Teaching Tolerance: How to Foster Acceptance in Children

Two boys in blue jackets and rain boots walk together under rainbow umbrellaIn times like these, when intolerance is everywhere you look—from political campaigns to schoolyard bullying to routine traffic stops—you might feel the way so many of the people I work with in therapy do: helpless. It can seem as if nothing you do makes much of a difference. Fortunately, there is a way to create real, lasting change, and that’s by teaching our children the ideal way to treat others. It’s the very definition of thinking globally but acting locally: increasing tolerance in the world starts at home.

It’s fair to assume most parents want to raise the kid who welcomes all friends, is kind to others regardless of skin color or religious beliefs, and is unafraid of differences. But with children receiving radically different messages every day (at school, on social media, and in the news), families must be proactive in being the most influential messengers in their lives. By raising children who are aware and accepting of differences, we can help ensure that their lives will be better—more peaceful childhoods, more successful careers—and increase the likelihood the world changes for the better along with them.

Here are seven simple strategies for encouraging acceptance and open-mindedness in your family:

1. Start as Early as Possible

For a long time, it was assumed we were born with the tendency to judge others. After all, our brains function by recognizing patterns (“t” and “o” make the word “to”) and categorizing information (“apple” and “orange” are both “fruit”). And some studies seemed to indicate that part of our brain (the amygdala, which registers emotions such as fear) lit up when we saw faces of different colors, indicating a subconscious detection of threat. The assumption that prejudice and racism are innate made it tough to figure out how to fight these insidious issues.

More recently, these findings have been largely debunked. And some new research goes even further, indicating that young kids are uniquely unprejudiced. One study carried out on children showed that the amygdala wasn’t activated until the age of 14. In other words, there’s reason to believe that if we model acceptance early and often, kids will pick it up easily and persuasively. So don’t wait to talk to your kids until you think they can fully understand—the conversation can start with simple concepts and progress to more complex ideas over time.

2. Check Your Own Attitude

The first step to transforming your children’s outlook is to look at your own point of view. After all, children learn by mimicking. Babies watch our faces carefully to pick up social cues. They smile when we do to get a positive reaction from caregivers. Toddlers study how others handle objects so they can manipulate a spoon or a television remote. And older children hear how their parents talk about others, and imitate language used at home.

Whenever you feel your anger rising or see it in your kids, stop and ask what the other people in the scenario might be experiencing. Could that driver who just cut you off in traffic be rushing home to a sick child? Might the man yelling at the drugstore employee have been fired recently? Could the bully at school have learned violence at home?

Because the ways we talk about people, stereotype, or express fear are noticed by our children, we have to be careful about our own, perhaps unacknowledged, prejudices. If we sprinkle a more compassionate viewpoint into the way we talk and act, our kids are more likely to take on this softer point of view.

In my practice, I’ve repeatedly seen the power of compassion. When people are angry or hurt, they tend to focus solely on themselves and how they’ve been wronged. Kids, especially young ones, are already primed to concentrate on their own feelings when they’re mad or sad. By asking them to put the focus on the other person, and by being empathetic to what the other party is going through, their eyes are opened. And sometimes, their anger just melts away.

You can apply this in everyday living. Whenever you feel your anger rising or see it in your kids, stop and ask what the other people in the scenario might be experiencing. Could that driver who just cut you off in traffic be rushing home to a sick child? Might the man yelling at the drugstore employee have been fired recently? Could the bully at school have learned violence at home?

These interpretations make us more understanding and less judgmental. By aiming a more considered response at the issue, we teach an antidote to thoughtless anger and hatred.

3. Eschew the Easy Answer

It’s simple, and in a way natural, to jump to conclusions about people or lump them into categories. A girl is wearing a too-short skirt in high school? Bad morals handed down from bad parents. A group of boys are wearing hoodies? They’re in a gang.

But racial and social issues are multi-determined, meaning there are a variety of factors leading up to any one outcome. To help your child learn how to think through an issue in a complex way, look for all sides to the story by asking them a lot of questions. Start with small, local problems: What might the girl in the skirt believe about sexuality? What does her culture teach her? How did the media affect her clothing choices? Then, as their thinking becomes more mature, move on to global issues, such as immigration. Some sample questions: What might it be like to grow up in a state where religious mores are the law? How would it feel to be forced from your country, and how might you feel about the people in your new residence?

4. Use Respectful Language

If you want your child to truly believe that all people are equal, you have to walk the walk. Monitor how you respond to others and describe them. Is it possible that, sometimes without realizing it, you make a derogatory comment when someone is dressed in a way you find threatening? That you might respond to your child’s story about an annoying classmate by calling the kid “a jerk” or “stupid”?

Often, we feel more justified in making fun of our own community. I hear many families poke fun at their own customs or complain about older family members’ conventions. But this criticism can sound more insulting than you realize, unintentionally passing down an attitude to your kids that it’s okay to criticize other people’s beliefs or judge their way of life.

5. Allow for Multicultural Education

It’s becoming more common for schools to tackle themes of cultural variation and to celebrate differences. Knowing more about other people’s rituals and beliefs makes them less foreign and less scary. And seeing teachers value traditions other than their own sends a powerful message to kids about how to be respectful, open-minded, and accepting.

If your child’s school hasn’t already started a program or class in multiculturalism, consider bringing up the idea. Festivals, clubs, or after-school programs are some smaller venues for getting kids involved and starting conversations around tolerance.

6. Talk Through Tragedy

Sadly, kids are being exposed to more and more violence and stories of discrimination. This also means there are many opportunities to talk through difficult issues. Although many parents are afraid of traumatizing kids by bringing up seemingly adult problems, the truth is kids are usually aware of the problems already and are often more capable of thinking about solutions than we give them credit for.

Go for honesty whenever possible, but go easy on the details, especially to young kids. Check in with them again later to see if any of the issues raised have caused them concerns or fears, or if they’ve heard anything scary from others. Don’t do all the talking; listen to their concerns, and ask if they have any ideas about how to help.

It’s okay to admit you don’t have the answers. Just sitting and experiencing sadness together can be healing in itself.

7. Get Involved

One big roadblock to compassion is the fatigue that sets in when we feel like we can’t possibly make a difference. When we take action, even in small ways, it’s an opportunity for kids to feel more involved and positive. Consider actions you can take with your kids that will help empower them, such as raising money, sending letters, or joining local meetings.

Another tip is to avoid segregating your children. Many parents hope to protect and shelter their kids by limiting their exposure to outside influences. The truth is, the more experiences they have and the more communities they join, the better able they may be to cope with the complexities of the world. Kids who go from private school to country club to family vacation, with no chance to branch outside of their community, may naturally be limited in their abilities to be flexible and open-minded. Volunteering in a different community, traveling, and joining clubs outside of their neighborhood are good ways to open their eyes.

Try one or more of the above suggestions at home. You may be surprised at how hopeful and proactive it feels to tackle this issue head-on. If you feel like you need more ideas, it can be helpful to work with a therapist or educator who specializes in working with children. Together, we can transform a moment that feels unrelentingly negative into something positive.


  1. Leu, C. (2015).  Innate or Learned Prejudice? Turns Out Even the Blind Aren’t Color Blind on Race. California Magazine. Retrieved from http://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/fall-2015-questions-race/innate-or-learned-prejudice-turns-out-even-blind-arent
  2. Northwestern University: Hugenberg, K., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2003). Facing Prejudice: Implicit Prejudice and the Perception of Facial Threat. Psychological Science. Retrieved from http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/bodenhausen/PS03.pdf
  3. Wright, Robert. (2012, October 17). New Evidence That Racism Isn’t “Natural”. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/10/new-evidence-that-racism-isnt-natural/263785/

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Mia

    August 11th, 2016 at 10:04 AM

    I think that it is pretty accurate to state that pretty much everything that young children hear you say and see you do, they are going to do the same. The parents and the adults in their lives are who they take their cues from so if you want them to be straight up good people then that is what you have to be yourself. I think that the time is passed when you can blame others for what they do- you have to take a good look in the mirror to see where they really get their beliefs from.

  • Alyce

    August 11th, 2016 at 1:41 PM

    The more things that you can expose them to, the more they learn that no everyone in the world is exactly like they are.

  • Linda M

    August 11th, 2016 at 10:19 PM

    Everything is learning- the more exposed, the more tolerant, as well of our differences

  • Linda M.

    August 13th, 2016 at 8:06 PM

    Exactly. I agree!

  • Caroline

    August 12th, 2016 at 2:04 PM

    I was not raised in the most tolerant of homes but I want to be able to do better for my own children. There are still times when I have to hold my own opinions in check because this is not what I necessarily feel but those old habits are the hardest ones to break.

  • Nikki

    August 13th, 2016 at 7:36 AM

    It can be a good thing to expose them to many different things while they are growing up so that eventually they can start to form their own opinions and come to their own conclusions a little bit later on. Some things are always going to be heavily influenced by the environment that they are raised in, while other times the more opportunity that they are given to witness new things as a child, the more open to new experiences and people that they will be when they are adults.

  • Cal

    August 15th, 2016 at 7:41 AM

    Particularly important now that we have someone running for the highest office in the land but who spews so much hatred toward those who are deemed to be different.

  • piper

    August 16th, 2016 at 7:09 AM

    I am always curious how much of a difference it makes to teach your children this when there are just as many other people teaching their own children the exact opposite. Sometimes it does feel quite like you are fighting an uphill battle.

  • Vale

    August 17th, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    There are so many times when my children want answers, why this or why that, and there are never many easy answers available. I think that you begin by telling them what you believe is age appropriate for them and then you go from there. These might be conversations that are difficult but you are the one that they are going to turn to when they are looking for an example to follow.
    Be the good example that they need to see.

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