The Intolerance Factor

My post When 0.27 Percent Isn’t That Small made it into the internet newspaper Beyond Bullies for July 11, 2011 and one of the other articles caught my eye: Teaching Children Tolerance on Reality Check by Dr. Michele Borba.

I’m not going to rehash the entire article, but will recommend you hop on over to Dr. Borba’s blog and read it for yourself because it makes several good points. But I’m going to share what about the article struck me the most. The article starts with a Reality Check statement which says that most hate crimes are committed by youth younger than nineteen. That statement caught my attention, but what really captured me was that the key reason for the escalation we are seeing in bullying is due to intolerance.

Dr. Borba has worked with hundreds of student focus groups across the country and after confirming that bullying is a big problem, Dr. Borba asked the students who the bullies choose as their victims. The number one word she hears in response is Different.

The “different” terms kids list for children more likely to be bullied are endless: Too fat. Too thin. A speech problem. Band kids. Too shy or quiet. A different race. In the special ed class. Gifted or too smart. Cries easily. A loner. Gay. Too pretty. Too poor. Dresses funny. Too artsy. Just moved. Teacher’s pet.” In short, any kid who doesn’t fit in or blend in…any child who looks or acts a little bit out of the norm. Bullies too often target a victim based on race, ethnicity, age, religion, disability, beliefs, gender, appearance, behavior or sexual orientation.

Whatever happened to celebrating each person’s unique qualities? Social psychologist Gordon Allport explored the roots of intolerance in The Nature of Prejudice. His findings support the idea that children are born with the capacity for both tolerance and intolerance. Which trait becomes the dominant one depends on their upbringing.

Babies do not know the difference between girls and boys, but they tend to prize the unique and different. A baby explores their world with every sense available and if they have an object, say a toy, they look at it, touch it, smell it, taste it, and they try to make noise with it. Once they have explored all it has to offer, they may become bored with the toy and toss it away (or that could be a game to make you pick it up which is a delightful use of their time for hours on end). When they are done with that toy, they want something new to become acquainted with. What captures and holds their attention for a longer period of time is something different, something unique and unfamiliar. They may approach with caution, but ultimately will explore the new object, unless hurtful in some way, as they did the previous one.

Two and three year-olds have to be taught the difference between boys and girls. I will always remember my sister’s excitement when the little boy down the street finally called her a her instead of he or him. Children always question what they see, especially when it is different, and based on the response of the adult, they learn an attitude as well as the answer to their question. For example: If a child sees someone in a wheelchair and it is an unusual sight, then they might ask why that person doesn’t walk like the rest of us. If your response is to tell the child to hush because you’re afraid someone may take offense, then child learns that people in wheelchairs make you nervous and wheelchair-bound person becomes someone potentially to be feared. They are different and not in a good way. We need to realize the question was asked because the child is trying to make sense of something new (or a new realization) and answering the question in a direct, simple fashion is always best.

If such a simple thing gives off vibrations of intolerance, whether it be with intent or not, what are your reactions to seeing something “different” and what does that say about your tolerance?

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