Modern Family: How To Teach Kids Tolerance

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Feb 6, 2015

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Whether it was 9/11 in the US or 26/11 in Mumbai, Peshawar in December or Paris last month, such horrific events are the toughest to explain to children. It is especially tricky to discuss the issues of terrorism and tolerance without resorting to time-worn clichés and gross generalisations.

Take an honest look within, for starters. Run a check for a lurking or blatant communal attitude. Already tense kids hear people lash out with barely concealed bias and cannot distinguish prejudice from safety. A friend’s little boy sadly overheard neighbours whisper that his parents ought to sack the new Bangladeshi maid—she could be connected to “trouble makers”.

Parsi children, out of fear, have been known to request a change of name if theirs sounds Muslim, like Laila, Zahan, or Jehangir. Twenty years ago, I was cautioned against naming my kids Zarir and Ayesha. “They’ll risk random checks and racial profiling at airports,” was the whispered warning, which only made me more resolute in my choices.

To counter these insidious, subtle biases, families and schools must focus on how to teach kids secular thinking. “Emphasize the fact that all of humanity shares a common core,” suggests Meher Pestonji, a journalist and peace activist. “Children must know that people of any religion can be equally good or bad.”

A good tool to dispel distorted notions of “us” versus “them” for children is Nina Sabnani’s book Mukand and Riaz. It is a calmly told, life-affirming story about two childhood friends – one Hindu, the other Muslim – separated by Partition. The author is clear that kids needn’t be shielded from ugly truths. “Avoid gory details, yet leave room for reality,” she said at the launch of her book. “Children are perceptive and know when someone is holding back. Never hesitate to calmly tell the truth about an incident or historic era.”

Family counsellor Gouri Dange asks parents develop internal filters to safeguard kids from walking into the trap of skewed thought. “Instead of blanket bans like ‘Don’t speak badly of Muslims,’ or abstract remarks like ‘Africans are really wonderful people’, actually get children to meet people of different ethnic origin,” she suggests. “It’s best to put a reassuring face to the ‘them’ in the ‘us’ and ‘them’ of prejudice.”

Rather than dwell on the violence in your explanations, focus on non-violent conflict resolution, advises Feruzan Mehta, former director of the India programme for Seeds of Peace, an organisation that tries to correct the negative stereotypes saturating young people across the globe. “Kids are intensely curious about what adults think and take them seriously,” she says. “But because they are incredibly gentle too, children can understand pacifist attitudes well.”

Indeed, kids may have more capacity for tolerance and acceptance than adults. I Have a Dream, an initiative of Prof. Coomi Vevaina of the University of Mumbai, is a collection of writings and drawings by children following the 26 November 2008 serial attacks on Mumbai. In it, children do express natural anger (‘Wait till I grow up and kill those terrorists’), but the emotion is outweighed by saner responses, ranging from ‘You cannot clap with one hand’, to ‘No man is completely bad’, to ‘It is us against the problem, not us against each other.’

If wars are triggered in the minds of men, then the same minds are also equipped to construct peace. One way to shake and shed negative conditioning in impressionable kids is by pointing out examples from history where violence made losers of us all and explaining why peace should therefore be a common concern. The lessons learnt from warrior-turned-benevolent-emperor Ashoka’s rock-carved edicts are a good place to start. His decree that love is the only eternal law and his pacifist ideals for a better world are likely to appeal to any child.

As Vevaina puts it in her preface to I Have a Dream: “We need to learn not to tolerate but celebrate diversity … make our rapidly shrinking, increasingly threatened world a better place for ourselves and for generations to come.”

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Written By Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia lives and works in Mumbai as a freelance writer and independent publisher. The author of 10 books for children and two for parents, she also runs a reading club for pre-adolescents with Rupal Patel. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

See all articles by Meher

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