Why Tolerance Isn’t Working

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A lot of people talk about the importance of teaching our children “tolerance.” And those people? Well, their intentions might be good, but in reality, their actions may be doing more harm than good.

Why? Well, think about the very word “tolerance” and the kinds of things you tolerate. We tolerate pain when necessary. We tolerate a friend’s bad mood. We tolerate a stressful day at the office. None of those things are good, but they’re things we have to suffer through anyway. Girl Scouts’ Developmental Psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, breaks it down for us: “When we use the word ‘tolerance’ and teach kids to tolerate those who are different from themselves—whether in skin color, nationality, their belief system, the language they speak, how they choose to dress or represent themselves, their physical abilities, sexual orientation, or body shape and size—we’re reinforcing differences and implying that those people are somehow beneath or worth less than others, but that we need to ‘put up with them’ anyway.”

And that view, that some groups of people who are different from us are less valuable, is damaging to our society as a whole. We will never create a culture free from fear, hate crimes, and targeted violence if we continue to simply preach tolerance. Tolerance is not enough.

This isn’t an issue of simply seeing and celebrating our similarities—although, of course that’s important, too. It’s also about helping our kids acknowledge our differences and to know those differences are exciting, cool, and vital to our world. “As Americans, diversity is our biggest asset,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “The best inventions, the most innovative and progressive ideas come out of this diversity, and yet there are loud voices in the media and on national stages who are sending conflicting messages about that. We need to combat those sentiments at home, with our children first. We need to teach them to look beyond stereotypes, embrace people different from themselves—and to actually value the variety of beliefs, customs, ideas, and experiences that they bring to the table.”

So, how can you do that?

First, check out your own perceptions of and behavior toward people who are different from you or your family. Your children learn how to navigate this world by watching you—so model inclusion and respect. Mention the attributes that make people in your life different from you and talk about why you think those things are interesting, wonderful, beautiful, or valuable. Tell your daughter how and why it’s important for you to hear different opinions of your friends, even those you might not agree with, because they help you learn and grow as a person.

Remind your kids that when they hear people saying hateful things about a person or group of people based on the color of their skin, background, or other distinguishing characteristics, that what they’re hearing is a stereotype. “Explain to your child that sometimes instead of taking the time to get to know or understand a person or a group, some people will take a short cut and make assumptions about them instead,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “Talk to her about how stereotypes might play out in her life. For instance, if she’s in third grade, ask her if all third grade girls look like she does, act like she does, and think like she does. When she says, ‘No,’ make the connection between that kind of broad-stroke thinking and the kinds of stereotypes she might be hearing both on the playground at school and in the media.”

And perhaps most importantly, help introduce your children to a variety of people from all backgrounds and experiences. If the people in your friend group and social circle in general are very similar in most ways to your family, take the time to branch out and get to know some people who look, think, or live their lives in a different way than you do. Perhaps a local business is run by a family of a different ethnicity than yours, or maybe your neighbors practice a religion you aren’t too familiar with. Get to know these people! Yes, there may be some obvious differences between you, but chances are you also have many things in common. When your children see you not simply tolerating, but actually including people who are different from yourself, they will be more likely to do the same.

But what do you do if your child is the one who’s “different” in her school or town? What if she’s the one being treated differently or even bullied based on “isms” around her skin color, beliefs, or lifestyle? “No one wants to think that their child will be seen this way, but our world is far from perfect, and we know stereotyping and other hurtful behavior can start at an early age,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. Of course, just as any parent would, you want to encourage your child to be respectful and open. Going into a group situation by talking about something she has in common with the other children, be it a shared experience, a game they all enjoy playing, or a TV show or book that’s popular with most of her class—is a great way for any child to connect with others.

Still, many children learn prejudices from the adults in their lives, and might say hateful things or be abusive toward her. “If that happens,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald, “she needs to know that she can and should tell you or a trusted adult at school—and that you and her school administration will do everything in your power to keep her safe—emotionally and physically.” This isn’t even necessarily about disciplinary action (although it may need to be, depending on the situation), but more about finding ways to educate and open the minds of your child’s fellow-students. “It can feel very isolating and burdensome to be in this situation,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald, “because when it’s your child who’s facing prejudice, it often falls to you to take the lead and start working on solutions to the problem. Reach out to other parents and school officials (of all backgrounds—you might be surprised at who wants to be an ally) to form a network of support and start thinking of activities and other ways your child’s class and larger school community can be structured to foster inclusion and the best experiences for all.”

The bottom line? This might seem like a grown-up topic, but no child is too young to learn about appreciating and valuing other humans—especially those who might, at first glance, seem quite different from themselves. Talks around diversity, inclusion, and celebrating our differences need to be ongoing and present in our children’s lives, so get the conversation going if you haven’t already.

This article originally appeared on GirlScouts.org.