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Teaching the concepts of tolerance, empathy and mercy to children

By KAREN MEEKS     9/14/2016

Teaching the concepts of tolerance, empathy and mercy to children seems easy when it comes to the sick and needy.

But those lessons are often tougher to teach when applied to those who do terrible things, such as the terrorists who attacked hundreds of Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the face of such hate, it can be difficult to teach children about tolerance, empathy and mercy, but adults have a duty as Christians to instill these lessons and set the example, says Katie Dawson, director of Parish Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange.

“The most important method for forming the life of faith and love and all the virtues of that precede it is the modeling of speech, behavior, actions and attitudes of parents,” she says, adding that children will follow their parents’ cues in how they show tolerance, empathy and mercy.

That means not practicing tolerance in isolation of other virtues, but as part of a package, Dawson says.

“For Christians, it’s particularly tied to the notion that human life is valuable in the eyes of God, that God never gives up on anyone, and he is always waiting for us to turn to him,” she says. “Even those who make the worst possible choices still have an opportunity to turn to God and we need to recognize that.”

Tolerance is not about just putting up with someone we don’t understand or like, Dawson says, quoting 2 Timothy 1:7, which says, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

“Christians have a mission of mercy and love to every person,” she says. “That’s what we’re raising our children for, to be agents of mercy. And when we react out of fear against someone that is different than us, then we are not living according to that precept.”

It’s never too early to teach children about tolerance, empathy and mercy, says Michael P. Donaldson, director of the Office of Pastoral Care for Families In All Stages at the Diocese of Orange.

“I think it’s good to start teaching them at a young age about mercy and forgiveness and what that looks like because that’s at the root of tolerance and empathy,” he says.

The key to bringing those lessons home to children is to relate them to their everyday life, Donaldson says.

“Use examples that may have happened in your family or your school,” he says. “If a coach yelled at you, are all coaches bad because that coach yelled at you? You put it in their terms, that it’s not all or nothing.

“God gave us free will and some people choose to do bad. And at that moment of 9/11, those individuals chose to do bad. They did not represent humanity well. Did they happen to be of a certain faith or background? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that everyone from that background is the same.”

The key is teaching children to recognize the dignity of another person, he says.

“In faith, teaching people to see Jesus in one another is a prime lesson,” Donaldson says. “And I think if we kept that intentionally in our hearts, that tolerance would rise up even more. That would break all barriers because we are part of the family of God. We all belong to God. We’re brothers and sisters of Christ.”