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The Problem with Tolerance

Teach tolerance to children in schools? I don't think so.

Linda Belans, Ed.D.


To tolerate is, by definition, a word of privilege. With verbs like allow, accept, and endure that Oxford dictionary uses to actively define it, how else can we think about a word that paradoxically has been claimed by those who seek to dismantle privilege and intolerance? These three verbs imply there is a standard of behavior, beliefs or practices that one is measured against.


Tolerance begins with I before you. It's where judgment or disapproval silently, unconsciously dwell before acceptance is granted. Tolerance requires a power dynamic – subtle or overt. To say, "I tolerate the religion you practice," is, by definition, paradoxical to the intent.


Compassion and empathy, on the other hand, ask us to think about the other person first – to walk in another's shoes so we understand how that person feels. And to act on it. It is impossible for a power dynamic to exist in the pronoun shift from I to you.


Babies and young children are, by nature, compassionate and empathic. They respond instinctively to other's distress. They offer toys to crying babies. They come to the rescue of others who are struggling. They don't stop to measure others against themselves. Babies are born with a kind of moral, compassionate compass, taking cues from sounds and visuals embedded in the dynamics of human interaction: a cry, a furrowed brow, a heaving belly. Unfortunately, traditional systems of education can undermine children’s natural proclivity toward compassionate behavior.


Resources Research indicates that mindfulness training goes a long way toward teaching and reinforcing compassion. Niroga's program is one I can strongly recommend after years of working closely with it and seeing measured results in schools. Paradox is at play again here: While compassionate practice begins with Self, it embraces Us. Mindfulness also goes a long way toward teaching children – and adults – how to focus and gain self-control, two key factors that create conditions for effective teaching and learning.


Southern Poverty Law Center While SPLC does use the words Teaching Tolerance, their curriculum is geared toward inclusiveness rooted in anti-bias education in early childhood.


We have much to learn from babies and young children. And much to teach. Practicing compassion is especially critical in our currently divided and divisive country, and as social media, by its very format, strips vital cues from communication, leaving the raw underbelly of tolerance exposed.

Author, States of Being: Leadership Coaching for Equitable Schools

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