Teaching kids tolerance means moving beyond “us” vs. “them”

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Given the work that I do with human beings, I listen to people talk about other people quite a bit. Even when couples or family members think they are talking to each other, they are really talking about the other.

It’s heard in phrases like: “If only they would….” or “They always or never….” or “I can always count on them to….”

I don’t know about you, but I hear these kinds of phrases in the language that deluges us in any kind of media, coffee shops, church or any place where human beings gather.

Phrases like: “Those old people are just so cheap!” or “Why don’t those darn kids take care of anything? Those Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party people, Independents, Muslims, Christians, Gays, Women, poor people, rich people, teachers, doctors, police, environmentalists, farmers,” and the list goes on and on and on.

I was introducing myself to someone this past week and identified a unique descriptor about myself. We all have them. They are things like what we do for a living, our relationship status, how many children or grandchildren we have. And then there are identifiers that people can see without us saying anything, and to a greater or lesser extent, are out of our control like color of skin, gender, height, skills, amount of hair on our heads, etc.

Chosen and unchosen identifier’s all serve an individual and common purpose with regard to the functioning or ordering of our relationships and daily lives. These same identifier’s can get in the way of those relationships and their functionality. I wondered what the response would be if I introduced myself as first, a human being.

I got to wondering what would happen, if we all stepped back and intentionally took time to acknowledge that our common identifier is our humanity. I got to wondering what our family, work, institutional, national and global relationships would look like if we intentionally acknowledged ourselves and others as human beings before anything.

With our technological abilities, it has become increasingly easy to forget our common humanity and we tend to objectify others. Sometimes, this is when we begin to take the people in our lives for granted.

Sometimes, it is what we are uncomfortable or fearful of that frames our expectations or worldview. Sometimes, we are just not conscious of what we do and say.

I wonder, how our relationships, families, workplaces, institutions and nations would change if we mindfully and intentionally stepped back and simply acknowledged our common humanity. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I have a lot of curiosity and an idea to practice. The idea is as hard as it is simple.

When you wake up in the morning, briefly name each person you are likely to come in contact with that day, and remind yourself that they are a human being. If you are stuck in morning traffic, instead of uttering colorful colloquialisms, remind yourself that the person in the red car ahead of you and the busload of people to your right are human beings who want to get where they are going too.

Maybe when you are watching your favorite news media, remind yourself that the group or person you most vehemently disagree with is a human being with a story that brought them to this particular moment. If you catch yourself using the words “these” or “those,” stop and remind yourself of their humanity.

None of this will change the fact that you are getting up, stuck in traffic or perhaps getting upset with what you are hearing on the news. But I wonder, if what might change is our tendency to objectify and distance ourselves from others. I wonder if what might change is our ability to access the humanity within ourselves. I wonder, if what might change is our ability to listen, understand and problem solve. I wonder how it might affect the level of tension in our homes, schools and workplaces.

Let me know if you decide to try this exercise during the week and if you notice anything different. I’m curious and I wonder and I am a human being.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again. We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

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