10 Reasons Why I Refuse To Raise A Tolerant Kid

by Sabrina Joy Stevens

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, tolerance can be defined as the "willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own; the ability to accept, experience, or survive something harmful or unpleasant." While the people who believe "tolerance" is the antidote to the poison of racism, sexism, and other kinds of bigotry want this word to mean something bigger than it does, I personally refuse to raise a tolerant kid. As adults we need to go way beyond teaching kids to just tolerate other people, especially if we really want to make the world a safer, fairer place.

Despite some folks efforts to change its meaning, the word tolerance still largely refers to our response to things we dislike. When a sweating person complains they're barely "tolerating" the heat and humidity of summer, they're not saying they kinda "appreciate the diversity" of 90-degree highs and a heat index in the 100s. When someone says they've learned to "tolerate" the stench of a sewage treatment plant a half a mile from their home, they may have accepted that the horrible smell is part of their life now, but that doesn't mean they're at all happy about it. Suggesting that the fundamental parts of human beings' very identities should be "tolerated" in the same way we tolerate grating heat or horrible smells is deeply offensive to me.

For any parent raising kids in a diverse society, setting "tolerance" for other people's innate differences as a goal strikes me as hopelessly inadequate. No parent I know would ever aspire to raise their kids to just "tolerate" reading or math, because literacy and numeracy are crucial skills. As social beings, our survival depends on our ability to do more than tolerate others; we need to be able to empathize and cooperate with lots of other people, and it is impossible for us to only interact with people just like ourselves. Merely managing to keep our disdain to ourselves (which is almost impossible, because our true attitudes are usually very obvious) just isn't good enough.

In our deeply unjust society, "tolerance" functions as a way for people who are privileged enough to not directly experience the impact of oppression to simultaneously ignore that oppression while still getting to think of themselves as decent people. As a multiracial family, my kids and I don't really have the luxury of pretending that tolerance is enough. Even if we did, however, I wouldn't; we just have to do better than essentially "agreeing to disagree" about different people's inherent worth and dignity. So, with that in mind and in the name of true progression, here are just a few reasons why I won't be raising my son to simply be tolerant.

Because It's An Outdated Term

The idea of "tolerance" is rooted in a time and sociopolitical context marred by the violence of overt discrimination and international warfare. So while yes, tolerance is preferable to lynching or genocide, I have higher hopes for my children than "they manage not to beat or kill other people for being different from themselves." Besides, while a few generations of raising kids to be "tolerant" has made it less socially acceptable to use racial slurs or profess hatred, it hasn't eradicated prejudice, nor has it stopped police violence, or economic inequality, or rape culture, or any of the other injustices we're still working to dismantle. As parents, we clearly have to do better than that.

Because I Don't Tolerate Injustice

It is not human nature to automatically hate people who are different from ourselves. The stereotypes and implicit bias that underlie hatred between social groups are learned, from people we interact with everyday and from the secondhand misinformation we get from the mass media. Teaching a child to accept that misinformation and then “tolerate” difference, instead of unpacking why we have been taught to dislike and mistrust certain kinds of people, is perpetuating injustice. It’s implicitly endorsing the idea that certain people are inherently bad based on aspects of their identity that they don't control, instead of confronting the oppressive system that teaches such a dangerous and bigoted lesson.

Because Tolerance Is Inherently Unsustainable

It's clear that tolerance is meant to be a temporary response, because a person cannot experience something "harmful or unpleasant" indefinitely. However, there's nothing temporary about living in a diverse society and world (except life itself). Someone raised to think that difference is bad and that the best they can do with that is to "tolerate" it, either has to unlearn that and relearn the truth at some point, or they're destined to engage in harmful, anti-social behavior. I'm not raising my kids to discriminate against or hurt others.

Because We Shouldn't Merely Tolerate Our Fellow Human Beings

I want my kids to understand that while we won't necessarily personally like or love every individual we come across, we need to fundamentally respect everyone or, at the very least, not automatically decide that certain people aren't worthy of our full respect just because of things like skin color, gender expression, religion, and so forth. Tolerating other people's identities something they can't control the same way we might tolerate bad weather blocks the kind of empathy we need to collectively solve big problems like racism, sexism, and so forth.

Because Tolerance Focuses Solely On Personal Feelings

Tolerance is not only extremely self-serving (particularly for people with privilege), it's also too narrowly focused because it's all about how individual people react to different people. Oppression isn't just the result of how individuals feel about each other, though, but the end result of the excessively competitive social, political, and economic systems we've inherited from past generations, designed to advantage some kinds of people and disadvantage others. Because oppression isn't personal, our responses to it can't just be personal either (unless we want it to continue, which I don't). We, and in time, our children, actually have to deal with what it means to live within unjust systems and how we contribute to injustice through our action and inaction.

Because I Don't Want My Kids To Only Tolerate Most Of Their Heritage And Identities

My kids are not only mixed-race, our extended families also include varied class backgrounds, religious identities, gender expressions, and more. If we were to teach them empty platitudes about tolerating difference without teaching them about power and privilege, we would be dooming them to absorb the larger culture's disdain for most of who they are. That would set them up to be ashamed of themselves, rather than being the confident, powerful humans they deserve to be.

Because We Unpack Big Issues Instead Of “Politely” Ignoring Them

Tolerance is a way to appear "nice" while sidestepping the tough process of unlearning oppressive things about ourselves and other people and relearning the truth about humanity. It's a way for older folks to maintain oppressive fictions for themselves by papering over inconvenient truths about the world when explaining it to younger people. That's not what we do in our family. We talk about things openly, breaking them down so we can understand them and so we can do things in a better way.

Because There's Nothing Polite About Assuming Difference Is A Problem

It's only necessary to "tolerate" difference if you feel that difference is bad. But if you believe difference is bad, it's pretty hard to hide it. It's incredibly hard to hide that you think you're inherently better than someone else based solely on some aspect of your identity, and vice versa. It's hard enough to form meaningful connections with other people, without having to overcome bias against them for things they can't control. Just like I want my kids to say "please" and "thank you," I also want them to automatically recognize other people's innate worthiness without getting distracted by bias.

Because Mere Tolerance Misses The Value Of Human Difference

Difference is key to the survival of any successful living system, human societies included. We need different kinds of people to fill all the roles that make a society work, and we need the balance that comes from people having different points of view in order to protect ourselves from going so far in one direction (like, say, prioritizing private profit over the health of the planet) that we threaten our very survival. So it makes no sense for people to all be the same, or for us to aspire to sameness by teaching our kids to treat difference as an inconvenience we're striving to ignore or overcome.

Because Human Survival Depends On Ending Oppression

We are all interdependent. Maintaining the lie that certain people are ideal, and thus that anyone who is different from them is deficient, squanders a lot of the talent and intelligence we need to solve the major threats to our society and our planet. That means we need to do more than agree to disagree about whether all humans truly are created equal. We need more people in the world who understand that cooperation is more important than competition, and that difference is essential and not something to simply ignore or wish away. As someone who wants the world to be safe and just, it's my job to be that kind of person. As a mom, it's my job to raise those kinds of people.