Raising Empathetic Children Amidst Growing Intolerance

Incidents of bigotry, intolerance, and bias have been on the rise — from elementary school classrooms to online forums, to street corners, to college dorms. Although the negative news may seem overwhelming, we can do much to take a stand for civility. Few things are more important than raising empathetic and compassionate children. What mindsets, life-affirming behaviors, and messages can parents and caregivers demonstrate and convey to the young people in their lives? Here are eight suggestions from parenting experts. 

1) Support your teens’ strengths

In a world of increasing intolerance and incivility, your active involvement in developing your children’s moral clarity and strength is more important than ever. “Character development responds to feedback and direction,” says Dr. Ken Ginsburg, Founding Director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication. Ginsburg says parents can help build their teens’ strengths by guiding them to develop their internal resilience. “Make certain that direction comes from you and people you believe will help your children build strong character. Guide young people away from self-centered inclinations while recognizing, reinforcing, and nurturing their sense of fairness and concern for others.” Go here to learn more about developing your child’s character.

2) Take care of yourself

No matter your identity, self-care is essential when you’re experiencing stress. “Our healing is the first step in enabling our child to move forward in the world,” says Dr. Maria Veronica Svetaz, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Self-care can include a wide range of practices. Prayer, meditation, reading sacred scripture, journaling, sitting quietly with a cup of tea, walking in nature or a safe environment, exercising, eating well, or relaxing baths are some ways to start.

3) Be a role model

Ask yourself some critical questions. Among them: What are my core values? Who do I want my young person to be when they’re 35-years-old? What conversations can help them get there? “All parents have the ability to model how to make a difference,” according to Dr. Joanna Lee Williams, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. Share stories of when you’ve overcome difficulty and bounced back with your teens. Tap into your cultural pride and connect with people who share your ethnic background. When possible, role model your sense of agency, or take on a task and make an impact. For instance, make phone calls, write letters, organize friends and neighbors, and roll up your sleeves at school.

In a world of increasing intolerance and incivility, your active involvement in developing your children’s moral clarity and strength is more important than ever.

4) Underscore the importance of treating everyone with respect and dignity

People are far more alike than not, so teach your child to look for shared values and similarities. “An unfortunate, sometimes deadly human trait is the tendency to divide into ‘us’ and ‘them’,” Dr. Ginsburg says. “We may gain comfort being among those similar to us, which can be a good thing when it strengthens our cultural values. But it harms the fabric of society when one group needs, wants, or passively allows others to have fewer resources, or even suffer, so that they can benefit. It becomes outright dangerous when people see themselves as better somehow than ‘others.’” 

So, where might we find common ground? “Every child deserves to be treated with respect and kindness,” says Dr. Vincent Pompei, Ed.D, and Director of the Youth Well-being Project for the Human Rights Campaign. However, you need not sacrifice your values to treat people compassionately. “There may be individuals and identities that you may or may not agree with,” Dr. Pompei says. “An individual can hold onto their personally held and religious beliefs. The caveat is that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.”

Teach your teen to support the creation of brave spaces—that recognize differences, allow everyone to express themselves, and encourage them to challenge each other positively. This facilitates learning. “In a brave space, you are courageous enough not to feel good about yourself by diminishing someone else,” says Dr. Svetaz. “You claim who you are and identify yourself by your own strengths.” 

5) See and value human differences

“Our nation draws strength from our differences,” says Dr. Ginsburg. “Within our pluralistic society, we may feel connected to certain familiar groups—ethnic, political, or religious. We may want our children to be tightly connected to these groups because they share our values. But this should never be an excuse for not teaching children to accept others or for allowing prejudice.” 

Though many people are socialized to be “colorblind” or not to “see color,” even babies can identify the human variation that our society labels as race. “Rather than raising children to be colorblind, we must raise them to respect and appreciate differences,” says Dr. Ginsburg. So — whether skin color, language, religion, sexual orientation, or other variations — feel free to see, acknowledge, and embrace humanity fully. Teach your teen to recognize human variety as both normal and a source of strength. “See diversity and difference as a value rather than trying to ignore that differences exist,” says Dr. Pompei. 

Where might you begin? “Support children to embrace their wholeness so they can embrace the wholeness of those around them,” says Dr. Ali Michael, the author of Raising Race Questions: Whiteness, Inquiry and Education. “My skin, my hair, my body type, my sexuality and gender identity—they’re all there and you can’t change it.” Speak honestly about the world’s realities. If you struggle with how to talk about race, check out the resources at EmbraceRace.org

6) Prepare children for the possibility that they may witness or experience incidents of bigotry or hate

Many parents avoid talking about intolerance, so they don’t worry their children, end their innocence, or expose them to painful topics. However, bullying begins as early as elementary school and may continue well into adolescence, so we ought not to wait until something hurtful happens to begin coaching our kids. Dr. Williams says, “Black parents have been having conversations about racial discrimination with their children for generations, but all children should be prepared to recognize discrimination so they can be proactive in resisting and rejecting it.” 

Try to suss out your young person’s school environment and imagine what types of incidents might occur there. “Prepare young people to deal with things before they happen,” says Dr. Maria Trent, Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We practice CPR so that when there’s an incident, we know the steps because we’ve practiced in a simulated environment. So, having those talks beforehand is very critical.” 

“Racism is one of the greatest threats to developing and sustaining resiliency in youth of color,” says Dr. Svetaz. “However, because they will need to navigate through racism, it is also a critical reason that their resilience must be developed and strengthened.” 

Provide your teen with concrete examples of what might occur—a cruel comment in the classroom, bullying on the bus, a pedestrian yelling on the street. That way, instead of being shocked or feeling paralyzed, a young person might say, “ ‘Ah! I wonder if this is what my dad meant when he was talking about stereotyping?’ instead of accepting a negative comment as a real reflection of their actions,” says Dr. Svetaz. 

Also, ask your teen how they believe they should respond. 

“Hear from the child’s perspective how they think they could best handle it,” says Dr. Trent, who specializes in adolescent medicine. Teach your young person how to evaluate a situation and protect themselves if things turn potentially dangerous, using your own experiences and values for guidance. Also, practice role-playing different scenarios. 


Strategies for Talking about Tough Topics

Parents must navigate all kinds of difficult topics with teens. Conversations about alcohol, drugs, and sex are just a few examples. Click through to learn effective strategies for making these talks as productive as possible.


Get Smart

Conversations are easier when you’re clear on the facts. Consult a trusted professional or read a book before diving into tough territory. It’s ok to tell teens you don’t know something. Just don’t forget to follow up.


Talk About Safety

It’s easier for teens to absorb your concerns if they aren’t on the defensive. They’re more likely to listen If you make the conversation about keeping them safe.


Determine the Best Environment

Conversations don’t have to be face-to-face. Consider talking in the car, while you’re taking a walk together, by email or even text. Some teens are more comfortable having conversations without direct eye contact.


Find Teachable Moments

Pop culture can be a helpful springboard for discussions about sexuality, drugs, and other tricky subjects. It allows you to talk without making things personal. If you watch television, listen to music, read a book, or go to the movies together you can ask questions and discuss what you’ve seen and heard.

7) Care about the well-being of both the bullied and the bully

The stress associated with bigotry can cause short- and long-term effects on a child’s health. Anxiety, depression, and lower grades and test scores are common consequences. “Hate shatters development,” says Dr. Svetaz. “Any ‘ism’ interferes with development because it interferes with identity development and feeds internalized racism, the worst form.” 

What is an “ism”? Think racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and so on. “Internalized racism will take away years from your cells and your life,” explains Dr. Svetaz, of the biochemical impact that consciously or unconsciously accepting bigoted beliefs about your identity has. “It’s a cancer for children and teens because it does not allow you to become who you could have been because you don’t believe in yourself.” 

Bigotry also harms young people who witness it. Indeed, when child and adolescent bystanders to racism or other forms of victimization are asked to recall it, their anxiety rises as high as that of a first responder to a major disaster. If a child witnesses discrimination, use it as a teachable moment. Help them process the situation and talk about why it is unacceptable. Click here for more information on how to respond to prejudice.

That said, adults must not stigmatize the child who acted out. “It’s not because that child is bad; it’s because no one has talked to that child about how differences are valuable, and that there are many different ways that families exist, act and behave, and there are different belief systems, cultures, and customs, and languages—and talking about that as something positive,” says Dr. Pompei. 

“Most of the time, that anger comes from a place of depression, anger, or unmet psychosocial needs,” says Dr. Svetaz. “We need to pay attention. The solution is not suspension. We need to make sure that we understand trauma.” “A school counselor should be involved talking to that student about why they made that comment and why that language is hurtful; digging in a little further like, ‘Hey, you say this because you heard your stepdad say it. Okay, let’s have a conversation about that’,” says Dr. Pompei. 

Students who consistently hurt others, display troubling behavior, or engage in hate speech should be separated until they can figure themselves out and participate in restorative justice, our experts advise. 

WelcomingSchools.org teaches elementary school educators how to embrace family diversity, create LGBTQIA+ and gender-inclusive schools, prevent bias-based bullying, and support transgender and non-binary students. Their lesson plans can also support parents. 

8) Ready your teenager to inhabit a diverse world

Whether or not there seems to be much variety in your family’s environment, our children need the skills to interact effectively with all sorts of people. “The United States is becoming more diverse by the day, and the world is becoming more connected by the hour. Children need to be raised to appreciate diversity if they are to thrive,” says Dr. Ginsburg. 

Dr. Pompei notes that young people who get away with displaying intolerance at school might experience a surprise when they enter the workplace. “If that young person were to display sexism, racism, misogynism, homophobia, transphobia, they are not going to be sent to a school counselor,” he says. They’d likely, “…be sent to Human Resources and be immediately removed from that position,” he adds. The steps we take today will help our young people develop the character strengths they need to flourish throughout their lifetime.

About Hilary Beard

Hilary Beard is a Philadelphia-based writer, speaker, trainer and coach. She has written 13 books, including “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life.”

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