Experts agree that if parents want their children to grow up to be accepting of other people’s differences, it is important to start teaching tolerance at a young age. Studies show that infants as young as six months old are able to categorize people by their gender and race. Children as young as two years old notice differences in those around them and begin to explain people’s behaviors based on race. By five years old, children express preferences for their own race.
It is important that kids learn to respect all people and understand that even though we are all the same, we are also very different. Teaching compassion and tolerance improves the social and emotional development of a child. It also helps to prevent aggressive and violent behavior towards others. In an era, rife with division and news stories filled with hatred, it seems that now more than ever is the time to start teaching children how to truly love and respect one another.
The role of the parent is to lay the positive groundwork by cultivating compassion, empathy, and acceptance of others. Children aren’t born with biases, but instead they form meaningful attitudes about others from the world around them. So, how do you go about teaching children to be tolerant? Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
- Understand your own biases. One of the first steps a parent can take when wanting to teach their child tolerance is to look at their own attitudes, beliefs and biases. It’s important to note here that we all have biases about others. It’s a normal part of being human. The goal isn’t necessarily to get rid of these biases, but rather to notice them. For example, if you cross the street whenever you see someone walking towards you who has a different skin color than you, your child will pick up on this behavior. Your child may not be conscious of it, but the message they are receiving is that the other person is scary or to be avoided.
- Exposure. If your child isn’t growing up in a diverse environment, consider teaching about other cultures within your own home. Eat diverse food from around the world, have foreign film nights or encourage your child to learn another language.
- Talk with your child about concepts of diversity. Pointing out differences doesn’t promote prejudice. In fact, the opposite is true. Silence about topics such as race, sexual orientation and religion inhibits children from asking questions. Books can be a really helpful tool when wanting to teach about topics of diversity.
These conversations may not be comfortable to have at first, but they are important. If this is new territory for you as a parent, go easy on yourself. You don’t have to know all the answers and it’s okay to let your child know that. Make room for their thoughts, feelings, and questions. Do your best to guide them towards compassion and acceptance for all.
Christine Holmberg, LMFT