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I originally posted the article below close to two years ago, when I first spent a day at a State Music Teachers’ Association Convention. I’ve spent the last weekend at this year’s convention again. I was surrounded by hundreds of dedicated students of all ages putting their best feet forward. It was a fulfilling weekend, to say the least. So, I thought it only appropriate to re-post this article.

A small note: Below it wasn’t my intention to say that there’s anything wrong with being goal oriented. On the contrary, I believe it’s a necessity to have a target in mind before anyone sets off on a journey. My lament is that adults are rarely able to retain their original enthusiasm and passion for the task, as kids often do, while pursuing their goals.

— ** —

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to some honest determination and old-fashioned faith in human effort. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago I spent a Sunday at a convention held by the state’s Music Teachers’ Association. For the whole day I and six hundred other listeners kept company with children – anywhere from six years old all the way up to seventeen – who enthralled us with their incredible piano playing skills during several different programs.

Again, last weekend, I attended a traditional debut recital of a classical Indian dance form (called Bharatanatyamwhich is believed to have been in existence for over 4,000 years now) of a friend’s daughter. The girl has been practicing the dance form for over ten years tirelessly to get where she is now.

So, what do the two days have in common?

The diligence and determination with which the children practiced the art form (for hours and years on end) they have adopted as their own.

Children are generally not known to be forward-looking. So, how did they happen to get into something so grueling and time-consuming when they very well could have been watching TV or playing video games?

The majority of them probably got into it because their parents suggested it to them or just plain registered them in a class at the beginning. Soon, however, the child got so involved with the art form that he/she made it his/her own crusade.

Do any of these children ever sit down and think about how all those hours of dedication, nervousness before a performance, missed birthday parties convert into something useful for their lives later? Most probably not.

Do they ever mull over what kind of results will be produced from their steadfast effort? Most likely not.

Then why do they do it?

Because they began to love the art form for the sake of itself.

They do it from the blind faith that they are supposed to do what they enjoy the most.

Is there a wiser or more mature outlook in life?

This realization both humbled and inspired me. And it also raised some questions inside me:

  • When do we give up the grounded belief that we need to do what we believe in, basically what we enjoy, and that we need to leave the results to a higher power?
  • At what stage of growing up do we begin to get so goal-oriented and obsessed with results?

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Have you watched these commercials on T.V?

  • Sunny-D Orange juice
  • Fiber One cereal
  • Johnsonville Chicken sausages

What do they all have in common? They claim that the products they are advertising are good for our health.

Not only that, but each of them shows a mom/dad getting the kids used to the product via subterfuge. At the end of the commercial, we see the parent in question say (in more or less similar words): “Will I tell them it’s good for them? Of course, not!”

ARGH! Can you tell these commercials drive me up the wall?

When you think about it, these adverts are only one symptom of a bigger epidemic raging around us right now. This disease is called “I-am-too-cool-to-admit-to-choosing-right-openly.”

Man: Why are you breaking out in hives suddeny?
Woman: I'm allergic to the knowledge that once I enter that store, I'll be surrounded by things that are good for me.

Take Sunny-D, for instance. I doubt that any juice (even if supposedly sugar-free) squeezed a few days ago and made to sit on a refrigerated shelf is as good for health as it is advertised to be. That apart, why con the kids into drinking it? Why not explain to them how it is good for their long-term health and then have them decide whether they wish to drink it or not?

Is it because this option’s considered too nerdy?

Or is it because we, as parents, want to keep our children dependent on us so badly that we won’t teach them to make the right choices consciously?

 We won’t give our children the benefit of open dialogue and conscious choice; we’ll simply coddle them for as long as possible.

The result? When they have to come to their first major decision as an adult, they are more than likely to stumble.

And then we’ll be right there to cluck our collective tongue and label the entire generation “useless.”

Not perverse at all, are we?

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I sat in my idling car at the tail end of the school’s carpool line, with an open book in my lap. My mind was elsewhere, mulling over this and that.

I noticed a bright flash of color through the corner of my eye and turned to my left. I saw a little girl, clad in a pale pink blouse and a pink-and-blue plaid skort, streaking down the short flight of steps at the front of her house and down the sidewalk. Where is she going all alone?

As I watched, mildly interested — in that way we do when our mind is engaged somewhere else, but it still registers the sights and sounds around it, with a bemused nonchalance – the girl skipped up the steps of the house next-door. She rang the doorbell twice, pressing it hard. She then turned her back to the door and began to worry the bracelet on her wrist with jerky, little movements. The jaunty, orange imitation of a hibiscus in her wavy-blond hair fluttered in the afternoon’s breeze as if signaling its wearer’s emotions.

A few seconds later, the door cracked open a little and out peeked two identical-looking girls attired in brightly-colored leggings and black t-shirts with messages scrawled across them. The girl in pink turned around tentatively and spoke to them. One of her feet hovered over the threshold and the other was planted firmly outside. They carried a soft conversation, and then the three of them skipped outside and continued their dialogue.

A fourth girl – in a white skirt and a sparkly black blouse, with shiny black pumps to match, no less  :-) — waltzed out of nowhere and joined the little group. She was received by the identical girls with squeals and hugs, while the first girl stood slightly apart, looking uncertain. It was obvious that the girls, all of them, were friends. But, the girl in pink, even though she was part of the circle they all formed now, stretched the circle into a sort of an oval; as if she felt just a bit removed from the situation and her friends.

Curiously, I felt like I was viewing a miniature rendition of the complex mechanics of an adult world. What are they talking about? What is it that made the one girl seem somewhat aloof from the rest?

The carpool line gobbled up a few students at the head and moved on sluggishly. My car, too, slithered ahead, away from the curious happenings in which I was by then fully immersed.

It was not really an incident to write home about. So, I wondered later, what made me pay that much attention to such an everyday, innocent thing?

I realized it must have been because of the book I’d been reading earlier, called “Autumn Street” by Lois Lowry. It’s narrated in the point of view of a precocious six-year-old, who, along with her mother and her sister, has to go live with her grandparents for a year, because her father has gone away to do his bit for the war effort.

The book is all about how that year affects her whole life. It’s one of the more honest and empathetic — though the diction is at times incurably adult even for such a smart girl. I mean, what child uses words like interstitial and viscid? — peeks into the bigger-than-life wonders, joys, and fears of childhood, all colored and outlined by the undercurrents of those times.

The book reminded me of the complicated world that children’s minds reside in, and how indelible an impact the actions and (sometimes careless) words of adults have on them.

I’ll leave you with one beautiful passage that Lowry uses to ‘show’ both the empathy and naughtiness of the main character at the same time. The ‘he’ in the passage is the MC’s grandfather, the head of the family in the real old sense of the word, who has recently suffered a stroke that took away most of his faculties.

Carefully I sprinkled cinnamon on his damp fingertip and lifted it to the wet black shape that had once been his fine proud mouth. It touched his tongue, and with his mouth he shaped what I understood to be a smile. I dried his finger with the hem of my dress, put his hand back into his lap, and crept away. Grandmother never knew.

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I have come across several kinds of book clubs: 

  • Those that have both men and women meeting on a regular basis to discuss books
  •  Some that meet in a book store
  • Those that are led by a librarian from a school or a public library
  •  Still others that focus on a particular genre (Mystery book clubs or Philosophy book clubs, for instance) or a particular set of people (book clubs for mothers)
  • Those that are virtually led by a celebrity (Oprah’s book club)
  • Parent-child book clubs

  

In this post, I’d like to focus the spotlight on the last one in the list above. 

A likely scene from a Mother-Son Book Club

 

In a parent-child book club, usually, the children are expected to choose a book for the month and pitch it to their peers and the parents present. Each month, both the parent and child read the book(s) selected for that month. When the meeting is held, the lead asks open-ended questions about the subject of the book and both parents and children gathered share their opinions with each other. 

In my experience, a parent-child book club is a beautiful concept, and the best use of the time (an hour a week or month, or whatever the frequency may be) in the case of both the parent and the child involved. 

Here are some positive aspects of such a book club, as I see them: 

  • If you’re the parent, you get to meet other like-minded parents who are invested in their children’s growth as a reader. Chances are you find that you share other common interests with them.

  

  • If you’re the child in the equation, you get to meet other children who like reading and are not shy about making that fact public knowledge.

  

  • You show your children by your actions that reading is an admirable quality.

  

  • Affords less time for the child to waste on T.V and video games.

  

  • Motivates the child to read a book with careful attention for comprehension.

  

  • Teaches children to be open-minded to others’ opinions and responses.

  

  • The children get a kick out of telling the parent, for a change, what to read. It is a wonderful way to boost their self-esteem by letting them know that you value their judgment.

  

  • If you’re anything like me, you have one or two genres that you naturally gravitate towards, when you pick up a book to read. When you belong to a book club, you are at times forced to read some other genre – one that you may have never even thought to try – and you may surprise yourself by actually liking it.

  

  • Your child will get to taste a lot of genres before he/she learns what she prefers and doesn’t like to read.

  

  • It’s a solid way to tell your children that you care about them and their interests. As a building block to the parent-child relationship, it goes a long way.

  

  • It’s a great means to instill tolerance in children, by exposing them to history and other cultures around the world.

  

  • Children learn to express themselves coherently in public.

  

  • We tend to forget that children have a public and a private persona just like adults. As a parent, we’re usually exposed to the private side of our children. Book clubs offer a great opportunity to parents to get a glimpse into how children carry themselves in public.

  

  • It gives great confidence to children to be able to express their opinions and have adults pay undivided attention to them.

  

  • Whoever said “out of the mouths of babes” was not kidding. You may be surprised at the depth of understanding for a subject that a child can pack into his/her answer. They have such fresh and unadulterated perspectives that you may end up learning more from them than the other way around!

  

  • Nothing can beat this last point: as a parent, can there be a greater pleasure than to watch your child express an opinion that is diametrically opposite to that of the whole group gathered around her, and be able to hold her ground and justify her stance?

And these are only some of the plus points of a book club that involves a child; I could go on, but will stop here for now. 

Note: If you’re a reader, writer, editor, literary agent or a good Samaritan at heart, you may want to visit: Do the Write Thing for Nashville*. 

This site is auctioning off signed copies of books, critiques and more from authors, literary agents, editors and other professionals from the publishing industry, in an effort to raise money for the victims of floods (that resulted from the record amount of rainfall on May 1st and 2nd of 2010) in Nashville, Tennessee. 

* Thanks, Rachel, for forwarding this link to me!

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Publisher’s Weekly has released year 2009’s hardcover  and paperback frontlist and backlist bestsellers.

Here’s a definition of backlist and frontlist from Google:

                A backlist is a list of older books available from a publisher, as opposed to titles newly published, which is sometimes called the frontlist.

My Impressions from the list:

Three facts jumped at me as I read the list:  

  • Notice anything in the pictures I have included in this post? Every book (including those that don’t feature in the photos) in the top ten list has a dark cover (and a theme filled with doom and gloom), except for the two Wimpy Kid books.  

Does that mean we are raising (by providing them these books as brain-fodder when they’re especially at the cusp of adulthood) a generation of possibly emotionally confused, dark-side worshipping humans?

Not so pleasant a thought, is it? But something we may need to mull over…

  • The book industry needs more (especially older) boy books: Writers, take note! Many people in the publishing industry (editors, agents etc.) want to disprove the myth that ‘boys over a certain age do not read’.

I think that’s a laudable goal to work towards. As I look at agents’ submission requirements, I come across more and more of them saying: “I would like to see humorous books, especially for boys” or “Interested in graphic novels” or something to that effect.

  • Unfortunately, there is no non-fiction book (not counting one about how a movie is made from a book) in the list.

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Children are like flowers

Some bloom easily and on time

Others have a harder time – don’t give up hope

Keep telling them how much you love them, and that they will bloom

Soon, they, too, will turn into such beautiful blossoms

As to take your breath away

     – Unknown

Like I mentioned in my previous post, today is World Autism Awareness Day (hope you’re wearing blue). To help bring into focus the urgent need for each of us to be aware of what the word ‘autism’ means, here are some hard facts** about it.

Autism:

  • Is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD).
  • Now affects 1 in 110 children (1 in 70 boys).
  • Is growing at an almost epidemic rate.
  • What causes it? We don’t know definitively yet.
  • Is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S.
  • A small number of cases can be linked to genetic disorders, as well as exposure to environmental agents (both infectious and chemical ones) during pregnancy.
  • When first studied (in 1943 by a psychiatrist called Dr. Leo Kanner), it was believed to be caused by cold and unloving mothers.
  • Has no medical detection or cure.

It is too close to home for each of us — now than ever. So, what are you going to do to spread awareness about it?

Please visit the web site Light It Up Blue for creative ideas on how you can raise autism awareness. If none of the ideas suggested seems feasible with your lifestyle, then how about doing something very simple and manageable, as early as today?

  • If you’re a teacher, take a few minutes to discuss autism with your class.

 

  •  If you know a child who has been diagnosed with autism, spend some time today talking to his/her parents. Are you afraid that your interest may be construed as an invasion of privacy? In my experience, not all parents tending to a child with special needs may openly discuss their experiences with general public, but almost all of them are willing to talk about the challenges they face on a one-on-one basis — if only in the hope that someone else might benefit from what they learned, without having to reinvent the wheel.

 

  •  If you work at an office, bring up this topic at the proverbial water cooler.

 

  •  If you’re a doctor, post flyers, with information about autism, around your office. A parent who brings his child in for a regular checkup may go back home, a little more aware, a little more informed about this spectrum of disorders.

 

  • If you happen to drive a bus, then why not initiate a conversation over the intercom with your regular passengers?

 

  • If you’re part of a book club, then pitch books like “So B. It” or “Seriously Weird” for your next month’s reading material.

 

  • If your child comes home from school saying that the teachers were all wearing blue shirts that had the autism logo on it, and asks what that word means, sit down and discuss what you know with her.

 

These are only some of several ways in which you could do your part. And your involvement doesn’t have to stop after today. Any time you see an opportunity, grab it, and spread the facts about autism.

If the chain of awareness that you started ends up getting even one child diagnosed early, will that not be time well spent? Won’t the few times that you had to step out of your comfort zone, initiating the conversation, feel that much more rewarding?

Who knows when it will be our turn to feel like we are standing behind a one-way glass, looking out at people and wishing that they were aware of what we are going through?

 

** – The facts about autism have been gleaned from the web site: Autism Speaks. Please go to this site to learn about the Red Flags (Early Signs) of Autism. The sooner a child at risk is evaluated, the better, so s/he could receive the needed intervention – in terms of treatment and therapies – and support.

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Children have very few needs. As long as they are fed and clothed, and know that they are loved by those they consider family, they are content. Nothing else makes a permanent dent in their peace of mind.

What changes as we grow older? For adults, at most times, so many parameters and variables become part of the equation that it gets logically impossible to be happy.

I strongly believe that every human being, adult or child, has to look for happiness within oneself.

Whatever the circumstances of your life, whatever the environment around you, it is still possible to be content. You know why? Because only you can define what “happiness” means for you.

Happiness is:

  • Coming across a good book at the library unexpectedly.

 

  • Finishing that pesky 14th hole on a particular golf course on par for the first time.

 

  • Finding the right blouse for those purple and green pants for which you’ve been looking for ages.

 

  • Coming across a pencil topper, in your teacher’s treasure chest, that is missing from your collection.

 

  • Acceptance letter to your number-one university waiting for you in your mailbox.

 

  • Learning that you’re going to be a grandparent soon.

 

  • Putting your feet up after a grueling day and switching on the DVR to watch your favorite show.

 

  • The richness of chocolate coating the inside of your mouth.

 

  • Watching the first rose bud of the season unfurl.

 

The list could go on forever. And there is no wrong item on this list. Why? Because it is your list for your bliss and contentment at any given point in time.

I think happiness is an instinct with which we are all born. For a baby, happiness is a full tummy and a dry diaper. The rest is white noise. As a child grows, that definition changes, but not by much. Love is the one basic essential for them to be happy.

It is not so simple for an adult. Is this because adults tend to tie down happiness with logic and rationality?

It is known that babies are born with an innate ability to swim, but as they grow older that instinct wears off.

Is that what happens with our ability to instinctively define happiness for ourselves? If so, can that be learned again?

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In times like these men should utter nothing for which they would not be willingly responsible through time and in eternity.

                                                                       –  Abraham Lincoln

I have at least a hundred and ten places in the world, big and small, I’d love to visit one day. They are anywhere from Egypt to Ireland to Turkey to Japan to Greece — the list goes on and on. And most of those places have sneaked into my list because of the books I’ve read over the years.

Isn’t it amazing how the image you have of the world is shaped, among other things, by the books (or any printed material) you read? That realization makes the act of writing that much more daunting – forget about how hard the craft itself is.

When it comes to writing books, non-fiction has more rules. Authors of non-fiction are expected to be cognizant of the subject at hand, and they are relied upon to include only proven facts in their books.

Not so fiction.

When writing fiction for adults there’s more leeway, because they are capable of discerning right from wrong (that’s the general belief, at least).

Writing for children? That’s an entirely different beast. Books are one of the cheapest and most commonly used tools to help shape young minds. And children (I’m lumping everyone from babies to teens here) are more impressionable, and hence susceptible to persuasion.

It is well and good to keep books real. I’m all for it. Up to a point.

My problem is when books get gimmicky, all for the sake of sales or some other self-serving need of the creators of the book, and make the depraved characters in it look really cool. Is this really necessary?

Let’s say someone writes a book that has a strong subliminal message that it is okay to make a cheap buck by cheating someone else. And for whatever reason, that book goes out of print after only some hundred copies are sold.

Where do those hundred-odd copies end up? On bookshelves, where they will continue to live for a number of decades. Even if each one of them gets read by one child in each generation, that’s a lot of children brainwashed over the years. And they grow up into adults who affect more children by their beliefs, opinions, and actions. And hence the sphere of influence of that one book keeps growing.

Every book has a message in it, whether it’s an obvious one or not.

As a writer, the bottom line for me is: Would my conscience remain clear even if only one reader embraces the message in my book?

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In keeping with the topic for this week, here are excerpts from a few children’s classics from my bookshelf. Again, they are presented in no particular order, and these form but a mere fraction of all the incredible works available to us.

 All the books I have selected have the following things in common:

  • They are all written beautifully, almost in a lyrical fashion.
  • Each of them takes place in a different country (or countries) or has a diverse setting.
  • Every one of them provides us with glimpses of lifestyle from various time periods in the past.
  • Each of the authors was possibly influenced, in their writing (both in style and content), by the cultures and belief systems they grew up imbibing.

(And, oh, be sure to stroll by Books-For-Young-At-Heart and Books-For-Young at your leisure – I have populated the latter only recently.)

 

*****

“Anna Maria,” said the old man rat (whose name was Samuel Whiskers), – “Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner.”

“It requires dough and a pat of butter, and a rolling-pin,” said Anna Maria, considering Tom Kitten with her head on one side.

“No,” said Samuel Whiskers, “make it properly, Anna Maria, with bread-crumbs.”

“Nonsense! Butter and dough,” replied Anna Maria.

                    – The Roly-Poly Pudding by Beatrix Potter

As the children walked in, they saw that most of the walls had crumbled down. There were rubble heaps everywhere. In some places, parts of the walls were intact and they could see the niches in them, which must have been used for storage all those many years ago. Once or twice they came across wooden pillars rotting away. On one of them they saw something that looked as if someone had tried to carve a name on it.

The children stared in silence. It was so quiet, it was impossible to believe it was the middle of the day. There were no bird sounds, not even an insect. Two large crows, perched on one of the walls, flew away noiselessly as the children approached.

“It’s … it’s … eerie,” Dinu said, using a word he had just learnt. Polly was too subdued to ask ‘What’s that?’. It was Ravi who asked instead.

“It means, funny and frightening – like this is.”

“Frightening? Don’t tell me you’re frightened, Dinu?” Minu’s face was grave but her eyes held a mischievous twinkle.

                    – The Hidden Treasure by Shashi Deshpande

October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry-trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in the aftermaths.

Anne revelled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill – several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

                    – Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

“Can’t I go out and play, Ma?” Laura asked, and Ma said:

“’May,’ Laura.”

“May I go out to play?” she asked.

“You may tomorrow,” Ma promised.

That night Laura woke up, shivering. The bed-covers felt thin, and her nose was icy cold. Ma was tucking another quilt over her.

“Snuggle close to Mary,” Ma said, “and you’ll get warm.”

In the morning the house was warm from the stove, but when Laura looked out of the window she saw that the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees the snow was piled like feathers, and it lay in mounds along the top of the rail fence, and stood up in great, white balls on top of the gate-posts.

                    – Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Might I,” quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth?”

In her eagerness she did not realize how queer the words would sound and that they were not the ones she had meant to say. Mr. Craven looked quite startled.

“Earth!” he repeated, “What do you mean?”

“To plant seeds in – to make things grow – to see them come alive,” Mary faltered.

He gazed at her a moment and then passed his hand quickly over his eyes.

“Do you — care about gardens so much?” he said slowly.

“I didn’t know about them in India,” said Mary. “I was always ill and tired and it was too hot. I sometimes made little beds in the sand and stuck flowers in them. But here it is different.”

                    – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 “You’ll not say anything about it at home, will you?”

“Not a word.”

“And you won’t tease me in private?”

“I never tease.”

“Yes, you do; you get everything you want out of people. I don’t know how you do it, but you are a born wheedler.”

“Thank you; fire away.”

“Well, I’ve left two stories with a newspaperman, and he’s to give his answer next week,” whispered Jo, in her confidant’s ear.

“Hurrah for Miss March, the celebrated American authoress!” cried Laurie, throwing up his hat and catching it again, to the great delight of two ducks, four cats, five hens, and half a dozen Irish children; for they were out of the city now.

“Hush! It won’t come to anything, I dare say; but I couldn’t rest till I had tried, and I said nothing about it, because I didn’t want anyone else to be disappointed.”

                    – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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A couple of dictionary definitions for Tolerance are:

1 : sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.     

2 : the act of allowing something : toleration.

Isn’t tolerance one of the most needed qualities in all of us, in this day and age? Is tolerance an instinct or is it a learned behavior? If the latter, could it be cultivated in children?

What are some of the best ways to expose children to diversity?

  • Travel: No better way to teach children about how the rest of the world lives.

 

  • Movies: Remember the three protagonists in Finding Nemo? Marlin, the dad, is a little different, with his paranoia for his son’s safety; Nemo is not your run-of-the-mill Clown fish, what with his one small fin and everything; and Dory is way out there, literally, with her short-term memory loss. Still, at the end of the movie, you come away loving these characters — their idiosyncrasies and all.

 

  • Books: The best and cheapest means of getting your point across, if you ask me. (You guessed I’d say that, right? This is a blog all about books, after all! :)) You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home and which child can resist a bed-time story? There are so many books out there, both fiction and non-fiction, that help us nurture empathy in children that is at the crux of the definition for tolerance.

* Won’t a child be less likely to torture a classmate who speaks with a stutter, if the former understood why the latter does that and how that makes him feel?

* Won’t a child be less likely to bully another who dresses peculiarly, according to her, if she knew the reason/custom behind the clothes being different?

* Won’t a child think before she judges another’s family structure if she were taught to be more sympathetic?

* Won’t a child be a little less likely to be sniggered at because of the contents of his lunch box, if his friends knew the name of the food he’s eating and how it is prepared?

Overall, it is my belief that children exposed early to diversity in geography, culture, and belief systems tend to grow up to be more tolerant and understanding of the physical, religious, and cultural differences in the population around them.

What do you all say?

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