Teach kids to be tolerant of differences

January 31, 1997


Staff Writer

The dream of Martin Luther King Jr. included the hope that his "four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

This hope has been established as a right of all Americans. It is no more than any parent, regardless of race, creed or nation of origin desires for his or her child. How can parents help to make this hope a reality for their children and others?

Wendy Weiner says she learned a lot about herself growing up in the culturally diverse city of Pittsburgh. She believes the relative lack of diversity in this area results in fewer opportunities to learn about people who are different. But opportunities do exist.


Weiner, director of Family Center of Washington County on West Washington Street in Hagerstown, says people who come to the center - about 100 families over the course of a year - comprise a diverse group. The center operates by treating people as people, not looking at labels or stereotypes. And that is what Weiner tries to teach her children.

Weiner acknowledges that in terms of race, it is easier to be white. "You're not at an instant disadvantage. It doesn't show," she says.

Unless the topic is brought to our attention by events like the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. or Black History Month in February, most people in this area don't have to think about it.

Weiner and her family are not unaware of the effects of prejudice. She and her husband, Rabbi Charles Rabinowitz, have two children, a 7-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. A boy in her daughter's second-grade class teased her about being Jewish. Weiner says she tries to help her daughter understand the reasons for that boy's behavior.

Understanding is one of the reasons the state of Maryland mandated multicultural task forces, made up of citizens, school officials and students. They were established early in 1994 to prepare five-year plans that help public schools offer appropriate understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures.

A diverse community?

Although the change is not radical or rapid, this community - as is the nation - is becoming more diverse, says Ed Koogle, supervisor of social studies for Washington County schools. Koogle worked behind the scenes on Washington County's task force.

Collyn Moore and her family moved to Hagerstown from Florida in 1992. Because they had moved several times since their children were in school and wanted to provide some continuity in education, Moore and her husband, Fred Nichols, chose private schools for their children.

She has been pleased with their scholastic success, but on occasion has heard an undertone of surprise in a teacher's praise, as if excellence weren't expected from her kids because they are black. Moore believes it's important to make people aware of their perceptions.

"If you let things slide, people assume it's OK," she says.

Neither are her children shy about letting schoolmates know that racial jokes are not appropriate. Moore encourages minority parents to volunteer in school activities. Becoming involved is a good way to meet other people, to become comfortable with interaction.

Tips for parents

Carolyn Moore - who is not related to Collyn Moore - has been a member of Washington County school's multicultural task force since its formation. Moore, assistant principal at Pangborn Elementary School in Hagerstown, provides the following tips for parents:

n Analyze your beliefs. Try to believe in the honor and dignity of all human beings.

- Give your children honest explanations. Kids are curious. They may have questions about why someone is using a wheelchair, or walking with a cane. If they are respectful, it's OK to ask questions.

- Explain that a person's bad behavior is just that - bad behavior by one person. This is not an entire race or religion.

- Watch your communication - particularly nonverbal communication. A facial expression can convey a world of meaning to a child.

- Be aware of your behavior. Children are watching. They follow what adults do more than what they say.

- Stress how wonderful it is that people are not all alike.

- Talk about the common elements of being human.

- On religion, it's just a matter of communicating that there are differences. Let your child know that it's OK for different people to believe in different things.

Or as Rabbi Charles Rabinowitz says, "There are different paths up the mountain to God. They are equally valid."

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