How to Teach Your Child to Be Tolerant and Inclusive of Others
If you walk past someone on the street who has a visible illness or a disability, you wouldn't want your child to point, stare and make rude comments. So how exactly do you raise your child to be tolerant and inclusive of others?
Mr Jimmy Wee suffers from a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis, which has caused his body and face to be completely covered with benign tumours. When he is out in public, passers-by, especially children, will gawk and call him “Chicken Pox Man”.
He works as a dishwasher at a restaurant and tries his best to keep out of sight at the back of the kitchen, but there was a recent incident where a customer saw him and was so shocked by his disfigurement that she demanded for him to be fired.
“I was taken aback by how unkind people can be. I would rather lose her as a customer”, said Mr Wee’s boss, who fortunately stood by her employee.
This is not the first time Mr Wee has received unkind remarks – several years ago when he was having a meal at a hawker centre, a couple confronted him and asked him to leave as they expressed how “people with his type of body should just stay home and not come out”.
But what makes these people insensitive enough to actually approach someone with a visible disfigurement and say such rude things to them? Is it due to upbringing and if so, how can parents make sure that their children grow up to become tolerant and inclusive of others?
Kids say the darnest things
Children may just be curious and don’t know how to “filter” what they say, but if not taught from young, this intolerance of others who are different from them might be a negative trait they won’t outgrow and will remain up until adulthood.
Along with kindness, compassion, and respect, to be tolerant and inclusive of others is something you should also try to instil in your child.
If you happen to meet someone with a disability or visible illness and your child asks you what happened to that person, your natural reaction would be either to scold him and tell him to look the other way, or you might even just shush him and remain silent because you’re not sure how exactly to react.
But it would be better if you address their curiosity at this early stage rather than let their questions go unanswered and any potential impolite behaviour to manifest through time.
What you can do as a parent
Children only develop cognitive skills required to understand empathy around the age of eight or nine years old, but most five-year-olds understand the concept of fairness and to be treated well, so usually want others around them – such as their friends, family members, strangers and even characters in storybooks – to be treated well and with fairness too.
If your child points out someone with a disability or visible illness, take it as an opportunity for you to teach her about individual differences and respect for others.
Here’s what you can do to help shape your child to become a thoughtful person who is tolerant and inclusive of those who are different from her:
Answer all questions
Don’t be afraid to answer your curious child’s questions, but just try to stick to short and direct answers and avoid adding your own interpretation of how you think that person feels. For example if your child spots someone in a wheelchair, a simple reply would be: “I think she has some trouble with her legs so can’t walk very well”.
Use positive language
When referring to the person, avoid using negative phrases to describe their condition (eg: retarded person, the blind man, the deaf girl), and instead use affirmative phrases (eg: the person who is blind, the woman who uses a wheelchair, the boy who is deaf). This is called “people first” language, which is more respectful to say that the person has a disability rather than saying he is disabled.
Offer facts when answering your child’s questions and if you don’t know the answer, then just be honest and try another way to find out more information such as researching about it on the internet, reading it up in a book, or depending on the person and situation, you can even politely approach them.
To encourage empathy, ask your child what she thinks how the person with a disability might feel if everyone was staring at him or calling him mean names. Ask her how she would feel if the same thing were to happen to her. Make her understand that everyone has feelings and so it is important to treat everybody with kindness and respect.
Reading a storybook or watching a TV programme about characters with disabilities is a good way of letting your child understand that not everyone is the same. Even by watching the popular animated movie, Finding Nemo, you can point out to your child that although Nemo has one smaller fin than the other, he is still capable of swimming just fine and does not let his disability to hold him back.
Now that you know how to teach your child to be a more compassionate person towards those with a visible illness or disability, here is what you should avoid doing:
Don’t point and stare
It’s a natural reaction to look at someone who is different from you, but if your child starts to stare for a bit too long, gently correct her and explain that it’s not very polite to do that. However, don’t hush your child and quickly usher her away, as this may give the wrong impression and seem like you are further segregating people with disabilities.
Under no circumstances is it acceptable for you or your child to call someone else a bad name, whether or not that person has a disability. Children are like sponges when it comes to picking up language, so to filter what comes out of their mouths, you should be more careful with what goes into their ears.
Don’t focus on the differences
Instead of focusing on what makes that person different from you and your child, it is helpful to point out the things they have in common. For example, if your child has a new classmate who uses a cochlear implant, you can highlight the fact that she also likes unicorns or the colour purple, just like your daughter does – this will encourage your child to see this person as a potential friend.
If your daughter is the shortest one in her class, or your son has ears that stick out, you would not view this as a disability, but just simply part of who they are and what makes them different from the rest. The world is filled with all sorts of people from various walks of life who also have different strengths and weaknesses.
Teach your child that although people with disabilities may be different from him, they still deserve to be treated with respect and should not be viewed with pity, fear or disgust. Be your child’s guide and gently correct his behaviour when needed.
Hopefully, your child will grow up to be a kind and compassionate individual who is tolerant and inclusive of others – and maybe then, the world will be a happier place for everyone.