Teaching tolerance and respect for different cultures enables young people to explore the beautiful diversity of our planet. It means they won’t have a barrier in social situations or, worse, be involved in illegal actions. Very young children are incredibly tolerant of difference. They are fascinated, often treating each other with respect and asking good questions. However, it might be that your area is not particularly diverse, or people in your family model intolerance. As your child grows, they will meet people from all walks of life. People who look and do certain things differently. It isn’t uncommon for children to wonder about those people or even make fun of their way of life because they don’t know any better. Every child’s social and emotional development is dependent on the environment and the culture they grew up in. The main way of teaching respect and tolerance for different cultures is to develop their general knowledge and awareness.
According to LuAnn Hoover, instructor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University, “Children typically notice differences in those around them, such as physical characteristics, at about age 2.” From age 4, they begin to develop an awareness of cultural and racial groups and where they belong. And if your child can’t wrap their head around why others do things differently, they might respond in ways that hurt other people’s feelings. Approaching that age, you should talk to your child about the value of diversity. Explain to them that people are different even within their group and no way of life is superior to others.
What Do Tolerance and Respect for Different Cultures Look Like?
Tolerance is showing respect and openness to the difference that exists between individuals and different groups of people. It involves finding some common ground, valuing differences, learning from others, bonding with others, and rejecting unfair stereotypes. When your child can play with other children different from their race, they show tolerance and signal that they expect the same respect and fair treatment from others. This seems to be lost as children become teenagers as they struggle more with their own identity. They become more aware of their own differences and often justify their own identity by belittling others or associating with other ethnic groups.
By asking questions instead of behaving as if the difference is something to be swept under the rug, your child also shows that they are curious and open to learning from people from other cultures. This can lead to greater bonds with others and appreciation for a diverse world. However, tolerance does not in any way mean that your child should shun their own beliefs or heritage. Tolerance is embracing their heritage while also celebrating that of others. It is understanding that our heritages and beliefs are part of what makes individuals or groups unique.
How Can I Teach My Child Tolerance and Respect for Different Cultures?
Respecting other people’s cultures in a multicultural world like ours aids your child’s development. “Learning to have respect for others is a lifetime social skill that positively impacts a child’s developing sense of self,” said Hoover, who is also the program coordinator of the K-State Early Childhood Laboratory. “Teaching children to respect differences is also a beginning in the prevention of aggressive and violent behavior.” Below are ways to teach your child to respect other cultures.
- Model culturally responsive behavior. As a parent, you are your child’s greatest role model the conduit through which your child sees and perceives the world. Research led by Sabine Pirchio, a researcher in Developmental Psychology and Education at the Sapienza University of Rome, found a similarity between children’s and parents’ patterns of prejudice. Children tend to imitate and conform to the explicit attitudes and behaviors of their parents. Want your child to not only tolerate other cultures but celebrate them? It has to start with you. If you are urging your child to make friends with others from different cultures, be sure that you yourself are already practicing that. This should come as no surprise. They likely get their opinions about sports teams and religion from you.
- Talk to them about stereotypes. Parents may be their children’s biggest influences, but other environmental factors contribute. Your child may hear a stereotypical remark somewhere and come home parroting it without knowing that they’re perpetuating a stereotype. Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, suggests that “When she does, let her know that while some people in a group may seem to fit a certain description it doesn’t mean everyone is that way.”
- Answer their questions about differences. A lot of parents tend to shy away when their child asks uncomfortable questions about other cultures. Children ask questions matter-of-factly. So your first impulse might be to shush your child when they look up at someone across and ask why the man is wearing a funny wrap around his head. But shushing makes it seem like differences like that are to be avoided and never talked about. Instead of shushing, use that opportunity to explain to your child what a turban is. Let them know that turban is part of some people’s religion. I have found in my experience that people from other cultures would love the opportunity to talk about them. They would rather explain to an 8-year-old why they might wear a turban than feel that child is being steered away from asking.
- Show them positive images of other cultures. In this age of technology where information circulates pretty easily, children are exposed to so many cultural stereotypes. A good way to push back is by showing your child positive images of different cultures. Antonya Gonzalez, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University, led research that found that exposure to the positive vignettes significantly reduced implicit bias in children nine years of age and older. Accordingly, you could provide exposure for your child through movies, shows, books, or stories. “Hearing these stories, the kids are internalizing an association between the group they hear about and positivity, and that counteracts the stereotypical associations that they may already have,” says Gonzalez.
- Help them embrace their own culture and heritage. Migration can sometimes bring about removal from many families’ heritage and culture. It can be tempting to let your child go about their life simply. However, teaching your child about their roots opens their eyes to the importance of their heritage. Your child’s newfound appreciation for their roots can often translate to respect and curiosity for other people’s culture and heritage.
- Encourage friendship with children from other cultures. When your child makes friends from other cultural groups, the likelihood of prejudice reduces because there’s motivation to care and show empathy. This can act as a springboard for learning and extending appreciation for other cultures. You can encourage your child by inviting other children over and organizing play dates.
Final Thoughts on Teaching Respect and Tolerance
With a big role to play in the development of your child’s tolerance and respect for other cultures, you have to work very hard to fight your own unconcerned biases. Children don’t only see explicit biases. They see implicit biases too. They tend to pick up on your unconscious reactions to differences, showing up a divide between what you say and what you do.
Fortunately, unconscious biases can be worked on with conscious effort. Watch movies and books about other cultures, seek out positive cross-cultural interactions, and maybe take an implicit bias test to check yourself.