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Teaching kids tolerance and diversity

Abbi Perets lives in Houston, TX, with her husband and five children.

We can all get along

You're at the grocery store, and you pass a woman whose skin is a different color, is in a wheelchair, is speaking a foreign language, or wearing symbols of an unfamiliar religion. And your child immediately asks, in a voice loud enough to be heard three states away, "Why is that lady [fill in the blank]?" And you can feel the eyes of the entire store upon you, accusing.

We can all get along

You've always thought of yourself as a fairly enlightened person. You smile at people, no matter their race or ability. You can get along with people even if they believe differently from you. So the first time you see your child point to someone different and comment aloud, it's horrifying -- and a little eye-opening, too.

It's not that you're intolerant, and of course, you aren't prejudiced. But how often do you go out of your way to teach your kids tolerance -- to expose them to different things? It's not something that easily presents itself for most families. We tend to hang out with people who are like we are. So what are you supposed to do? And why should you bother? Let's tackle that second question first.

Why tolerance matters

What's to be gained by teaching tolerance? World peace, economic stability, the cure for cancer. Nothing major. No, really. People who get along with each other don't fight. They spend money and share information freely. And you can't effect change on a large scale unless you start at the individual level. Cliche as it might sound, you have to be the change you want to see in the world.

Then there's the flip side. Hate isn't something we're born with -- it's something we learn. If your child hears you mutter "idiots" under your breath every time you pass someone of a specific race, that's what she'll internalize. She won't even necessarily know where it comes from, but when she encounters people from that race later in life, she'll feel superior. She'll look down on them. She'll continue the cycle of hatred, and the world will continue down the path it's on.

If your child is simply never exposed to anything outside her world, she will stare and ask questions when she confronts differences. That's not terrible -- questions are a critical step toward understanding -- but it might be embarrassing for you in the short term.

How to teach tolerance

So you get it. Tolerance matters. So how do you teach it to your kids? It starts with exposure. Let your kids experience differences. Pick a culture, for example, and look for books about it. Make and try foods, try on outfits, and have fun. Find friends from a different religion and share experiences. Plan a trip -- real or imagined -- and talk about what you'll see.

Closer to home, look for picture books that show kids of different races and abilities. Talk about outside differences and what they mean. Encourage questions, but help your kids understand that there's a time and a place -- and a way -- to ask. If you're stuck on finding books, talk to your local children's librarian, or get Googling. You can find all kinds of resources that let your kids explore amazing things from the safety of your living room.

What are the ways you encourage tolerance in your kids? Let us know in the comments!

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