Don’t Teach Children Tolerance for People Who are Different from You

This article began as a comment on a GoodyBlog post about the sexual orientation of Albus Dumbledore, but then I began rambling and rewrote it six times. Ahh, I digress.

The author of the Harry Potter book series revealed a factoid about one of her characters in a public talk that resulted in mainstream media headlines proclaiming, “Dumbledore is gay.”

The GoodyBlog post is interesting because the writer, Judy, attended the event. But I was troubled when the first Goody reader wrote, “Who cares!” and the second countered, “Some people still don’t get the importance of a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance.’” Whoah, them is fightin’ words.

Tolerance is a poor standard. Would you teach your children to tolerate each other, or accept, love, and encourage each other?

A legal or parental mandate enforces tolerance in people young and old. Acceptance occurs through prolonged exposure in normal situations until you realize the ogre was only in your mind. That was true for me.

In my youth, my mother recounted a story about a black friend in her circle of friends and how one time her circle chose to turn away from a public pool because blacks were not allowed. Somehow she forgot the lesson about gay people.

When I entered college, I was as homophobic as the next person, not in a hateful way, but simply filled with uneasiness about being around such a person — not that I ever knew when I was near a gay person.

Five years later, having met many people different from myself, my future wife and I were consoling one of our best friends who was torn at the prospect of graduating and leaving his closest “friend.” He never came out of the closet to us. One day he just realized we already knew. We never discussed it because, what’s to discuss?

Instead of preaching tolerance of specific types of people — and how could you ever remember to mention every type — how about living your life based on normalcy? Don’t add to the stigmatization of being gay by treating it as an issue that requires special handling. Recognize it as a normal variation in our species, a characteristic found in many species.

In the same vein, don’t stare at a person in a wheelchair or a teenager wearing dental braces, not because it’s rude, but because there’s no reason to stare.

Upon seeing her first wheelchair user, my daughter and I didn’t stop. I directed her attention to me and we talked about what a wheelchair does and why a person might use one. “Isn’t it neat honey that such a device exists?”

In our next few wheelchair encounters, I didn’t stop to let her revel at the sight, but I did let her discuss it with me. Now she doesn’t bat an eye at wheelchair users. They’re just another type of person to her.

But for a young child, sometimes you do need to point out people who are different. Our daughter has told us that women can’t be doctors and men can’t have long hair. We’re lucky that my wife works in a hospital filled with female physicians and a lot of retired hippies live in our town.

“Yes they can, honey. There are many different types of people.”

And soon after, when we crossed paths, we pointed out women doctors and long-haired men as if to say, “See, it wasn’t pretend. We were serious about what we said.”

When we encounter an unusual person, we talk about what interests or confuses our daughter, and explain that people in this world believe and look and act in many different ways. In a nutshell, we want her to learn to accept the human race.


It was with a little trepidation that I wrote a second post in the same week that mentioned the issue of gay equality because I assume at least half my readership will be uneasy, some enough to delete my bookmark. But… how do we grow if we never step outside our comfort zone?


9 Responses to “Don’t Teach Children Tolerance for People Who are Different from You”

  1. Anji Capes says:

    I have to stop by and say: I am not deleting your bookmark. Had you been homophobic, I would have done.

    On a parenting forum I love, we are currently having this discussion. One woman says that she has no problem with homosexuality for adults, but that she doesn’t want her children reading books containing homosexual characters or for them to go to friends’ houses should the parents be gay. She thinks it is an inappropriate subject for her children, and honestly doesn’t see the homophobia in this. I wanted to scream.

    October 24th, 2007 at 2:05 am

  2. Bev says:

    Needless to say, I am sending you a big hug today.

    October 24th, 2007 at 9:19 am

  3. Chelsea says:

    As a woman with two mothers and a 3 year old girl with two grandma’s I applaud you!

    October 24th, 2007 at 9:45 am

  4. Stephanie says:

    “Tolerance is a poor standard. Would you teach your children to tolerate each other, or accept, love, and encourage each other? “

    Never thought of it that way. Great post all around, thanks for writing it.

    October 24th, 2007 at 9:48 am

  5. Jennifer says:

    I agree with you, and more so the first Goody response of “Who cares!” That’s the attitude I like to take and teach my chidlren. People are people. Period. That’s it! I don’t treat someone different no matter what their sexual orientation, religion, or anything else. People who teach tolerance, in some cases, try to make me guilty of being a straght white woman. I am a human being, as is every other human being in the world You don’t need to tolerate me, nor I you. You need to accept, love, and encourage me; as I do you.

    October 24th, 2007 at 1:37 pm

  6. ndc says:

    And another supporter for you here. We’ve done such a good job (pats self on back) that my son reminded me to have more understanding when I was waiting for someone to turn right at a red light. (They never did.) “Perhaps they’re from out of town or another country Mom. It’s no big deal for us to wait a little.” Humility is good in small doses.

    October 27th, 2007 at 5:45 pm

  7. missb says:

    Thank you! I’m not a parent (but I AM an L&D nurse who also “invented” nitrazine undies in my head! That’s the kind of stuff we think about!) but I grew up in NYC, a place packed to the gills with all sorts of different people and I’ve always loathed the term “tolerance”. Tolerance just isn’t good enough! Tolerance should be at the lowest end of the spectrum with acceptance, love and encouragement at the other end! Good post!

    October 28th, 2007 at 9:52 am

  8. Alex says:

    From your blog to eyes of the ignorant. In other words, great job and I hope people will pay attention!

    October 30th, 2007 at 12:35 pm

  9. Carson Park Ranger says:

    “Tolerance is a poor standard. “

    This would set a high standard for bumper stickers though.

    Thanks for the post.

    March 8th, 2008 at 8:17 am

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