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Tolerating... strawberries?

What connecting can mean and look like.

"Connection: Energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship”. Brene Brown

In my very first blog post I briefly mentioned how "I want my kids to know that our similarities connect us, but if you are afraid of “different", it is hard to see our similarities. It is hard to connect". So here is the follow up...

We used to live close to the inner city in a great little neighborhood that we liked to call a beautiful mosaic of people, a more gentle description then how others might describe it. It was a mix of older generations with the younger, boarded up homes next to the infills, older playgrounds with random needles close to, well actually, that was our only playground. We would always have random bottle pickers, and the (more then) occasional drug bust out front, which wasn’t too much of a concern as our neighbors were a great elderly couple who were always out there keeping guard with their portable home phones in hand (true story!). I know that doesn’t exactly sound like we were living the dream, but we really did love our diverse neighborhood (plus or minus a few things;) My husband worked downtown where we would regularly go for walks and where the woman with all her belongings stuffed in a cart would chat it up with our son after asking for change, or my son would throw in a few coins to the man with the sleeping bag busking with his guitar.

It was diverse, it could be uncomfortable, but it wasn’t, because it was what we were used to. And before I continue, I just want to clarify that I am not saying that I want to expose my kids to a drug bust or have them rummage through needles for the sake of life experience (but hey, I turned out ok? well, sort of...).

What I am saying is that diversity and immersion helps merge a persons understanding with acceptance, it makes the world appear smaller and less scary, and it helps us to be able to connect, because we become less afraid of our differences. It helps us grow in compassion and empathy, just by the mere act of connecting with somebody different from us.

Within these experiences, questions are asked and answered respectfully and in a way that focuses on people’s similarities, but points out the differences that can make life more difficult for many. Through this we grow in tolerance, and so do our kids.

The Marrian webster dictionary defines tolerance as: “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own”. Tolerance is taught at home, we can’t just define it for our kids, or ourselves, without putting it into action. Case in point- I love strawberries, especially those juicy bright red middle of summer farmer’s market ones. But a long time ago I got into the habit of cutting them in slices. So, when I had kids, I continued to slice them. Now, my youngest, refuses to eat full beautiful strawberries with the stems and my older 2 still prefer them sliced. I’ve taught them to prefer one thing over another just by what I have chosen to expose them to. They will not tolerate whole strawberries.

Of course, I know kids are picky with food, especially foods they are not accustomed to (pick your battles, right?), but can we become picky with people as well? If we limit our exposure to these foods {and people} as children, do we become adults who still do not like them or even become afraid of them, encouraging the “us and them” attitude of intolerance? Who new strawberries could be so deep…

Our kids watch us, and they watch us closely. We are their greatest teachers. Tolerance does not mean tolerating unacceptable behavior it means that everyone deserves to be treated with respect — and should be treated with respect. That in itself is complicated, because I think sometimes I believe I am being respectful by believing MY story of someone else, not THEIR story, not THEIR experience. Then suddenly we think, "whats the problem, just put in a little effort, get a job, quick complaining" etc. Can we really grow in tolerance when we stay in our comfort zones of familiarity?

So now, like most young families, we live in the suburbs. On the judgmental map of Calgary, we moved from the “motels” area of the city to “more fake lakes to sell homes” (very technical research has gone into this, so I don’t challenge their findings). When my oldest was 3, we drove from our old home (which we were renting out) to our new home and drove past a man with a sign asking for help. We gave him some change (I know some people don't like this...but we can chat about that another time) and a conversation started about money. My son's response to the idea that not everyone has a home was, "well, they can just walk into a show home and get one. If you are hungry, just go to a restaurant". Right. Of course, that's what we do, a quick little swipe of a simple card and away we go. So why can't everybody else? Why can't the 1/10 people living in poverty in our big beautiful city just walk into a grocery store and swipe a card and get groceries? Or the 1/5 families struggling to pay for their monthly rent just walk into a show home and get a new house?

So, we focus on our similarities (we all need a place to live, we all need food) while acknowledging and understanding our differences (we don't all have a home, we don't all have money, we can't all just go get food) and we try to connect that man with us.

Needless to say, we are pretty far removed from that life described above here in the suburbs, even though it is only a 25 min drive away. So, if 25 minutes can make a difference, what impact does a city apart, or more so, countries apart mean?

For us, it means we have to be intentional with our outings, which is hard in this "busy" life of work, school, kids activities, being tired. It means we have to make a commitment to expose our children to a variety of settings and people giving them a real sense of who our community is made up of, our WHOLE community in order to help them grow with respect and understanding of our similarities AND differences. It does not mean giving up the friends and community we love, but it means we not only read books and have conversations about people and our differences, it means we immerse ourselves within those differences in an attempt to connect, to build respect and understanding of those differences.

Connecting doesn't have to mean becoming best friends, perhaps it's just eye contact, a smile, a quick hello-how are you? Seeing the other person in a brief interaction can make a world of difference in growing in our tolerance, growing in our understanding.

In her Ted Talk (and her book, which is amazing!), Susan Pinker explains that:

"Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters, and like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present and well into the future. So simply making eye contact with somebody, shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust and it lowers your cortisol levels. So it lowers your stress. And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain. It's like a naturally produced morphine."

She goes on to emphasize that, of course, our close connections are extremely important, but that those loose connections, that everyday quick hello are just as important and beneficial for ALL of of us.

I realize we can’t possibly expose our kids to EVERYTHING, but does staying within our quadrant of the city, our own community, or spending time only with friends and family who are exactly like us, teach our children about diversity and about tolerance? Sure, I guess, to some degree it does. For myself, our group of friends are culturally different, but we all generally fall under the same socioeconomic class and all our kids were born into homes with food and loving parents. With such diverse cities-diverse in culture, in race, in religion, in socioeconomic status, how do we connect our kids to diversity and grow with respect of different people? How do we get them to not only be tolerant but empathetic and compassionate towards others that are not like them?

Christa Awuor states “meeting new people expands your level of empathy-being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and being able to understand other people's experiences".

So here is to getting out with our kids, getting out of our comfort zones, and connecting (oh, and to eating whole strawberries:)

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