You would be hard-pressed to watch the news lately and not see a story that involves difficult issues around race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Your children may have started asking you difficult questions about these stories. Every parent wants to raise compassionate children who grow up to become kind and thoughtful adults, but you may be wondering, “How do I teach my children to be tolerant?”
The first thing to know is that children often act out in response to what they see at home. If they are in an environment that values respect for diverse opinions, beliefs and people, then they are likely to adopt those traits in their own lives. However, it is not enough to simply avoid speaking negatively about people who may look different or share different views from your family. It is important to actively show your kids the beauty in diversity.
There are diversity teaching moments all around us. When your children are about 2 or 3 years old, you can start by pointing out the differences in animals or plants. For example, if you have a pet dog but you and your child see another dog that looks very different from yours, take advantage of that moment by pointing out and celebrating the differences.
Start a conversation with: “Look at how cute this dog is. Even though that dog is like ours at home, it is very different, right? What about this dog is different?” Your child will most likely excitedly name lots of differences, giving you a chance to practice colors and comparison words, such as “bigger” and “shorter.” You can then explain that even though the dog is different from yours, they are both special in their own way.
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The same can be repeated for plants and other animals. We are fortunate to live in South Florida, where there is no shortage of scenery that can be used to illustrate the beauty in differences.
If you have more than one child, or if your child has cousins around, use these natural groups to teach your children to respect each other’s differences. Another place this can be done is in the classroom. Encourage your children to connect with those around them. Discuss your child’s friends at home and ask him or her, “What about the two of you is the same? What makes you different?”
Your kids may initially mention hair color, eye color, height, etc. They also might mention skin color, differences in spoken languages or a physical disability the child may have. Do not freak out when this happens. These differences are normal to younger children, and are likely no different than other physical traits. Just take it in stride and acknowledge the differences in a way that makes them meaningful and beautiful, but irrelevant to the relationship that person has with the child.
The idea of speaking to your kids about differences may not be intuitive. There is a prevalent notion in our society that we should teach children to be colorblind. You may have heard parents say, “I do not see differences” or “I do not see color.” Colorblindness seems like the obvious first step toward tolerance, respect and inclusion; if we could all just teach our children not to see differences, then the world would be a better place.
This could not be farther from the truth. The fact of the matter is, the differences are there. It is important to give your children the tools to connect with individuals and honor their dissimilarities. Inspire your kids to think of differences as strengths, which will encourage them to treat others like the human beings that they are.
Finally, it is important to teach your children to ask questions. Culture is about much more than race, ethnicity or religion; it also about nationality, geographical region, languages spoken, political affiliation, occupation…and on and on. Your child might have questions about someone who represents another culture. It is totally acceptable to cultivate this curiosity by helping your child engage with someone from that culture, ask thoughtful questions about their practices or beliefs and respect the differences that others have.
Teaching your kids to be tolerant is a life-long journey that begins in childhood. It may seem daunting, but remember that your kids are looking to you for guidance. They will mirror your kindness, imitate your empathy and copy the compassion that you show to others.
Kimberly L. Reynolds, M.D., is an instructor for the Department of Pediatrics and a Fellow in the HRSA Primary Care Faculty Development Program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.