Teaching Kids Tolerance

Difference by Alice Kaltman

Originally appeared in A Child Grows in Brooklyn on January 27, 2011

We can teach kids what we believe is right, but we can’t always protect them from what’s wrong. That’s a sobering and scary fact especially these days.
While our entire nation is reconsidering the power of intolerance in the wake of recent horrific events in Tuscon, I think how this is an issue parents of young children grapple with daily.

It can be hard for the pacifist parent to watch a son point a plastic gun or tree branch threateningly (albeit playfully) at a playmate. Equally cringe-inducing for the feminist parent to watch a daughter dress and re-dress her dolls and play ‘house’.

And what of the true gender-benders, the tutu-loving boy, or the sporty warrior girl? Parents of these role-defying youngsters must grapple with tolerance and acceptance on a whole other level. It can be even harder for parents of these trailblazers to go with the flow. It’s great to encourage a shy kid to be more social, or an aggressive kid to be gentler, but I get nervous when I see parents pushing their children to be what they just aren’t meant to be, especially in the areas of gender-specific play.

Wherever they land on the gender-specific spectrum, children don’t usually gravitate towards loved pursuits to fit in. More often, they’re drawn by their innate natures. So when kids seek approval of parents or peers their sense of identity gets blurry. When they hide their true natures to avoid conflict or fit in, that’s downright sad.

Playtime is when children work out who they are and what they care about. Mattias may prefer ballet to basketball. Olivia may prefer the bike to Barbie. Zeke wants to play the harp, not the bass guitar, Sara aspires to be the next Hilary Duff, not Hilary Clinton. Parents have to accept that sometimes their kids may not be the kids they expected them to be.

But while temperaments are genetically pre-determined, social skills can be learned. The greatest lesson to teach kids is that different isn’t bad, it’s just different. Forcing a boy who loves ballet to play basketball instead is wrong, but teaching that boy to appreciate his friend’s love of ball sports is brilliant. Insisting a tree-climbing girl wear a dress is just plain stupid, but allowing her to diss her younger sister’s love of frills is even worse.

Kids might be aggressive, they may have destructive urges, but there should be no place for cruelty or intolerance. Sometimes it’s hard for a parent to distinguish the difference during playtime. We have to pay close attention and listen to the language kids are using. We have to notice when a tussle is turning into a true fight, recognize when a kid playing alone has been ostracized and hasn’t elected to be solo. Often we miss the cues, or aren’t even present when the damage is being done.  What we can hope for is that we’ve taught our kids to advocate for themselves and to be cheerleaders for diversity and fair play.

It’s every parent’s perogative to impart their own values to their children. I hope they can have calm and informative discussions with their kids about why they believe what they believe, especially in those times when parents’ choices rub their kids the wrong way. Or visa versa.

We can’t change what our children want to play with, but we can influence the way they choose to play. Whatever lifestyle choices parents make for their families I hope those choices are guided by compassion, tolerance, and a huge capacity for difference of opinion: at home first, and ultimately everywhere else our children go.