Developing Tolerance in Children

M Scott Peck, author of the ‘Road Less Travelled’, encourages us to “Share our similarities, celebrate our differences”, six simple words that together carry a deeply profound meaning – and a wisdom many of us (political and religious leaders across the globe especially) would do well to heed!


When we follow Scott Peck’s advice we open ourselves to a magical world of possibilities: we open ourselves to learning, to understanding, to exploring and to growth. By recognising the significance of the individual in society, regardless of colour or gender or age, as well as every group, community, race and religion, we show that we care. We are far more likely to feel empathy, use kind words and demonstrate compassion – far and away more positive contributors to humanity than prejudice and misconception. We don’t have to agree with another’s opinion or cultural norms (or insist they agree with us!) but we should respect them – we should tolerate them. When we do this, the life we create for ourselves and for those around us, is likely to be far more harmonious and peaceful.

Of course, tolerating the views and behaviour of others is not always easy. How many times have you found yourself listening to the convictions of a friend or colleague and then replying in a frustrated or excitable manner as you project your own firmly held opinion? Do you cringe at the dress sense of a young relative because it differs from your own? Have you found yourself wincing when you hear an accent that doesn’t appeal? We all hold within us prejudices at some level; we see and hear and we immediately judge in our mind.

Consider how many accusations, misjudgements, persecutions and wars have occurred due to the intolerance of one nation towards another, more often than not initiated by the fears and insecurities of a handful of powerful individuals.

In Singapore, there are many opportunities for us to teach our children tolerance because of the rich diversity of cultures that exist within our city-state. In many ways, I believe we are a good example to larger, more nationalistic countries of how different races and religions can coexist harmoniously in a small space and successfully create sympathetic, caring communities. Nonetheless, we still need to remain mindful of the fact that, on both a micro and macro level, we may not always get what we want. Insisting that only ‘our way’ is right is rarely the best path – acceptance and compromise often is.

Napoleon Hill writes, “Until you have learned to be tolerant with those who do not always agree with you; until you have cultivated the habit of saying some kind word of those whom you do not admire; until you have formed the habit of looking for the good instead of the bad there is in others, you will be neither successful nor happy.”

If, as Hill supposes, tolerance is the key to success and happiness, then this is definitely a quality we should all aim to instil in our children. And we can do this from the earliest age.

Encourage reciprocal and inclusive behaviour

Helen Keller said, “The highest result of education is tolerance.”

To attain such a goal, we have to start at the very beginning, with the knowledge that tolerance stems from the understanding that we alone are not the centre of the universe! Teach your child the pleasure in giving and that it’s not always necessary (or going to happen) that they receive in return – at a birthday party for example. Encourage your child to share toys and to take turns during playtime with siblings or friends. When your children are a little older talk to them about camaraderie and inclusivity of those who are different and how they might feel if they were to find themselves on the periphery.


What are your own values and biases?

Understand your own prejudices, preconceptions and the way you judge others first and foremost. Are you sure you are fully open and tolerant to the opinion and choices of others? How do you react if someone makes a genuine mistake, even if it does affect you? What tone of voice do you use when you speak to different people? – Your new helper who may be homesick or struggling with a new language in a strange country or the elderly cleaning lady in the food court who is a little shaky and slow to clear your table. What your children see and hear around them on a regular basis is what they will absorb. Remember, we send powerful messages to our children through our own behaviour. Demonstrate love and kindness and you are guaranteed to be the best possible role model for your child.

Don’t perpetuate stereotypes

When we stop to observe the world we live in (particularly through the media), we notice how much we are surrounded by intolerance. Images and slogans that misrepresent, jokes that humiliate and in various corners of the globe, rules that degrade individuals or certain groups in society. If you feel your child has been exposed to prejudice at any level, talk to them about how what they read or heard may not be true. Show them that there is another way of looking at something without imposing your own opinion. With older children, spend a little time researching an issue, helping them to understand they too have a choice as to what to believe. Don’t be afraid to let your child see you challenge stereotypes.

Talk openly

Very young children frequently notice differences in others – and voice them out loud, often to the consternation of their parents! “Look at that fat man, mummy!” “Why does that girl have brown skin?” Children are very matter-of-fact when they are learning about the world around them (before they have been exposed to prejudices). They often state the obvious but without judgement. If they ask you a question about why their friend is a different skin colour to them, talk to them simply, honestly and openly about the diversity of the human race. Talk to them about the uniqueness of individuals, especially within your own family, even among their own siblings. Remember, all your children want to do is to understand.

Foster self-esteem

When children feel loved, nurtured and valued they develop confidence and a healthy sense of self-esteem. If your child feels happy and confident in himself, he will feel more comfortable when exposed to opposing opinions and cultural norms. Rather than challenge different views aggressively or in an attempt to convert, he is more likely to be able to argue a point objectively, without giving offence, respectful of the view point of his opponent.

Experience and exposure Singapore offers a wealth of opportunities to expose children to a rich variety of cultural and social experiences that will help teach them about tolerance. We have access to books,DVDs, exhibitions, enrichment programmes, sports activities (different martial arts for example), theatre, art shows…the list is endless, so choose a selection of activities that you can enjoy with your child, or your child can join, that enrich their understanding.

One of the wonderful things about living in Singapore is the chance to take part in an abundance of religious festivals or rituals that may differ from our own, with so many occurring throughout the year! Take this as an opportunity to recognise and value another way of celebrating a belief system. You don’t have to accept it as your own but you can enjoy visiting your local temple, pagoda or church with your child, as you discover more about the important figures, stories and practices of each religion.

At Julia Gabriel Education, we love celebrating the rich diversity of all the different nations and cultures we find in our centres. Every term we’ll dress up in one national costume or another, with all our students and staff joining in.

There’s a wonderful trend coming out of the USA recently, known as the ‘Buddy Bench’ where first and second graders in schools are creating, bright, cheerful and colourfully painted benches, designed to invite any child who feels lost or lonely to sit on it. The idea is that if you see a child sitting on the bench, even if you don’t know them, you will know why they are there. And this gives anyone the opportunity to go and sit next to them, comfort them, talk to them and invite them to join their activity. What a great way to encourage equality, inclusivity and tolerance. Let’s hope Buddy Benches pop up everywhere!



Author: Fiona Walker

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Fiona Walker Fiona Walker is the Principal of Schools / CEO of Julia Gabriel Education. She holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education and is a qualified Montessori teacher with more than 20 years of experience in providing quality education for young children.

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