The United Nations designated November 16 as International Tolerance Day, and it’s a perfect opportunity for families to get better at connecting with people different than they are. Not only is tolerance an admirable value to strive towards, but teaching kids to embrace differences helps them adapt, socialize, and thrive in the diverse world we live in.
The UN defines tolerance as “respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.” And whether we’re talking about differences in race, class, ability, religion, language, body size, gender expression, sexuality, or another facet of human identity—let’s face it, most people have at least some areas where they could stand to boost their respect and appreciation for others.
So how do we instill this respect and appreciation for human differences in our children? The UN suggests that tolerance education should focus on eliminating bias and influences that lead to fear or exclusion of others. We should also help kids learn to think for themselves with critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills. “The diversity of our world’s many religions, languages, cultures and ethnicities is not a pretext for conflict, but is a treasure that enriches us all,” the UN points out.
Here are some concrete ideas for setting the stage for tolerance at home:
Center a variety of perspectives in your media consumption
Take a good hard look at your bookshelf and your to-watch list. How many books, shows, or movies do you consume that have main characters and/or creators who are different than you in race, culture, sexuality, ability, etc.? Your child has probably seen some forms of diversity in books or shows, but what about stories that really put people who are different from them in the front and center?
When kids see positive and genuine representation of various types of human diversity on a regular basis, they’re more likely to internalize the idea that those experiences are normal. And since kids and families tend to consume so many stories, media is one key area to pay attention to.
If you’re not sure where to start, look for #ownvoices books—meaning that the author shares a marginalized identity with characters they’re writing about. For TV, check out this age-by-age list of shows with diverse characters and this list of kids’ shows that are recommended by members of the disability community.
Introduce different languages
Even if you’re not fluent in more than one language, your child can still be exposed to language diversity. Label objects around the house in two languages and practice pronouncing them together. Listen to songs in various languages, and try to sing along. Learn to count in multiple languages, and practice whenever you need to count anything. Go to parks, neighborhoods, or restaurants where people can be heard speaking languages besides your family’s native tongue. Show your child maps and graphics of the vast array of languages spoken in the world.
All of these types of everyday exposures teach kids that it’s completely natural, not “weird,” to speak a language besides their own native language. Plus, learning another language can be a great brain boost for kids.
Practice discussing differences
It’s okay to disagree with people or to come from very different backgrounds and still have a productive conversation, but this isn’t necessarily an easy set of skills to learn. Review the CLARIFY conversation technique outlined by cultural scientist Alana Conner, Ph.D., and practice it next time you and a family member don’t see eye to eye. In this technique, Dr. Conner emphasizes the importance of listening well, asking lots of questions, using “I” statements, and looking for common ground.
Everyday family disagreements offer the perfect setting to practice these conversational skills, and you can also discuss with your kids examples of when they might use the same phrases when talking to others outside of your immediate circle.
Remember that social awkwardness is okay
Be brave and show your kids that you can be friendly to strangers, even people whom you don’t think you’ll have anything in common with. Whether it’s a fellow park-goer or a Zoom call with someone you’ve never met, make an effort to give a compliment, ask a friendly question, and set a welcoming tone. If you only tend to talk to certain “types” of strangers, think about why you do that and what kind of message it is sending to your child.
When you’re engaging in small talk, even if it feels awkward and doesn’t lead to anything deeper, remember that connecting with new people can open up your mind, boosts your wellbeing, and models tolerance in the real world for kids.
Compliment kindness and empathy
As much as parents say they want to raise kind human beings, they tend to get more excited about traditional forms of success like acing a test or winning a game. So be mindful of when you’re giving your child attention and praise. If it’s only when they’ve accomplished something in the conventional sense, think about ways to show that you value kind behavior too.
Next time you see your child give a welcoming wave to a new neighbor, stand up for a classmate who’s being insulted, or make an effort to try to understand someone else’s point of view, make sure you point out what’s admirable about their actions. You can do the same when you observe a friend or other community member acting kindly towards someone else.
Author and speaker Scott Mautz suggested some ways to give regular attention to kind behaviors: “I keep a little mental counter and try to compliment my daughter for her kindness three times for every time I’d compliment her about an achievement. My wife and I also ask our daughter about kindness shown during her day, not just about how she did on a test or some other standard success metric.”
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