I do not believe children are born intolerant. Yet somewhere on the path from childhood innocence to jaded adulthood, people learn prejudice. We learn it from a million different sources, probably in such small doses that we don't even realize that we are forming opinions and values about these "others."
Because of that, I also believe children need help nurturing their tolerance. They need support to preserve their innate ability to accept others and fight the pervasive prejudice around them.
When my daughter was in kindergarten, I realized I had my own subconscious prejudices when I was trying to describe a classmate whose name she didn't recognize. At one point, I said, "She's from India. Her skin is a little bit darker." My daughter looked at me, confused, and said, "It is? I guess I never noticed that before."
In that moment, I wished I could take back my words because I had taken something from my daughter; I had brought to her attention that this girl was somehow different than what I considered the norm. To my 5-year-old, people were people, not colors or religions or differences.
I realized then that I needed to evaluate my own biases if I was going to have any hope of raising a tolerant daughter. I also realized that nurturing my daughter's ability to accept differences in others was something I had to approach with purpose.
Now, I should point out that I am a white Christian woman with very little experience on what it feels like to be marginalized or persecuted for my beliefs. I get that. Does it mean I can't advocate for tolerance and teach my children how to accept and celebrate differences? No way.
Every parent — majority, minority, privileged or not — has a responsibility to nurture tolerance in their children. And like all character-building traits, the hard work starts at home.
First, we need to expose our kids to diversity. This was much easier when we lived in the D.C.-area where diversity was just a part of life. In fact, we were so used to just being one of many colors and ethnicities that it was a shock to move to Utah and be surrounded by so many white people. In places like this, parents may have to seek out diversity. Go to ethnic festivals and learn about people from other countries. Read books with characters of different races and backgrounds. Let your children experience other churches and other cultures.
Then, celebrate these differences. As much as we'd love the world to be truly colorblind, it's not. So show your kids that differences aren't bad, but are something to celebrate, learn about and value. The more kids can see differences as beneficial to society and to them personally, the more likely they are to be tolerant when they encounter someone whose beliefs or background differ radically from theirs.
During all this proactive de-prejudicing, don't shy away from the questions your children may have. For most kids — and probably most adults — intolerance stems from misinformation or fear. So give your child the actual facts, not the stereotypes or the slurs. We've had many discussions in our home about everything from Muhammad to Judaism to homosexuality. In each case, we try to answer questions honestly and respectfully and often point out that even though we may not hold the same beliefs, we don't judge others for theirs.
And of course, none of these tips matter if parents are not nurturing tolerance by example. Be an example of inclusion. This can come in the form of learning together about a different culture, helping refugees or just befriending the family next door that doesn't attend the same church as you.
In the end, we should be much more than "tolerant." We should be fighting prejudice purposefully alongside our children, teaching them how diversity strengthens, enriches and beautifies the fabric of our lives.