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Helping Tweens and Teens Build Tolerance

Bonnie Harris

Responsibilities & Values

What do I say to my kids when they seem consumed with worry and despair for their futures and when tragedy cuts down innocent lives? When leaders demonstrate behaviors that I work hard to steer my children away from and demonstrate intolerance where I want to teach them tolerance? And in their day-to-day lives when they complain of teachers and kids treating them unfairly or feeling pressured to do what doesn’t interest them? I feel helpless when I can’t answer their questions.

More and more I hear parents describe their children as anxious and angry, who see no reason to strive in school, who seem engulfed in worry and despair. The worry is not voiced but shows up when they drop out of activities, lose friends and spend more time alone in their rooms gaming and on social media. Is this what’s happening to kids now because we are not tough enough on them or is this a reflection of the world we live in?

Children’s education is being boxed in to show competency on standardized tests. Few are getting what they need to excel in today’s world. Less and less feel inspired by what is out there. College degrees no longer guarantee jobs. Our political system is teaching that bullies win and minorities lose.

We lose sight of the picture our children see and instead reprimand them for being “lazy” and criticize the choices they make about how they spend their down time. Many kids remain focused on school-work and extracurriculars and are motivated to do well—the central core of kids the education system counts on, the core that establishes the bar the rest of the student population is held to. The rest feel overwhelmed in a world that seems to offer them nothing, that is unpredictable, and that looms large in their near and unsure futures. Sometimes it’s just easier to cop out.

When judging our children, it may be wise to keep their attitudes and behavior in perspective and look to the world they see. Unfortunately it becomes our challenge as parents and teachers to find inspiring ways to motivate them so the latest video game doesn’t win out.

How do we do that without feeling overwhelmed ourselves?

We need to support our children in ways that build resilience and self-confidence. But so many parents feel lost and discouraged and our own fears don’t model that confidence. So we try to shelter children from the ills of the world instead of going at the problem head-on with honesty and integrity. We do them a disservice when we could be inspiring them.

Working for a better world starts with changing the world within our own four walls—the world that influences our children the most and defines their sense of capability and enthusiasm.

Find ways to connect with and inspire your budding artists and revolutionaries:

  • Honestly share your opinions concerning the world and our leaders with your tweens and teens. Encourage involvement in what’s happening. Watch or read news together so you can help make sense of it for them. Engage in non-violent protests, phone calls, emails with your teen when and if the news threatens your values.
  • Listen and empathize when your child complains about “stupid” homework, “lousy” teachers, friends described as “jerks”. Empathizing means understanding his point of view. It does not mean agreement with it. When he feels heard, you are in a position to say, “What do you want to do about it? What do you think would help?”
  • Encourage speaking up, gathering petitions, presenting opposing views, debating and arguing. And that starts at home. If your children aren’t allowed to argue with you, they will not be able to when needed.
  • If your child has strong opinions but doesn’t want to get involved, honor that with your understanding. Continue sharing opinions at home.
  • When facing any problem behavior, ask for your child’s side of the story first before making assumptions and judgments or giving advice. Knowing your child’s perspective will help you know how to proceed and allow your child to be heard.
  • If your child promises he will not get involved in drugs or other worrisome behaviors, ask him why with genuine curiosity. Listen to the reasons he has decided are in his best interest. Admire his thinking process. The very act of putting them into words adds to his commitment and builds a thinking mind.
  • Ask your child about examples of intolerance at school regarding ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, dress, even interests. Then ask her point of view, what she thinks is right and what she might like to do about it. Offer your admiration for views of tolerance and especially a desire to act on her beliefs.

Too many of us, and our children, feel the weight of being victims of the way things are. Encouraging engagement may lessen the amount of worry and despair that can feel overwhelming. Instead of keeping your kids in a safe bubble away from what you don’t want influencing them, it may be best to plunge into the deep end as long as there is a feeling of support and positive energy.

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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook