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

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 Theory) 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. 

When Cherry Preschool, the school I founded and directed, opened in 1992, we were serving the children of Generation X, children whose parents valued diversity, if they remained somewhat unsure of how to talk about it. Our vision was to be truly inclusive, which our parent community completely supported. One of our first acts was to join with a local daycare for a yearlong “anti-bias” training for both of our staffs. We tried to explore our personal attitudes, mostly about race, and used lots of lofty words: modeling respect for all of the people in our community and beyond; practicing kindness and civility; and creating a climate of tolerance for the young children with whom we worked.

We talked and wrote a lot about acknowledging, accepting and celebrating differences in all areas including; race, religion, ethnicity/national origin, culture, gender, age, family structure, socio-economic status and ability. Our approach was based on Starting Small: Teaching Tolerance in Preschool and Early Grades, a curriculum developed the year before by the Southern Poverty Law Center. We recognized that children develop biases when they are very young, and we wanted to teach children to embrace the diversity of the world in which they live.

I still think we are on the right track with this approach, but I also think we need to reframe the journey and the end goal. Tolerance is a pretty low standard for today’s preschoolers. What we should really hope to achieve is acceptance and celebration of diversity, through learning about each other and celebrating the ways in which children are different, as well as the same.  

So what does that actually look like in the classroom, and at home? Of course, we want to teach children civility and respect for others, especially for others who are different from them. But first we need to be comfortable with acknowledging that these differences exist. For example, when children point out differences in color or ability, we need to validate their observation and use it as a teachable moment. Parents and teachers can then model how to appreciate and value this diversity. For example, when a child asks why her classmate with autism is flapping his hands and squealing, the response could be, “Yes, I see that he is doing that. It looks like he’s telling us with his body and his voice that he’s really excited and happy. You can use words to tell me how you feel, but he’s still learning to do that. Let’s tell him we are glad he is so happy.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center provides many resources to support acceptance and celebration. Despite its outdated title, Teaching Tolerance, both book and DVD formats, is still an important teacher training and parent awareness tool. Most of the ideas are still as relevant in 2014 as they were in 1991 when the curriculum was created. (There are also new materials available for no cost through the website. If your child’s school doesn’t know about it, they should.)

Because of the Teaching Tolerance training, the staff at Cherry Preschool continues to celebrate the richness of our differences and create classrooms that reflect these differences. During the course of the year, teachers ask parents to share books, music, dress, customs, or foods from the various cultures in the class. The preschool chooses materials like dolls, puzzles, pictures and books with great care, and uses “people color” art materials that are representative of skin tones of children in each class. There are special paints designed for this purpose that have wonderful color names such as terra cotta, melon and gingerbread.    

Every classroom talks about how we are all alike but also all different, and special. We acknowledge that even at a young age, children notice people are not the same, but what we aim to have them learn is how not to make judgments based on these differences. In the book, Are We Born Racist, editor Jason Marsh points out that, “We are born with a certain predisposition to fear that which we deem to be unlike ourselves somehow.” In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman cite many studies confirming that children as young as 6 months notice differences in skin color. Yet despite this, 75% of white parents rarely talk about race with their children.

What about other differences aside from race that children notice, which similarly go unspoken? What about children whose families are different from their own? Teachers and parents can’t assume that children do not notice families with one parent, or with two parents of the same sex, or with grandparents assuming the role of parents. What about families that don’t celebrate the same holidays they do? Or friends who do not have new clothes, or who live in an environment far different from their own? What about peers with special needs who can’t walk or hear or see or talk? Or their classmate who hits or screams or flaps when he’s excited? In the new frame, the definition of diversity expands.

Children attach meaning to racial and other differences based on what they are taught by adults, as well as what they learn through their own experiences. When differences are not acknowledged and discussed, negative values can sometimes attach to those differences in children’s minds. As early childhood educators, we have learned that unspoken messages can speak to children as loudly as spoken ones. If a child on the autistic spectrum is flapping his hands and teachers say nothing, his classmates most likely conclude he is strange and should be avoided. It is important that we are clear with our messages to help shape the values children will attach as they learn about the people in their world.

When educators do not acknowledge and celebrate differences in their classrooms, they may unknowingly impose their own cultural and ethnic values on their students.  Not so many years ago it was common practice for early childhood educators to follow a multicultural or “tourist” approach in their classrooms. This approach resulted in celebrating differences only during holidays or cultural events, instead of year-round. Celebrating Cinco de Mayo but never mentioning Latino culture at other times of the year is one example of this approach; Autism Awareness Day programs are another. The problem with programs like these is that they perpetuate, rather than ameliorate, stereotypes by confining them to a special day. We need to learn about the lives of people who are different from the community “norm” each and every day.

Building inclusive, equitable and caring classroom communities requires us to go beyond the song from South Pacific, which showcases the prejudices overtly taught to children by their parents and communities. Children need to be taught explicitly how not to hate and fear that which is different. It may be uncomfortable for parents and teachers to talk about differences, but without the conversation children will make their own implicit associations. 

To move beyond tolerance, and shift our understanding of difference into a new realm, children need to be given opportunities to learn about one another, intimately, so they value what children different from themselves bring to the table. The goal must be for them to accept, not just tolerate differences, and celebrate them for enriching their lives. That will only happen when parents and educators lead the way.

Thanks to Biz Lindsay-Ryan and Rhonda Cohen for their input in preparing this article.


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