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Teaching Your Children About Tolerance

How To Discuss Prejudice And Tolerance With Your Kids

Shortly after the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Caryl Stern-LaRosa, director of educational programs for the Anti-Defamation League, was asked to appear on a morning talk show to discuss violence prevention. At home, her 4-year-old son watched. Later, she asked him what he thought about seeing Mommy on TV. She thought it odd that he didn't have much to say.

The next day he refused to get dressed for preschool. Apparently, before showing the interview with Stern-LaRosa, the network had run a tape of the shootings at Columbine. He was afraid if he went to school he'd be hurt.

"I spent the rest of the day with my son, and at one point he asked me 'Why do people hate?'" says Stern-LaRosa. "I suddenly realized that, although I was considered an 'expert' in the field, I didn't know what to say to my 4-year-old."

Never Too Early

It's never too early to start teaching children tolerance. Research shows that a 6-month-old infant can distinguish skin color, hair texture and facial features. By age 3, children show definite preferences for people who look like them. By 4 or 5, children assign social characteristics based on skin color – in other words, stereotyping has already begun.

"The first thing parents have to do is look at the messages they're sending, not just blatantly, but subtly," says Stern-LaRosa. "If the only people who come to our house look like us, if the only people who look different are on our payroll, if we show anxiety when we're out with our child and someone who looks different comes toward us, the child will pick up on that."

After examining their own attitudes, parents need to be prepared to start conversations about prejudice and tolerance early in life. If they wait until it's required, because their child has become a victim or is victimizing someone else, there is too much emotion involved in the issue.

This is not as much of an issue for families already living in neighborhoods with a diverse population. Parents living in areas made up primarily of one racial or ethnic group have to work harder.

Taking Action

Charlotte Nelson, principal of Melissa Jones Elementary School in Guilford, Conn., found that out the hard way a few years ago. She ran into a former student, a biracial child, at a meeting in a local church. He was in high school at the time, but talked about how, at age 6, other children would say hurtful things to him on the playground, not out of meanness, but out of ignorance. Nelson was deeply disturbed, because she hadn't thought about her enlightened, predominately white suburb as being exclusionary. Since then, Nelson has been actively working to promote diversity training in her community.

In the spring of 2000, the Guilford School District started a program called "Names Can Hurt Us" where high school students are trained to speak to younger children about their experiences with prejudice. It is a pilot program of the Anti-Defamation League's A Classroom of Difference series. A Classroom of Difference is in its 15th year, and more than 350,000 teachers in the United States have gone through its workshops – which means that 13 to 16 million students have been positively impacted.

Nelson was impressed with the results of the new program. "Parents spend practically every moment trying to guide their children in all areas of life," says Nelson. "So when something like this comes from a parent, often it's just one more thing. When it comes from other kids they pay attention."

One of the parents who helped put the program together was Rosemary Alpert. She has a personal interest in teaching tolerance because she's Catholic, her husband is Jewish, and they are raising their two children to embrace both religions.

"For very young children, the lesson can be as simple as teaching them not to tease," says Alpert. "As they get older that can be expanded upon to include the issue of cliques and standing up for those who are being left out."

Under the Skin

Stern-LaRosa also suggests games such as an exercise the American Defamation League does with 4-year-olds. Each child is given a lemon and given time to "get to know their lemon." The children spend about 10 minutes playing with the lemon, rolling it around, throwing it or whatever else they want to do. Then, all the lemons are put into a bucket, and the children are asked to find their lemon. Amazingly, they always can. When asked how they knew it was theirs, the children can point out specific characteristics of their lemon, such as lumps, bruises or color differences. The leader notes that people can also be different but once you get to know them, they become special to you.

Then they peel the lemons. After dealing with the issue of "naked lemons," a concept sure to crack up any normal 4-year-old, they ask the children to again pick out their lemons. This time they can't because they all look the same. And that, says Stern LaRosa, is the point. We're all the same on the inside.

"It's a 15-minute exercise but it stays with a child for life," said Stern-LaRosa. "Teaching tolerance is not about lecturing, it's about exposing them to a variety of cultures and being a good example. If you treat everyone with respect, your children will too."

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