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15 Tips for Teaching Tolerance and Diversity to Young Children

Tolerance, diversity and inclusion. These are words that get thrown around a lot – often during workplace trainings – and they even seem quite trendy right now.

What do they actually mean though? And can you just put together a workshop and expect a bunch of adults to come out suddenly ready to embrace diversity and view life through a whole new lens?

Maybe, but since my work is in early childhood, I would suggest as I always do with learning any skill or concept, that teaching tolerance is best done in childhood.

There are immediate benefits to educating adults and older generations about diversity, but it’s so important to raise children with the innate value of tolerance if we’re going to make a real difference in the world. 

Here are 15 simple tips for teaching children about tolerance.

1. Understand What Tolerance and Diversity Are

So, how do we teach tolerance to children and where do we start? By first understanding exactly what it means. 

According to,

“Diversity is any dimension that can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another. In a nutshell, it’s about empowering people by respecting and appreciating what makes them different, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin.”

What are some examples of tolerance then?

  • Being able to hold your own beliefs while still respecting others’ religions, and teaching your children to wish others on their special celebrations.
  • Accepting and allowing people to be and to express themselves, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Treating people with disabilities as you would anyone else, and being aware and making an effort to accommodate their special needs.
  • Respecting people of all ages: treating children as people with their own minds; not dismissing teenagers’ feelings as trivial; being mindful of how we refer to elderly people (for example, not all women of a certain age should be referred to as grannies).
  • Teaching children about the world, beyond the borders of their own country – including languages, cultures, races and ethnicities, famous landmarks, etc.
  • Challenging stereotypes such as the belief that boys should always be strong and never cry.

There are so many ways to practice tolerance and inclusion.

2. Know the Importance of Tolerance

If we take the past as an example, what good has ever come from people dividing themselves, from seeing us versus them, from oppressing or making other people feel less than? Nothing good.

The world is in need of a generation of people who see themselves as collectively human, instead of constantly needing to label and judge each other.

The importance of tolerance in schools and in the home is that the younger generation will grow up with a strong sense of values and pass that on to future generations.

Of course, it is unrealistic to imagine a world that fully embraces diversity and tolerance, but that shouldn’t stop us from working towards it and making as much of a difference as we can.

On a more personal note, what does teaching tolerance do for your own children in class or at home? Children who grow up being taught about tolerance and diversity will develop a greater sense of empathy, stronger social skills, and more authentic relationships, among other things.

While we tend to prioritize physical and intellectual development – perhaps because they are easier to measure – it is important that children develop holistically, and that includes spiritual as well as social-emotional development

3. Teach Tolerance Naturally

While you may want to dive straight into doing actual activities, it’s important to remember that cultivating attitudes and teaching children values is not really something that can just be taught in a lesson.

You can help children learn about tolerance with the aid of activities, but truly developing empathy and kindness takes a lot more than that and usually develops with real-life experiences.

Teaching children about tolerance is an ongoing experience that takes years, and is influenced by the messaging children receive in their daily lives and family environments. 

Tolerance is a way of life, and it is woven into everything you do. 

4. Model Tolerance

The most effective and real way of teaching kids tolerance is to model tolerance yourself. The best way to teach children any value, in fact, is to let them see you live it.

You can’t teach someone a concept that you don’t fully embrace yourself. There’s no lesson in telling your kids to embrace diversity if you yourself don’t socialize with people of different cultures, or if as parents you never break gender stereotypes. 

Drawing of people of all different cultures

At home and in the classroom, the way you treat your children and other people is going to influence how they treat those around them.

As a teacher you show tolerance in the classroom in many small ways: by not labelling students according to stereotypes, letting them know they can approach you with any problems or for advice of any kind, treating all students equally, making an effort to learn about students’ cultures, etc.

5. Mind Your Language

Our minor prejudices often expose themselves through the little things we say without thinking, but children are listening to and picking up on these comments.

You might believe yourself to be tolerant, but comment on how someone is dressed, or make fun of someone’s accent. 

Be extremely mindful of how your messaging comes across to your kids because they may internalise your thoughts and beliefs.

6. Answer Kids’ Questions

Kids always have lots of questions because they want to understand the world around them. They also deserve to have things explained to them and not be talked down to.

Teach tolerance to preschoolers by explaining things to them that they are curious about, such as why the lady is in a wheelchair or why someone may not speak the same language as them.

Person using a wheelchair

You don’t have to get into a lecture about gay rights when your 5-year-old asks why their friend has two moms, but you can explain how sometimes two women can love each other, or that not all families look the same.

The more matter-of-factly you answer, the more you pass on the message that diversity is not a bad thing.

7. Accept Children Unconditionally

All children have basic emotional needs, including the right to be loved and accepted unconditionally. 

Accept them as they are, without the secret hope that they will be who you want them to be. Let them develop their own interests and personalities.

Do not push your children into activities because society deems them appropriate for their gender, shame young boys who take an interest in playing with dolls, or tell girls they need to behave differently because they are ladies.

Little boy and girl playing with a doll house

Statistically, it is likely that many parents reading this may have a child who does not identify with their gender, or who is not heterosexual. They will only confide in you and seek your support if they feel they are accepted and safe with you.

Your child may also choose to follow a different religion from you or dress in a way that is out of your comfort zone. There are many ways children may express themselves that would require a conscious effort on your part to be open-minded and respectful. 

8. Challenge Stereotypes

Stereotypes are everywhere and you may not realize just how many common stereotypes you subconsciously believe:

  • You can’t be happy if you’re single. 
  • Men are not emotional.
  • People who like cats are lonely.
  • Bisexual people are promiscuous. 
  • All teenagers are rebels. defines stereotypes as “oversimplified perceptions of people based on their characteristics.” They identify 9 types of common stereotypes, including gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, social class, disability, age, nationality, political, and religious stereotypes.

The easiest way to challenge these is really just to be aware of them and call yourself out when you use them.

9. Stop Assuming Things About People

This point is specifically about a person’s identity and sexual orientation. It’s time to start moving away from heteronormative thinking and just always presuming everyone fits into society’s idea of what “normal is.” 

An example of this is asking a young boy if he has a girlfriend yet. This is so damaging for a child who may, for example, feel attracted to boys. 

What if the child you’re asking is aromantic or asexual? This may seem extreme but somewhere out there are lots of people who have different sexual orientations and identities and they’re someone’s children!

These kinds of thoughtless questions just further damage a person’s sense of self and can lead to them burying their true selves in an effort to please society. I can’t think of a single person who has ever had a positive outcome from pretending to be someone they were not.

For a real lesson in diversity and tolerance, and if you want to experience something that might change the way you see the world, watch Heartstopper, by Alice Oseman. I believe this show should be a formal part of every high school curriculum and I think every adult needs to watch it. 

10. Teach Kids About Religious Traditions

While you may have your own beliefs and traditions, teach your kids to acknowledge and respect others on their special religious occasions.

It can be as simple as pointing out that today is a special day in a friend’s religion or culture, or learning a few basic greetings, such as wishing a colleague Shana Tovah for the Jewish New Year or wishing someone a blessed Eid by saying Eid Mubarak.

Invited to a Hindu wedding? Use the opportunity to teach your kids some of the traditions and what makes the culture/religion unique.

Drawing of a Hindu couple getting married

11. Introduce Foreign Languages and Cultures

Instead of defaulting to your own language and culture 100% of the time, challenge yourself to invite a bit of diverse culture into your home.

I like to change the language setting on my daughter’s programmes sometimes (you can do this on Disney+) and play a favourite show in her grandmother’s home language. Sometimes she hardly notices because she’s so focused on the visuals. It’s a great way to become exposed to a new language. 

There are other ways to introduce culture and language:

  • Experiment in the kitchen by occasionally making theme dinners where you cook simple traditional food from other countries, such as curry, spaghetti or falafels. Don’t forget to tell your kids some of the background of the food and where it is widely eaten.
  • If you enjoy languages, there are many free apps you can use to learn a few new words a day and this makes a great example for your kids.
  • Keep books in your home about other cultures, places and traditions.
  • Displaying art is a great way to expose children to expression from around the world.

Small touches in a classroom can also create an atmosphere of inclusion, especially if you have children of various backgrounds in your class.

12. Travel

There are few things that will open a child’s world and expose them to different cultures and ways of life than travel. 

Travelling is real-life education. Sitting in a classroom learning about a culture is one thing, immersing yourself in the language, food and place is quite another.

Father and son traveling in a city, with backpacks on

Take every opportunity you can to travel and learn about the world. Planning a trip can also be a wonderful educational experience if you let kids help you research places to visit and things you’d like to experience.

13. Read Books with Diversity

Listening to stories should be a daily activity, both at school and at home, and it’s a wonderful way to learn while bonding.

There are two types of books you can read to kids that will expose them to different people:

  • Books about diversity: these are stories that are specifically written to teach children a concept, such as how nuclear families may differ, or a story about a child starting a new school in a new country/culture. An example is Two Dads: A book about adoption.
  • Books that include diversity naturally: this can be, for example, a regular story that includes characters of different races, or a story about a princess who is less traditional and doesn’t want to marry a prince (The Worst Princess is a great example).

Sometimes the easiest way to explain a concept is by using a story that has already been written to introduce the concept in a way young children can grasp.

Here is a comprehensive list of the 32 best books about diversity for kids.

14. Watch Inclusive TV Shows

While screen time is not the best way for children to spend their time, it’s not really something you can avoid either. I need it in my home to give myself a break as much as any other parent.

You can have some control over the type of content your kids are exposed to, though, and that may as well be programmes that expand their minds and teach tolerance.

Younger kids can benefit from watching shows like Bluey, which breaks stereotypes by having a mom who works full-time and a stay-at-home dad, or a show like Dora The Explorer, about a young Latina girl who travels (your kids will learn lots of Spanish words from watching).

There are many shows that break stereotypes and teach kids about diversity.

15. Diversity Activities

There are also many ideas for diversity activities, to actively teach tolerance in the classroom or homeschool.

Here are a few examples:

  • Special occasions: Choose your favourite day that your family celebrates every year. Younger children can bring in items for show and tell and discuss how they celebrate and what the day is about. Older children could make a poster about their celebration, including photos of their family, and take turns telling their peers about their special days.
  • Teach children songs in different languages, or sing songs about diversity and inclusion.
  • Invite parents to come in and discuss their cultures.
  • Have special days at school where you share traditional food, dress up, etc.
  • Talk about values, such as kindness and empathy and discuss examples of how we can practise kindness (try these kindness activities for preschoolers).

These are just a few ideas of how you cultivate an atmosphere of openness and tolerance in your home and classroom. 

It is certainly a process that needs to be lived and modelled and one that will have a positive impact on future generations.

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