Conversations in Tolerance

Nurturing tolerance and acceptance in children is incredibly important, and everyday life offers tons of opportunities to tackle the topic. Children will naturally come across (and often comment on) differences, and this is your chance to steer the conversation in the right direction. Posing open-ended questions is great way to start, as it prompts children to think beyond a visceral reaction and develop intrinsic empathy and open-mindedness.

Here's how you can turn three common situations into teaching moments.

The situation: Your child makes a negative comment about someone who is overweight.

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Throughout her life, your child will encounter and take note of people who look different than she does -- whether it's because of weight, height, shape, or skin color. Regardless of the specifics, you want your overall message to encourage the acceptance of all differences, and to discourage judgment.

Your talking points: "People come in all shapes and sizes. How they look doesn't make them better or worse than someone else. How would you feel if they heard what you were saying?" Pause to listen to your child's response. "How would you feel if you were in their body?" Having your child imagine being in the other person's shoes will help foster empathy, which is a crucial component of acceptance. 

The situation: Your child asks about why a student in your child's class is wearing hearing aids.

Keep in mind that a child's interest in someone with disabilities is usually one of true curiosity rather than judgment. Children can be genuinely intrigued by how a device works and why it's being used -- whether it's a wheelchair, cane, or hearing aid. Start by giving factual information then ask questions.

Your talking points: "People wear hearing aids because they have trouble hearing. Sometimes people are born with these difficulties, and other times they lose their hearing because of an illness or accident. It is pretty amazing that we have technology that can help people hear, isn't it? What other questions do you have?"

The situation: You and your child are watching a movie that features characters with accents and your child asks, "Why are they talking funny?"

Making fun of someone's accent is common in our society, so it's especially important to discuss all the nuances of this situation. While comments about how people speak can be meant as lighthearted and funny, they can also be a sign of judgment and hurt people's feelings.

Your talking points: "The way they speak is different from the way you talk, isn't it? Each one of us has our own way of talking, even though it may not sound like an accent to us. In some circumstances, the way you speak might sound different to others. How do you think people would describe the way you speak?"

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Elizabeth Lombardo is a psychologist and author of A Happy You. Find her at elizabethlombardo.com.

The Good Kid Project is a year-long series that explores 12 qualities that are key to a happy, well-adjusted child.

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