One of the most important lessons parents can
teach their children is tolerance for others-acceptance of differences
in appearance, culture, language, or ability. This can be particularly
difficult at those developmental stages when children seem more
vulnerable to teasing and peer pressure. In the presence of a desirable
social group, children can easily become caught up in behaviors
that lead to stigmatizing others because of some characteristic.
This stigmatizing usually results from misunderstandings of individual
differences or from prejudices reflected in their neighborhoods
or communities. These perceptions often reflect the behaviors and
attitudes of significant adults in these children's lives.
Compounding the day-to-day issues of tolerance
in our communities is the response to tragic national and local
events such as schoolyard shootings and the terrorist attacks of
September, 2001. Regardless of parents' efforts to shield children
from the most horrific images, all of our children have been touched
to some degree by these events and by the reactions of their parents,
teachers and neighbors. While anger can be a normal response when
such disasters occur, parents must ensure that they do not compound
a great tragedy by reacting against innocent individuals with vengeance
and intolerance. There is a tremendous risk of unfairly stigmatizing
people-in this country and around the world- who may look like our
perceived "enemies" because of their apparent race, language,
religion, the way they dress, or some other attribute.
Children, in particular, may have difficulty channeling
their feelings appropriately, and they can easily pick up negative
or demeaning cues given by adults around them. Given the diversity
of America's schools, some students may become targets of hostility
and blame. Bullying and harassment are never acceptable, but they
can be especially damaging at a time when increased vigilance against
terrorism remains in the news. Such behaviors only further increase
the risk of violence in schools and communities.
Parents can help their children understand
the importance of treating all people with dignity and not judging
groups of people based on the actions of a few. Most importantly,
parents must model tolerance and compassion in their own words and
behavior. They should also encourage children to explore their feelings
about prejudice and hate. Doing so is not only critical to preventing
further harm, it also provides an opportunity for our young people
to learn and incorporate our commitment to individual freedom and
upholding the respect and dignity of all people into their own values.