Nine Ways to Nurture Tolerance in Children

toleranceFigures show that American youth are displaying intolerant actions at alarming rates-and at younger and younger ages. Researchers say that most hate crimes are committed by youth younger than nineteen, and following the September 11th terrorist attack on America FBI reports reveals a surge in racism aimed at Arab Americans. Dr. Michele Borba, an internationally-renowned consultant and educator, emphasizes that children are not born hateful: prejudices are learned.

She stresses that if children are to have any chance of living harmoniously in this multi-ethnic twenty-first century, it is critical that parents nurture it.  Here are just nine of the dozens of strategies she offers that help curtail bigotry while at the same time influencing kids to treat others with respect and understanding.

1. Confront your own prejudices. The first step to nurturing tolerance is to look in the mirror and examine your own prejudices. Chances are that you are communicating those attitudes (usually quite unintentionally) to your child. You might begin by reflecting on your upbringing: What were some of your parents' prejudices? Do any of those remain with you today? Take time to reflect on how you might be projecting those old, outdated ideas to your child. Then make a conscious attempt to temper them so that they don't become your child’s prejudices.

2. Commit to raising a tolerant child. Parents who take time to think through how they want their kids to turn out usually succeed simply because they planned their parenting  efforts. If you really want your child to appreciate and respect positive displays of diversity, then you must adopt a conviction early on to raise him to do so. Once your child knows your expectations, he will be more likely to embrace your principles.

 3. Refuse to allow discriminatory comments. Your child may make prejudicial comments or repeat discriminatory jokes. How you respond to these statements sends a clear message to your child about your values. When you hear such comments verbalize your displeasure: “That's disrespectful and I won’t allow such things to be said in my house,” or "That's a biased comment, and I don't want to hear it." Your child needs to hear your discomfort so that she knows you really walk your talk. It also models a response she should imitate if prejudicial comments are made in her presence.

4. Embrace diversity. From the time your child is very young, expose him to positive images-including toys, music, literature, videos, public role models, and examples from TV or newspaper reports-that represent a variety of ethnic groups. The more your child sees how you embrace diversity, the more prone he'll be to follow your standards.

 5. Encourage involvement with a wide range of diversities. Encourage your child, no matter how young, to have contact with individuals of different races, religions, cultures, genders, abilities, and beliefs. Ignorance or lack of information is one of the most common reasons why children develop stereotypes. Inexperience, especially if combined with incomplete information, can lead children to have fears or insecurities about others. So, involve your child in programs-whether they are in school, after school, or even at a summer camp- that foster diversity. Make sure you display openness to people who represent a range of positive diversities so that your child imitates how you respect differences.

6. Emphasize Similarities. Encourage your child to look for what he has in common with others instead of how he is different. Any time your child points out how she is different from someone, you might say. “There are lots of ways you are different from other people. Now let’s try to think of ways you are the same.” Help her see how similarities outweigh differences.

7. Squelch Stereotypical Messages. An important part of ending prejudice is helping kids tune into the way they talk about other people or groups. The trick is to have them listen for any sweeping categorical statements they or another person might make, such as “You always…,” “They never…,” or “They’re all…,” because chances are that what follows is a stereotype. Tell your kids that whenever someone in the family makes such a sweeping statement, another family member should gently remind the speaker, “Verify.” Child: Asian kids always get good grades. Parent: Verify! Do you think that’s true for every Asian child?

 8. Counter Discriminatory Beliefs. When you hear a child make a prejudicial comment, calmly listen to find out why he feels the way he does and what gave rise to his words. When you are clear as to why your child expressed such views, challenge his prejudicial feelings and point out why they are incorrect by providing countering examples, more information, or a different interpretation. Challenges should be simple, nonjudgmental, and appropriate to your child’s level of understanding. For example if your child says, “Homeless people should get jobs and sleep in their own houses.” You might counter: “There are many reasons homeless people don’t work or have houses. Some of them are ill. Some can’t find jobs. Houses cost money, and not everyone can pay for a house or an apartment.”

 9. Live your life as an example of tolerance. The best way for your child to learn tolerance is for him to watch and listen to your daily example. So ask yourself each day one critical question: “If my child had only my behavior to copy, would he be witnessing an example of what I want him to emulate?” Make sure you are walking your talk.

Hatred and intolerance can be learned, but so too can sensitivity, understanding, empathy, and tolerance. Although it's certainly never too late to begin, the sooner we start, the better the chance we have of preventing insidious, intolerant attitudes from taking hold. There has never been a time when it is most important to do so than now.

Michele Borba, Ed.D. is a parenting contributor to NBC’s Today show, a regular on CNN Headline News as well as a guest expert on national talk shows. Dr. Borba is the award-winning author of 22 books including her latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Everyday Issues and Your Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass; 2009).  For more information visit


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