Don't Wait For Them To Bring It Up
With other loaded topics -- sex, drugs, bullying -- we might wait for the teachable moment or signals that our kids are ready to learn more. This strategy doesn't work for teaching tolerance. "Kids know race and ethnicity are sensitive topics, and they know they are not supposed to talk about them," says Michael D. Baran, Ph.D., who is white and an anthropologist and cognitive psychologist at Harvard, specializing in how children learn about race. "And you don't tell kids in a direct way to be tolerant -- that's an 'eat your vegetables' kind of approach. Instead, give them the tools to understand the complicated social world and the confidence to ask questions when they are confused." Be prepared for questions like the one a white 3-yearold asked Dr. Briscoe-Smith: "Does black skin rub off?"
Age 3 -- or even 2 -- isn't too early to start a conversation. Talk to your child about the world and all the different people within it. Pique his curiosity, get him thinking, and field questions without flinching. Bring home books about kids in other countries, try new foods, and learn some simple words in an unfamiliar tongue. If your child is in school, ask his teachers to give you a heads-up when they're discussing different cultures or civil rights in class (Martin Luther King Day is an obvious time). That way, you can bring up the topic at home. "If you do these things, respect and understanding are likely to follow," says Dr. Baran.
While you're accentuating the positive, acknowledge the negative too. It really helped me to read a booklet called Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent's Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice, from The Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance site (download the free PDF at tolerance.org). It advises parents "to be honest about in stances, historical and current, when people have been mistreated because of their differences." In other words, point out why a character offends on TV or in a movie. Bring. It. Up.