During the holidays, many of us draw close to family and friends. Like pioneer days, when the wagons would circle to protect from outsiders, this is a natural reaction to wanting to be close and protective of those we love.

Now that a new year has begun, let us broaden our horizons to others. One of this country’s founding principles is that America is a melting pot, a rich blend of cultural traditions from all over the world.

This tradition continues in unique twenty-first century ways: explosion of the media, especially the internet, the popularity of international adoption, the increasing acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgender identified humans and the expanding roles women play in the workforce.

Some parents welcome that we live in an increasingly diverse society; others feel more hesitant and perhaps even uncomfortable or threatened with these changes. Parents need to help their children prepare to live and work in diverse communities.

Teaching tolerance is not just part of our American heritage, but will also help prepare our young people for more opportunities in education, business and perhaps bring more happiness to their own personal lives.

Sometimes children are far ahead of their parents in exposure to other cultures. My daughter’s school proudly displays the 18 flags that highlight the birth countries of the students. Older students have Facebook and other social media contacts that span the globe.

Tolerance is an attitude of openness and respect for the differences among people. Today the concept goes beyond the traditional racial and religious differences, and embraces gender differences and people with physical, intellectual and psychological disabilities, and the concept that anyone anywhere is capable of achieving anything.

How can parents impart this attribute to their children?

  • Notice your own attitudes. Children watch closely and imitate their parents. Not only will the see who are your friends and co-workers, they will also hear remarks that may not necessarily be meant for young ears.
  • Do not make jokes or remarks that perpetuate stereotypes. Demonstrate an attitude of respect for others.
  • Select books, music, toys and videos that reflect a variety of ethnicities. Point out stereotypes portrayed in the media. This includes women that are portrayed as inept or inane on some of the more popular preteen and teen channels.
  • Encourage discussions about differences. Answer children’s questions honestly and directly. This teaches them that is acceptable to notice and talk about differences, as long as it is done with respect.
  • Notice differences in your own family and extended family. Talk about simple differences in body type, hair color, likes and dislikes, talents and interests. Show by example how each family member is accepted for his or her uniqueness.
  • Help your child feel good about him/herself. Kids who have poor self-esteem are more likely to be less accepting of and/or bully others. Treating your partner or spouse with respect may be the best example you can show your children.
  • Remember that tolerance does not mean tolerating unacceptable behavior. Behaviors that break social norms, like lying or stealing, and behaviors that are rude, mean or disrespectful, are a no-no.
  • Find opportunities for your children to interact with others who have different backgrounds from them. Try a camp or a club with a diverse population.
  • Celebrate your own cultural heritage. Children love hearing stories of their great grandparents. Let them help you make a traditional dish from your heritage or find your country of origin on the globe. Find a friend and share your story.
  • Join your children in researching religious celebrations of others.
  • Practice empathy for the mobility impaired, by trying to navigate with a pair or crutches of a wheelchair. Turn off the TV volume to experience just a small sliver or what it is like being deaf.

When parents lead by example, encourage a tolerant attitude and discuss differences empathically and honestly, children will follow in their footsteps.

Remember that we are all a minority someplace.

Written by Dr. Dorothea DeGutis and published in the Keene Sentinel on January 18, 2013