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Why Teaching Children to Be Tolerant About Diversity Just Won't Cut It

We need to encourage young children to embrace and celebrate diversity.

As children, the Greatest Generation grew up fearing those who were different from them. Racial slurs were the norm and people with disabilities or mental illnesses were often sent away or kept out of sight. Tolerance wasn’t a buzzword back then.

In fact, when Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific débuted on Broadway in 1949, and then was released on film in 1958, both versions were criticized for highlighting relationships between different races and ethnic groups. Perhaps most controversial was the romance between U.S. Lieutenant Joseph Cable and a young Tonkinese (Vietnamese) woman. Pushing back against the mores of the time, Cable sings a song about the prejudices of his WWII generation, which many fans of the show disliked: "You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught":

You've got to be taught to hate and fear,
You've got to be taught from year to year,

It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You've got to be carefully taught!

Many born in the Baby Boomer generation that followed learned the lessons of South Pacific. They were not going to teach their children to “hate and fear.” They would instead preach politeness and some version of “equality.” When my high school was integrated in the '60s, not a word was said about the people of color who suddenly appeared. If I saw a “handicapped” person (that was the prevailing language of the day), I was to pretend I didn’t notice her disability. The idealism of the Civil Rights Movement taught many in this generation not to acknowledge differences. All people were the same, under the skin.

Generation X has its own take on the lessons of South Pacific. They see differences, tolerate them, and even sometimes appreciate them. They are less likely to think racial and cultural intermarriage and LBGTQ issues are controversial. They support inclusion of people with special needs. Their hearts are in the right place. They want to pass these values on to their children. They are just unsure, in varying degrees, about how to talk to their kids about all of the differences that come with diversity. They hope that just exposing their kids to diversity of all types will do the trick. 

This approach (often called the Diverse Environment Theor y) misses the fact that young children naturally sort people into categories. It is a well-intentioned error to assume children in diverse school settings are colorblind or don’t notice the differences between us. In fact, as Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman contend in their book NurtureShock, greater diversity can lead to more self-segregation and fewer cross-racial friendships.

A study led by James Moody of Duke University largely confirmed that contention, revealing that self-segregation of students was greatest in more diverse high schools. University of Texas psychology professor Rebecca Bigler, who studies the causes and consequences of social stereotyping and prejudice among children—and who strongly advocates for integrated schools on moral grounds—also admits there is not much science to support that it leads to cross-racial friendships. This is not a great surprise: Just look at the cafeteria of any diverse high school and you will see real-world evidence of what these studies suggest. I am sure the same holds true for any of the many differences children can observe among us in daily life. 

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