New York, piped up and told the other child that what she'd said wasn't nice and that "people are people, and things would be pretty boring if we were all the same."

"Luckily, Amanda's very sensitive to others," says her mother, Anne. "But she has asked why someone is in a wheelchair or why a man has a large red patch on his face. I always explain that people are the same underneath."

All kids, like Amanda, become increasingly able to "feel" for others. They learn to imagine what another person is going through and to see things from someone else's perspective. Parents can help the process along, first by helping their children identify and label their own emotions. ("I can see you're angry that you can't go outside"; "You look very happy playing with your blocks.") That helps toddlers and preschoolers identify those feelings, which is the second step. ("Sally looks very sad this morning. Do you remember feeling sad? I wonder if she feels the way you did.")

Eventually, your child will be better able to make those connections himself — even when the other person is quite different than he is. For example, by drawing on the times he's felt frustrated and confused, he may understand that the elderly man holding up the line at the supermarket is having trouble counting out his change.

How Tolerance is Taught

Toddlers and preschoolers thrive on predictability, which makes sense when you consider that they're busy figuring out the underlying patterns of their lives. A familiar peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a well-worn doll to cuddle up with at naptime, even a soft but stained shirt can give great comfort to a child because it's known so intimately.

There are two keys to helping a young child learn to tolerate unfamiliar things: repeated exposure and connections. If you want her to eat peas, serve them every few days for several weeks. As she gets used to seeing them on her plate, she'll be more likely to try them. In the same way, to help her feel comfortable with people of all types, make sure she's exposed to them in a healthy way. If she can regularly make connections with all sorts of folks, she'll be less influenced by stereotypes and more likely to draw her own conclusions about what people are like. Most important, she'll grow up to be a more tolerant and interesting adult.

There are other things you can do with your child to help her see beyond cultural stereotypes:

  • Acknowledge differences in people rather than deny them. At the same time, point out similarities. This will help your child develop a sense of perspective and let her know that the topic is suitable for discussion whenever she has questions.

  • Look at your behavior, not just your words and beliefs. Do you appear tense or condescending when you speak with certain people? What do your friends look and sound like? What do you say to your kids when you drive through different neighborhoods? When you say that someone is beautiful or ugly, what does that person look like?

  • Pay attention to your unintended biases. Often, these are so ingrained that we barely notice them. For example, telling a young boy to "act like a man" or a little girl to "act like a lady" can send dramatically different messages about a child's own behavior and about what types of behavior each gender can expect from the opposite sex.

  • Watch television with your child. Regularly point out some of the stereotypes in ways that your child can understand. Are old people seen as doddering and incompetent? Do girls need rescuing more often than boys do? There's no need to be heavy-handed. Your goal is to encourage your children to challenge stereotypes, to question the assumptions behind what they see and to compare what's on the tube to what they know of the world.

  • Look for ways your children can interact with people who are different. Invite friends when you have a cultural or religious celebration so you can share stories about your backgrounds and beliefs. Read your kids stories about other countries and cultures. Visit ethnic festivals in your community, and teach your child to count to ten in another language.

  • Act quickly if you hear your child say something that you consider to be sexist, racist, or mean. Preschoolers and school-age children may try to check the validity of their beliefs or fears by seeing how their parents respond. If your child makes a prejudiced remark, focus your correction on the words, not the child. ("Just because your new classmate doesn't speak English doesn't mean he's dumb. Do you remember how hard it is sometimes to learn something new?") After all, you ultimately want your child to feel as good about himself as he does about other people.

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