My naive upbringing in Upland, California led me to believe that racism and discrimination were evil traits from the past. My elementary teachers would often begin a unit with statements like “Long ago, it was against the law for colored children and white children to sit in the same classroom” or “Long ago, it was OK for people to own other people based on the color of their skin alone.”
These brief, vague understandings of Black history made me think I had it good. If all I had to deal with was a mean name or mistreatment here and there, I was doing well in comparison to these tragic stories of the past. Or at least, so I thought.
The older I got, the more apparent it became to me that some of my friends were less tolerant of my presence than I realized, for reasons that neither I, nor they, could quite identify. I do not believe my childhood friends had ill intentions. I was still invited to sleepovers and otherwise included in most activities. But I believe that individuals who have similar cultures, family structures, and beliefs are drawn to one another and gain a sense of belonging. Without that bond of sameness, there can be discomfort from both sides in understanding and accepting differences.
Tolerance starts in the home, and children must be surrounded by adults who are intentional about demonstrating kindness and humbleness. Learning to accept and respect all walks of life is a lifelong pursuit. Mistakes will be made. A level of accountability is required.
So how can parents and educators teach tolerance in a way that is authentic and sustainable? I do not have all the answers, but if I had to use one word to describe how to teach tolerance, I would say “explicitly.” Here are five strategies I use as a parent to ensure ongoing engagement in these difficult conversations with my 4-year-old daughter.
Knowledge is power, and children will ask the most off-the-wall questions. I often find myself looking up the definition for very simple words in hopes that it will help me break down the meaning so I can help her understand. I have come to terms with the fact that it is OK for me not to know the answer, but it is not OK to float in ignorant bliss. To have taught is first to have learned, so tap into your learning style and embrace the process of acquiring new knowledge — via podcasts, videos, webinars or articles. Seek various vantage points and be informed so that you are ready for those tough questions.
It is getting harder by the day to shield children from societal flaws. You are fighting an uphill battle if avoidance is your method for addressing issues. If you are not honest with your children, someone else will fill in. The last thing you want is for your child to be caught off guard or given a distorted version of the truth.
Communication is the most obvious, and yet the most difficult, exchange of them all. It is especially difficult when your conversation partner lacks words and cannot fully understand the ideas you are desperately trying to convey. Remember that 93% of communication is nonverbal. Conceptualize ideas for children by providing examples they can relate to. For example, children love talking about their birthdays. Explain individual differences as you would explain various cupcake flavors at a birthday party. Everyone will not have the same preference but we value all the cupcakes because it would be a dull party if you only offered a single flavor. Children will sense the urgency in the tone of your voice, and they will pick up on the nuances of the attitude you present to them.
Be an example
Young children are not yet programmed to discriminate against someone based on the big eight: ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. They pay attention to you and the respect you pay to others. How did you treat the waitress at dinner last night? Did you make a face at the bank teller with the double piercing? Are you quick to brush off the homeless? Your influence is greater than you realize, so help your children discover their own humility through your actions and words.
I am not suggesting you have to go out and demonstrate on the frontlines of a peaceful protest, although that, too, can initiate change. I am instead proposing that you step out of your comfort zone by getting behind any cause within the fight for equality. Why? Because it is no longer enough to be silently tolerant of others.
Anything to promote positive change will present countless teachable moments. What better way for your child to know and understand than to be involved? The goal is to not have children simply tolerate people different from themselves, but to know they have openness toward and capacity to love others.
By the time I got to high school, my circle of friends had narrowed down to mostly other Blacks and People of Color who had the same interests and lived in the same neighborhoods. Had I never ventured beyond my small city, I might not have come to appreciate other cultures, foods, music, and all the other things that make people unique.
Now, having a diverse group of friends, colleagues, and associates keeps my unintended biases in check. My sense of belonging derives not only from people who share my values and culture, but from those who know and accept me as I am.
I have also learned a lot about myself, and the history of my ancestors — much of which has been lost, buried or kept a secret out of fear of the less tolerant people in the world. Marginalized and not set up for success, I find myself still searching for my voice so that my daughter can grow up in a more just and inclusive world than the generations before. In addition to teaching her to love and tolerate others, I teach that her Black life does matter. She, like all children, deserves as much as she is willing to work for.