Teaching tolerance takes patience

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  March 7, 2012 06:00 AM

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I have a question about encouraging tolerance in a pre-schooler. My daughter is 4 and is very interested in dresses. I taped the Oscars Red Carpet show and watched it with her yesterday. When she saw Melissa McCarthy she said, "I don't like her. She's fat." I was flabbergasted.

Where to begin? And how to approach this age-appropriately so it will sink in! And where does this come from? Oy. So I told her that it's not ok to dislike someone because of how they look. "How would you like it if someone said they don't like you because you are too tall?" That we all come in different sizes. That the people in our family that are larger are good, kind, lovely people... She continued to insist that she doesn't like fat people and I told her it hurts my feelings to hear her say things like that. I don't feel like I got through to her at all and I'm very concerned about this bias appearing at such a young age. Her screen time is restricted - she mostly watches little bear and curious george - but she does have a fascination with princesses and has seen Disney movies - Cinderella, Snow White, Little Mermaid. I can't think of any overt size-based bias in those films but of course I don't love that she looks up to these characters that have no depth. What's a modern, feminist, politically-correct mom to do? How can I make sure she is empathetic as she grows up and sees that being different is not bad? Whether it's size or race or whatever else might come up... Do you have any resources you can recommend? Thank you!!!

From: Jessica, Boston


Dear Jessica,

A new level of cognition likely has kicked in for your daughter: she's capable of identifying and naming differences. If she's like most kids, she's very proud of this new-found ability. It feels grown-up to her. Many kids go around literally making comparisons: he's tall, he's short, she's got blonde, she has black hair. Those kinds of statements are pretty innocuous -- they are statements of fact -- so as parents, we probably don't pay much attention to them. But as soon as the words of difference convey value -- and you've just hit the jackpot -- most of us freak. If she wasn't ascribing value to it before, she sure is now.

Don't get me wrong. That's not bad. It is, after all, our job to identify and pass along our values to our children. So that's what you're doing. You don't need to go overboard -- and yes, you probably over-reacted -- because you're going to continue to convey your values in many different ways over the years. You're laying the foundation now; actually, you've been laying it all along. The consistency of your message, and its repetition, is what will get through to her.

My preference is always to feed into a child's developmental strength which, at this moment, is her ability to recognize differences. Next time, you might say, "Oh, you're noticing that people are different. Mary has black hair and black skin. You have yellow hair and white skin." Or: "Mary is big. You're small." That's giving her value-neutral words to state a fact and validate her ability all at the same time.

I said earlier, "If she wasn't ascribing value to it," because , of course, she was. She said, "I don't like her [because] she's fat." I like your answer: "It's not OK to dislike someone because they look." So where does this come from if you don't use language like that at home? Classmates, baby sitters, the videos she watches (and you're also right that Disney feeds into gender stereotypes), commercials, ads, in short, our culture. So, yes, you do need to counter these statements. You do need to pay attention to what messages she's getting from her screens, wherever she may watch. You just don't need to panic about it and you certainly don't want to make her feel ashamed for repeating what she's picked up by simply living in the world, well, the world we've created.

Here's more on teaching tolerance.

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9 comments so far...
  1. I think you are freaking out way too much. She's only 4 years old, of course you didn't "get through to her". Just keep being a good role model and reinforcing the same message, eventually she will get it. I really don't think it's as difficult as you are making it out to be.

    Posted by Dad March 7, 12 07:16 AM
  1. Barbara - no one has black skin.

    Posted by Mom March 7, 12 12:38 PM
  1. I agree with what Dad posted. I think the LW's response of saying it is not nice to say you don't like someone based on appearance was right on target. And she should be consistent with that message and it will get through to the 4 year old.

    Posted by WES March 7, 12 02:27 PM
  1. Mom - come on, nobody has white skin either.

    Posted by Dad March 7, 12 03:53 PM
  1. Jessica, there is an AWESOME picture book by Robert N. Munsch called _The Paper Bag Princess_ that I use a lot to help combat gender (and other) stereotypes. You could use it to support your teaching of values by supplementing your reading of the book with questions that also promote critical thinking, such as, "What do you think about Princess Elizabeth's actions here?" and/or "How would you respond to Princess Elizabeth if you were Prince Ronald?"

    Good luck to you, and your excellent efforts on this ever-so-pervasive issue in our culture.

    Posted by Heather via The Write Reason Tutoring March 7, 12 07:59 PM
  1. Unfortunately, the Disney Princesses have had to suffer at the hands of villians who are usually ugly, fat, or old. It is a stereotype that exists, like it or not. One of the reasons many women trusted Ted Bundy, the police felt, was the fact that he was good looking.
    Your daughter is still very young. At that same age, my granddaughter didn't like women with curly hair. When I asked why, she said it was because she had straight hair, so she only liked women with straight hair.
    She will grow up to have strong values, because you will model that for her. Until then, it's just a phase.

    Posted by patches2 March 8, 12 07:00 AM
  1. Maybe turn off the TV and read to her every night? Because characters in books who don't move and speak in your voice are much less threatening than those on the screen.

    Here's some great books that the Girl Scouts, who are celebratin their 100th Anniversary on Monday, recommend to teach values to young girls:

    Honest and Fair
    Havill, Juanita. (1986) Jamaica’s Find. Illustrations by Anne Sibley O’Brien. NY: Scholastic, Inc.

    Friendly and Helpful
    Muth, Jon J. (2003) Stone Soup. NY: Scholastic Press.

    Considerate and Caring
    Williams, Vera B. (1982) A Chair for My Mother. NY: Greenwillow.

    Courageous and Strong
    Munsch, Robert. (1991) The Paper Bag Princess. Illustrations by Michael Martchenko. Toronto: Annick Press Ltd.

    Responsible for What I Say and Do
    Bang, Molly. (1999) When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry. NY: Blue Sky Press.

    Respect Myself and Others
    Martin, Rafe. (1992) The Rough Face Girl. Illustrations by David Shannon. NY: Putnam Publishing.

    Respect Authority
    Williams, Suzanne. (1997) Library Lil. Illustrations by Steven Kellogg. NY: Dial Book for Young Readers.

    Use Resources Wisely
    Cherry, Lynne. (1993) The Great Kapok Tree. NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Publishing.

    Make the World a Better Place
    Cooney, Barbara. (1982) Miss Rumphius. NY: Viking Press.


    Posted by Girl Scout Leader March 8, 12 12:45 PM
  1. The less of a huge deal you make out of it the better. Sometimes kids will get weirded out by something, for no good reason, and it just needs to be quietly deflected until the stage passes. Once they see a big reaction, it will become very, very interesting to keep pushing on that point to see what happens. Mom is freaking--there must be some mysterious grownup reason why this is a big deal that they're not telling me! Matter-of-factly tell her that people are people, and we should be polite to everybody. Repeat until this wears off.

    Posted by di March 8, 12 10:15 PM
  1. Seems like there is no fighting the Disney Princess juggernaut, but fortunately there are movies with strong and diverse female leads: Belle of 'Beauty and the Beast,' Jasmine of 'Alladin,' Tiana of 'Princess and the Frog' and Mulan have all pleasantly surprised me as my daughters went through the compulsory princess phase. Of course, they are still thin and beautiful and no help with body image stereotypes; but in terms of depth, light years ahead of that ditzy mermaid or Snow White who might as well be Betty Boop. Now only if we could do something about Barbie...

    Posted by JPDad March 23, 12 05:15 PM
 
9 comments so far...
  1. I think you are freaking out way too much. She's only 4 years old, of course you didn't "get through to her". Just keep being a good role model and reinforcing the same message, eventually she will get it. I really don't think it's as difficult as you are making it out to be.

    Posted by Dad March 7, 12 07:16 AM
  1. Barbara - no one has black skin.

    Posted by Mom March 7, 12 12:38 PM
  1. I agree with what Dad posted. I think the LW's response of saying it is not nice to say you don't like someone based on appearance was right on target. And she should be consistent with that message and it will get through to the 4 year old.

    Posted by WES March 7, 12 02:27 PM
  1. Mom - come on, nobody has white skin either.

    Posted by Dad March 7, 12 03:53 PM
  1. Jessica, there is an AWESOME picture book by Robert N. Munsch called _The Paper Bag Princess_ that I use a lot to help combat gender (and other) stereotypes. You could use it to support your teaching of values by supplementing your reading of the book with questions that also promote critical thinking, such as, "What do you think about Princess Elizabeth's actions here?" and/or "How would you respond to Princess Elizabeth if you were Prince Ronald?"

    Good luck to you, and your excellent efforts on this ever-so-pervasive issue in our culture.

    Posted by Heather via The Write Reason Tutoring March 7, 12 07:59 PM
  1. Unfortunately, the Disney Princesses have had to suffer at the hands of villians who are usually ugly, fat, or old. It is a stereotype that exists, like it or not. One of the reasons many women trusted Ted Bundy, the police felt, was the fact that he was good looking.
    Your daughter is still very young. At that same age, my granddaughter didn't like women with curly hair. When I asked why, she said it was because she had straight hair, so she only liked women with straight hair.
    She will grow up to have strong values, because you will model that for her. Until then, it's just a phase.

    Posted by patches2 March 8, 12 07:00 AM
  1. Maybe turn off the TV and read to her every night? Because characters in books who don't move and speak in your voice are much less threatening than those on the screen.

    Here's some great books that the Girl Scouts, who are celebratin their 100th Anniversary on Monday, recommend to teach values to young girls:

    Honest and Fair
    Havill, Juanita. (1986) Jamaica’s Find. Illustrations by Anne Sibley O’Brien. NY: Scholastic, Inc.

    Friendly and Helpful
    Muth, Jon J. (2003) Stone Soup. NY: Scholastic Press.

    Considerate and Caring
    Williams, Vera B. (1982) A Chair for My Mother. NY: Greenwillow.

    Courageous and Strong
    Munsch, Robert. (1991) The Paper Bag Princess. Illustrations by Michael Martchenko. Toronto: Annick Press Ltd.

    Responsible for What I Say and Do
    Bang, Molly. (1999) When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry. NY: Blue Sky Press.

    Respect Myself and Others
    Martin, Rafe. (1992) The Rough Face Girl. Illustrations by David Shannon. NY: Putnam Publishing.

    Respect Authority
    Williams, Suzanne. (1997) Library Lil. Illustrations by Steven Kellogg. NY: Dial Book for Young Readers.

    Use Resources Wisely
    Cherry, Lynne. (1993) The Great Kapok Tree. NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Publishing.

    Make the World a Better Place
    Cooney, Barbara. (1982) Miss Rumphius. NY: Viking Press.


    Posted by Girl Scout Leader March 8, 12 12:45 PM
  1. The less of a huge deal you make out of it the better. Sometimes kids will get weirded out by something, for no good reason, and it just needs to be quietly deflected until the stage passes. Once they see a big reaction, it will become very, very interesting to keep pushing on that point to see what happens. Mom is freaking--there must be some mysterious grownup reason why this is a big deal that they're not telling me! Matter-of-factly tell her that people are people, and we should be polite to everybody. Repeat until this wears off.

    Posted by di March 8, 12 10:15 PM
  1. Seems like there is no fighting the Disney Princess juggernaut, but fortunately there are movies with strong and diverse female leads: Belle of 'Beauty and the Beast,' Jasmine of 'Alladin,' Tiana of 'Princess and the Frog' and Mulan have all pleasantly surprised me as my daughters went through the compulsory princess phase. Of course, they are still thin and beautiful and no help with body image stereotypes; but in terms of depth, light years ahead of that ditzy mermaid or Snow White who might as well be Betty Boop. Now only if we could do something about Barbie...

    Posted by JPDad March 23, 12 05:15 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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