Teaching Children Tolerance

Disclaimer: This is more of an Op-Ed post, if you will. So far, all of my blog posts have been research-based, but this one is written about my experience of teaching children tolerance, empathy and respect as a behavior intervention and character development teacher. After the worst shooting in U.S. history, I feel compelled to do my little part of spreading love, peace and tolerance to anyone willing to read.

Sunday morning I sat in bed reading the news and watching videos on the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub that killed 49 men and women, and injured 53 others. I was so sad, and angry; I could literally feel my blood boiling in my body while tears rolled down my face. Luckily, I had been asked attend a prenatal yoga class that afternoon as a sort-of "graduate" to share how practicing yoga helped me in pregnancy, and through the birthing process. Before class started, the mommies-to-be in the room were asked to go around the room, and share how many weeks along they were, and how they were feeling that day. One of the women broke down crying on her mat about the Orlando tragedy, scared of the type of world she is bringing her baby into. We all sat crying, thinking about the pain and suffering of this sometimes scary world until one mom spoke up, and said "you know, it's ok to grieve, and we all should. But, we can also feel empowered, and encouraged that we have the opportunity to raise these children of ours to be the ones that spread love, that show tolerance and respect to others. We get to raise a new generation of people, and I think that's a gift."


I came home afterward, and talked to my husband about what we can do as a family. He, our daughter, June, and I can't change the world, we won't affect law or policy in our jobs, but we can show love to as many people as we happen to encounter each day. So that night, we did just that. We went to our monthly Sunday Supper where we feed our homeless neighbors, and we loved. June said "Ba", smiled at, and showed her tongue to dozens of homeless neighbors, and brought a smile to each of their faces. As I watched her, I thought, "this child doesn't yet see the difference between the homeless neighbors, and the middle-class men and women serving them. She doesn't notice that some of them are black, some are Hispanic, and others white. She doesn't know that some are clean, and others dirty, or that some may be recovering, or even current, drug addicts or alcoholics. She's a blank slate." Children are not born hateful, racist or intolerant. It is, unfortunately, taught, but so is tolerance.

Therefore, the first step in teaching children tolerance is simply not teaching them intolerance. It is understanding that you, as a parent or caregiver, mold how your children will see the world, and that should not be taken lightly. You may say something off-the-cuff, or out of anger, but those words and actions form your children's opinions. Your opinions become their truth, their reality. Just ask my husband whose brother told him when he was a boy that if he swallowed too much of his own spit then he would die. So, Jimmy went around spitting all the time, just to stay alive. Or, the time Jimmy got a bad haircut, and his brother told him that if he just watered his hair it would grow back, just like plants. Makes sense... to a six-year-old. So, Jimmy spat and watered his hair as often as he could. Children are naive, and very much impressionable. In fact, they look to us to model how they should think, act and feel about people, places and situations. It is important that we are aware of this fact, and take care of it.

Next, I love teaching the"same and different" lesson with kindergarten and first grade students where we explore and discuss similarities and differences in the way we look, and what we like. I show them the below picture, and we talk about what is the same about these two boys, and then what is different. We discuss that we are all the same in some ways, but different in other ways, and that's ok. Next, I ask them to find a partner in the room that they think is the most different from them, then share a couple ways they are the same and different from their partner. When I teach this lesson, I ask them to share their similarities first because it helps them build connections, then we recognize differences. To wrap up the lesson we discuss that it's ok that people are different than us, but we treat everyone with the same respect.

Also, children will have more tolerance for others if they understand empathy. According to the video below, empathy has four qualities: perspective taking (or recognizing their perspective is their truth), staying out of judgement, recognizing emotion in others, and communicating that. There are major differences between sympathy and empathy that are important to understand because empathy drives connection, while sympathy fuels disconnection. Sympathy is feeling pity for someone because something in their life sucks, which isn't a bad thing, but it doesn't drive connection or relationships. Empathy is thinking, "I remember this one time in my life when something sucked, and it felt horrible. I am going to be here for you, even if I don't think your situation is as bad as mine was, or even that bad at all. You think it's bad, and that's all that matters."

We can teach children empathy by talking to them about other people's situations, and ask them to take the perspective of others. When watching a movie, or reading a book, stop and ask questions like: "How do you think he or she felt when that happened to them?" "How would you feel if that happened to you?" "Have you ever felt like Timmy does right now?" "How would you treat him if he went to your school?" This fall I will be working on the concept of un-bullying with the third and fourth grades. The basis of un-bullying, as described to the students, is "if you want people to be nice about you, then you have to be nice about them." The creator of this program, Dr. Milton Boniuk believes in universal respect, and believes it starts with children. The students and I will listen to the children's book Wonder about a boy with facial abnormalities. The book is written from the perspectives of several characters in the book so that the reader gains an understanding, not only for the boy that is different, but for the other characters who have struggles of their own. We will discuss what it must be like to be the main character with facial abnormalities, or his sister whose needs always come to second to her brother's, or another character who has parents that don't love him. The next step is to have students practice saying things they like about themselves in order to create a positive self-image, and build a more positive vocabulary. Finally, they will practice saying nice comments to their classmates and teachers. The goal is to not only not bully, but to help children understand the power of words, and to use them to build each other up.

Finally, it's inevitable that children will be mean, disrespectful, or even hateful. Often times, it is not until we experience hurting someone close to us that we understand the power of our words and actions. It is our job to help our children see these situations as learning opportunities, a chance for restoration and growth. A lot of schools have been shifting from zero-tolerance policies to restorative practices. I am no expert on this subject, but basically, instead of an action then consequence model, restorative practices works with students and the victim to come to a solution, rather than simply handing down a punishment. According to Timothy Hilton in Education Week Teacher, "restorative justice seeks to fix the problem. impose fair punishment, foster understanding and adjust student behavior."

For example, if Johnny pushes Lewis for being mean to him a zero-tolerance policy might make Johnny apologize, then sit out at recess as a consequence for his action. The problem with this is that Johnny's (legitimately angry) feelings weren't addressed, and he doesn't know what to do next time he feels angry. It also doesn't address the fact that Lewis was being so mean to Johnny that he became angry enough to push him. Restorative practice allows Johnny and Lewis to sit down together with the teacher or counselor, and talk about how it made Lewis feel when he was pushed, and what provoked Johnny to push Lewis in the first place. Both of the students have the opportunity to listen to each others feelings, come up with a solution together that works for both parties, and talk about how they can both make better decisions next time. It provides a learning opportunity by allowing children to understand the perspective of the other person, which promotes understanding, empathy and tolerance.

If you're still with me, thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading this. I want to leave you with this video that my second favorite Jimmy, Jimmy Fallon, posted about the Orlando attack. In recent years, he became a "Da-da" to two daughters, and asks, "What do I tell my kids?" "What can we learn from this?" "What if my kids are gay?" He resolves that there is a lesson in tolerance for all of us. He says, "our country was built on the fact that we do not agree on everything, yet we are free to express our differences, and we need to support each others differences." Please be brave enough to not fear, but to be tolerant of others' differences, and to teach your kids to do the same.