Today's world can be a scary one for a child. While the national debate on tolerance picked up steam with the Columbine tragedy, war and terrorism have given it an international tone.
The society that is most integral to our children's lives – school – has long been rife with instances of intolerance. Teasing, exclusion and bullying are early examples of the results of intolerance. Now, with news programs filled with the events in Iraq, children may get the impression that Muslims, people born abroad or even all people of color represent a danger to them.
Complicating this fact may be your own neighborhood. We are a country of white suburbs and urban neighborhoods divided upon ethnic and racial lines. If your child only sees people who look like him, how does he learn to respect others rather than fear them?
Charlotte Nelson, principal of Melissa Jones Elementary School in Guilford, Conn., realized a few years ago that she needed to address this issue. She ran into a former student 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 about his biracial background 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," she says. "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 and her husband is Jewish, 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."
Regardless of the target, tolerance – and intolerance – begins at home, and the best example is the parent. Caryl Stern-LaRosa is director of educational programs for the Anti-Defamation League and the co-author of Hate Hurts (Bt Bound, March 2001). Filled with anecdotes from real people, it gives tools for countering the prejudice that children see all around them.
Stern-LaRosa says there is no such thing as a bias-free person, so it's important to begin by examining your own biases. When we start to look at our own attitudes, we can begin to turn them around.
"Begin by accepting and respecting your own child's differences," says Stern-LaRosa. "Children learn what they live. Likewise, don't make fun of others because they are unattractive, unintelligent or otherwise different."
Stern-LaRosa also suggests the following tips for teaching your child to celebrate diversity:
- Look at your community and ask yourself if your child is truly living in a diverse world. If not, why not? What can you do about it? Volunteering is often a good place to start.
- Listen to your children for signs of intolerance. The issue needs to be addressed if your child makes biased or exclusionary comments, but in a way that doesn't make him or her feel demeaned.
- Listen to your children for signs of victimization. Is your child withdrawn, upset or suddenly dislikes going to school? He or she may be a target of teasing or other forms of cruel behavior. Try to find out the reason and deal with it appropriately.
- Realize that most people who seem to be intolerant, for example, those who tell racist jokes, don't realize they're hurting anyone. They didn't set out to offend anyone, just to make them laugh. Learn appropriate ways to respond.
Furthermore, Stern-LaRosa notes that hate is pervasive in the media, from rap songs with misogynistic lyrics to sitcoms that stereotype various ethnic or social groups. For younger children, screen their viewing. For older children, initiate discussions about what they're watching and hearing.
The Internet is also a hotbed of hate-related sites. Monitor your child's Internet use. If that is not possible, take the time to block sites that are offensive. Most search engines have that option readily available.
Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open. While you may try to have this discussion with your preteen or teen, it may be sometime later before he or she is ready to respond. Be open to how and when your child will want to discuss these issues with you.