Studies show that the three areas in which children learn tolerance or intolerance are the home, school and the media, in that order. Even if you have a progressive home, intolerance, as you pointed out, is in the air and children absorb it like sponges.
The globalization of trade and capital has also produced the globalization of humanity. We see so much more diversity now. The increasing diversity we see requires that we teach our children increasing tolerance to prepare them for the multi-cultural life of the 21st century, which is their century. If we don't, we're depriving them of the skills they need to be viable in their world.
We are not born with prejudices or stereotypes but they develop very early in life as does the quest for identity, which is a strong human need. We can teach our children that we have an identity and that other identities are just as interesting and just as valuable. We can encourage our children to experience the positive aspects of diversity rather than a fear of diversity.
BE AWARE OF YOUR OWN STEREOTYPES
We can do this by using the home, school and media in a positive way. In the home, this means that we as parents must become aware of and sensitive to our own stereotypes, prejudices and intolerance. We need to monitor our attitudes and behavior because everything we say and do has an influence on our children's ability to tolerate diversity.
You're stuck in traffic and the driver in front of you is taking her sweet time moving forward when the opportunity arises. You curse under your breath and say something about "women drivers." You notice another Hispanic-owned store opening and make a comment about how they're taking over the neighborhood. You ask your child why he can't be as hard-working as the Asian kids in his class.
Each of these statements gives our children the message that an entire group of people can be characterized -- a message that does encourage prejudice. Instead, we can teach our children about the dangers of generalizing. We must be careful not to talk about "all" whites, "all" Asians, "all" women. We try to teach our children discriminatory awareness so they can respect a culture even when individuals in that culture behave in a deviant manner. Such people exist in all cultures.
Teaching tolerance is teaching respect for humanity. Do we speak kindly of Haitian immigrants in our home so our children develop kind attitudes toward them? When we speak of Vietnamese immigrants in our home do we speak with compassion for their struggle to get here? Do our children see us do good deeds for people who cross the boundaries of sameness? Or do we only do good deeds for people who are just like us? Who is welcome in our home? Who do our children see sitting around our dinner table?
A further step is to go beyond tolerance and to teach pro-social behavior, that is behavior that is non-violent, non-hurtful and non-hateful. It means taking a stand against bigotry; speaking out against racism. It means teaching your child to stand up against bullies when he sees a group of boys picking on someone they consider a sissy. The best way to do this is to be a model. If a friend tells a Polish joke in your presence and, despite your discomfort, you point out that the joke is a racist one, your child will be likely to emulate you.
Because of space limitations, we will only say a few words about school and the media. Curricula have been developed that teach tolerance and some schools are using them. If your school is not, ask for it.
Point out media biases to your children and look for books and toys that don't portray only white people.
Tolerance and intolerance are learned. If we fear differences, our children will too. Teaching tolerance is a responsibility parents need to take seriously. As educators of the next generation, we have an obligation to stand up against bigotry, racism and prejudice in all its forms.