Beyond Tolerance


When I was growing up, I always got the sense that my parents couldn’t tolerate a lot of things I did. I know this because they told me so. They could not tolerate my desire to eat the way my friends ate and have a hamburger at a backyard barbecue. I am sure they puked in their mouths a little, but they allowed it, with my mom’s violent facial tic being the only indication of disapproval. When I started running cross country so vigorously in high school, that it was more tantamount that I get in a ten mile run in the morning before even brushing my teeth, my parents again tolerated it. They worried, they fretted. They may have wished I was focusing more on math, but they ultimately didn’t interfere.

By not interfering with some of these things, it did not mean that they were cheerleaders for me by any stretch of their very Hindu imaginations. They allowed. They stayed silent. They did not stop me.

They tolerated.

Many parents espouse the virtues of teaching their children tolerance. We should tolerate other religions. We should tolerate other beliefs. We should tolerate people who don’t look like us. We should tolerate people who love in a way society doesn’t always approve of.

That’s a whole lot of tolerance. But teaching tolerance is still very different from teaching acceptance. In fact, it’s a pretty poor substitute for teaching anything about embracing differences. Children can be taught to passively accept the existence of something, but that doesn’t mean that they are being taught to wrap their arms around those differences.

As someone who grew up in a predominantly white, blue collar town where people of color and different faiths were often barely tolerated, if they were lucky enough to be tolerated at all, I think about how I want my children to embrace members of society that are different than them.

And I know that if I only teach them tolerance, I have failed.

There are so many differences that separate each of us in this world. But there is always this core need for acceptance that we all share that binds us together. And in sharing that bond comes this enormous, magical thing that can happen when we just stop limiting ourselves to tolerance and open the door to empathy, acceptance, love, humility and humanity. That thing? Well, that’s what I want to teach my children.

Perhaps growing up as a victim of racism at certain points in my life, my feelings on this are colored (no pun intended). I know my own children may encounter their own challenges with race in the form of intolerance. My beautiful half Indian, quarter Puerto-Rican, quarter Italian kids.

Yeah, tolerate that.

These are some of the things I want to teach Shaila and Nico about what comes beyond tolerance. I’m barely scratching the surface, but this is a blog post, not a book.

1. When you see someone who doesn’t look like you, see their beauty. Be it their skin color, their eye color, they way their hair curls differently than yours. Remember that they are special, just like you and me. They may not be as special as Bono, but then, who is? Remember that the things that make us different are also the things that make us beautiful.

2. If you see someone with a handicap, open your heart and be empathetic. Offer to help people when you can, even if you get turned down. Don’t be scared to make friends with someone who seems different than you. You may find you have worlds more in common than you would ever dream.

3. When you meet people who talk about God, you can listen, but don’t say much. I’m not sure how much you can contribute to that conversation yet. Lord knows you are growing up pretty much pagan since Mommy and Daddy can’t quite figure out this whole church/temple/service thing out. Just nod and smile politely.

4. If you meet a man who loves a man or a woman who loves a woman, this might seem odd to you. Or, who knows? It might not seem odd at all. Just know that love is love and if two people in this often very confusing world are lucky enough to find each other to give that love to each other, you should be giving them a standing ovation. Seriously. Wrap your arms around love and always celebrate it. (But you must wait till you are least 21 to wrap your arms around anything.)

I think how different things would be in life if we didn’t passively accept teaching tolerance as the standard. I feel like we often pat ourselves on our back as a society for teaching each other that being mildly apathetic to our differences is a win. There has to be a better way to navigate the very complex, but potentially beautiful differences that stand between us.

Teach your children the difference between tolerance and embracing differences. There is a time and place for tolerance, but not when it comes to teaching our children about what it means to live in this incredibly rich, multi-cultural and multi-faceted society.

About the writer

Kiran Kairab is a full-time professional and mother of two who is also a devoted singer/songwriter. She writes about her recent divorce and other relationship issues on her album "Night Flower." Learn more at


Angela 2 years ago

These are the things I teach my daughters, 8 and 6. However, I worry that a lot of us are hypocritical about it as we sometimes don’t ACCEPT differences of philosophy/faith when. We don’t accept the Westboro Baptist Church folks; we tolerate them. And that’s an extreme example, but I worry that a lot of us “progressive” Christians don’t accept those who see the world differently, i.e., conservative/fundamentalist Christians, or conservative/fundamentalist anything. We don’t often accept, and sometimes barely tolerate.

Sandy 2 years ago


Mrs. Portlandia 2 years ago

I loved this. Tolerance = noticing differences. Acceptance = identifying with similarities.

Lori Tintes Hartmann 2 years ago

I have read articles and heard people talking about the need for more tolerance in our world and it’s always bothered me. Teaching children that they need to tolerate someone else from a different kind of family or color of skin or religion really rubs me the wrong way. As in, the mostly white children in our predoninate white commuity need to tolerate my brown skinned son??? Yet, I have taught tolerance. As in yes you must tolerate your sister singing while she drys the dishes instead of telling her to shut up even though it drives you nuts. Yes you must tolerate your brothers irriatating laugh instead of punching him in the stomach even though it irriates you. Yes tolerance of the fact that people will do things that you don’t like and that irriatate the crap out of you but it’s not hurting you or anyone else so just let it go.
Because we are followers of Jesus I prefer to teach acceptance and embracing all people because that is what Jesus did. I want them to love and accept all people because they are people and worthy of being treated as such. We may not always like what they do, agree with them or understand them but they are human beings. That is the bottom line for me. I cannot teach them to really love and embrace someone else if it’s only under certain conditions or if that person fits into a certain box. And I cannot teach them this if I am not doing this in my life. Lessons like this are caught more than taught. We parents need to remember that the children are always watching and will model what they see and hear. Great post!

Sarah 2 years ago

So important and so, so true. Well done, mama!

Abandoning Pretense 2 years ago

I have a friend (who happens to be a devout Christian) who believe (quite loudly) that the word “tolerance” is something that is thrown around by by liberals to excuse themselves from following God’s word. Isn’t that sad?

This post was perfection. *shared*

jen 2 years ago

I love this.


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