Tips for Raising Tolerant Children (January 2013)

  SAFE, SOUND AND SAVVY: Tips for Parents and Their Children

By Mary H. Donohue



Back in the day, my mother always said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Of course, she was right then, but just how right on she was has never been more applicable than in today’s world.  Nowadays, according to the television and magazine ads, the right look means everything.  Heaven forbid, you have a bad hair day or a new wrinkle or are carrying more pounds than you should. Or are wearing last year’s fashion or don’t have an iPhone prominently wired to your ear. 


Unfortunately, these external things are how people judge others these days. First impressions, albeit often unreliable, are permanent. What a person is really made of is inconsequential.  Today, shallow is in and the more bling, the better. It’s style over substance. And more’s the pity for it, because, it is the often the so-called ‘book’ with the dull, tattered cover that is the real treasure trove. To paraphrase Tallulah Bankhead in the movie Lifeboat, “Why some of my best friends are books with tattered covers.” 


As our country prepares to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King January 21, 2013, parents should make the time to talk about tolerance with their children and its importance in this multicultural, diverse and global world we live in today. As a family, discuss how our country is a true melting pot not only made up of different races, religions, ethnic backgrounds, customs, sexual orientations, languages and economic strata, but different body shapes, ages, fashion sense and physical and mental abilities. Talk about differences in your own neighborhood, school community and workplace and what can be learned from neighbors, school mates and co-workers.  Discuss unacceptable epithets, unfair stereotypes and the need to have respect for different cultures and customs, while talking about the importance of honoring and passing on your own family’s cultural heritage and religious traditions. As a family activity, participate in the Community Service Day honoring Dr. King’s legacy. Schedule a CVC presentation on tolerance for your church’s youth group, scout group or neighborhood association.


When it comes to parenting, however, remember that all talk and no action is ineffective when teaching valuable lessons. Tolerance and its antithesis – prejudice – are learned and children learn by watching, listening to and imitating their parents. Here are some things parents can do to raise a tolerant child:

  • Be conscious of your own attitudes. Be sensitive to cultural stereotypes and correct your children if they use them. Demonstrate respect for others. Don’t make jokes that perpetuate stereotypes.
  • Remember that your children are always listening, so be aware of the way you talk about people who are different.
  • Screen your children’s books, toys, music, art and videos. Media has a powerful effect on shaping attitudes.
  • Point out and talk about unfair stereotypes that may be portrayed in media.
  • Answer your children’s questions about differences honestly.
  • Acknowledge and respect differences within your own family. Demonstrate your children’s different abilities, interests, personalities and styles. Value the uniqueness of each family member.
  • Reinforce the principle that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and should treat others with respect. Point out that this does not mean tolerating unacceptable behavior.
  • Help your children feel good about themselves. Children with healthy, positive self-concepts treat others with respect. Children who feel badly about themselves often treat others badly.
  • Give your children opportunities to interact with others who are different. Choose a school, day camp or day care facility with diversity in mind.
  • Learn along with your children about holiday and religious celebrations different from your own.
  • Cherish your family’s traditions and teach them to your children. Invite others from outside your family to learn about your traditions and the diversity you have to offer.

When parents model tolerant values to their children and ultimately to all people with whom they come in contact, their children will follow suit and know not to judge a book by its cover.