"At first no one would play with him because he was scary. But now we know he's nice. His face just got burned." — A 5-year-old boy telling his mother about a classmate with severe facial burns.
In this ever-changing world, our children will face more change, see more places, learn more things, and be exposed to more people and cultures than any other generation in history. Advances in communication, transportation, technology, and economics will provide more opportunities — and more challenges — for our children. To succeed in this complex and diverse world, they will need to develop the fifth core strength — tolerance.
Tolerance is the capacity to accept differences in others. Tolerance emerges when a child has the security arising from the healthy development of the four previous strengths (attachment, self-regulation, affiliation, and awareness). The attached child can form and maintain healthy intimate relationships and feels secure in them. Self-regulating children can better control their reactivity, anxiety, and fear when exposed to new people and situations. The affiliated child feels connected and secure in her peer groups. The aware child can see the strengths, needs, and interests of others. When these four strengths emerge, the child feels safe, special, and secure. Tolerance can follow.
Security: The Root of Tolerance
There are two components to this unique kind of safety. The first is the powerful and empowering feeling that comes when a young child feels special, valued, and accepted. This belief and feeling grows in a child when the important adults in his life tell him, and show him repeatedly, how important and loved he is. When the child feels this unqualified acceptance, it is so much easier for him to accept others.
The second key element of this security is related to how easily a child feels threatened by someone or something new. Our brain has dozens of neural systems involved in reading and responding to potential threats and will categorize new experiences as negative and potentially threatening until proven otherwise. New situations or novel stimuli, good or bad, activate the stress-regulating neural systems in the brain.
A child who feels safe and is introduced to a new culture and new ideas will be stimulated and excited. But a child who feels anxious will perceive these new experiences as threatening.
All Children Can Learn
The development of tolerance requires active learning. We have a neurobiological tendency to form small groups with people who are similar to us and a tendency to be wary of, and even hostile to, people who are different. Becoming tolerant is not a passive product of development: It requires active modeling by adults and repeated exposure of children to different ways of living in our world.
Fortunately, children can learn to accept and understand different views, cultures, and values. Once a child learns that differences make other people interesting, stimulating, and capable, she becomes more comfortable with the world. If a child is fearful of new things, including the diversity of people, she will be left behind. The more tolerant our children become, the easier it will be for them to enjoy all that the world has to offer.
Struggling With Tolerance
An intolerant child will be judgmental of others. She may tease, berate, and attack others who are different. Sometimes this can be overtly hostile and aggressive. Children who struggle with this strength help create an atmosphere of exclusion and intimidation for those people and groups they fear. This atmosphere promotes and facilitates violence and can be the first step in bullying. The intolerant child is, essentially, insecure-insecure about her status, skills, beliefs, and values.
What You Can Do
- Make children feel special and safe through words of praise and encouragement. Valued children learn to value others.
- Model tolerance. Children will learn to reach out and be sensitive to others by watching how comfortable you are as you discuss and relate to other people.
- Create opportunities for children to learn about new places, people, and cultures. Children feel safe with you, so explore new ideas and cultures together.
- Introduce new cultures and "different ways" by cooking ethnic dishes together.
- Have class celebrations for Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year, Carnivale, and other days and events that honor the traditions of different cultures.
- Invite children's families (and others from the community) to come to class and share the dress, language, traditions, and customs of their ancestors. Children can talk with your guest about how different things were "in the old days" and how different families still keep certain traditions.
- Intervene immediately when you hear or see intolerant behaviors or words in children. Don't be punitive. Try to understand and help children learn healthier ways of interacting with others.
This article orginally appeared in Early Childhood Today magazine.
D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment (http://www.childtrauma.org/). In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.