Respecting Diversity: 3 Qualities Your Young Adult Needs

Find out how you can build your teen's respect for diversity.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to recognize and respect the feelings of others. It also involves listening carefully when others speak and responding to their needs with care and concern.

Part of empathy is recognizing that people have different perspectives than one’s own. Licensed mental health counselor Janine Halloran likes to use a metaphor of blind men and an elephant to explain empathy. One blind man grabs the trunk, the other touches the side, another holds the tail. They all are touching the same creature—an elephant—but they all have different perspectives on what it is they are feeling. “Everybody has their hand on part of the elephant, and they are convinced their way is the only way to see the elephant,” Halloran says. “But really, everybody misses the point. It’s important to step back and see the big picture. As we get older, we have to think beyond our own perspective.” While challenging to do, Halloran says this means recognizing that your perspective can be both right and wrong at the same time;  an important point for kids as well as adults. 

Young adults will have to learn to deal with different personalities in the workplace and in life. Research suggests that those with a strong sense of empathy have better social interactions and tend to be more successful in school and in the workplace. Educational psychologist Dr. Michele Borba says if young adults can understand where others are coming from, they will be better-prepared to deal with diverse personalities and ideas. Halloran says the first step is actually looking inward and recognizing one’s own uniqueness. “We all have to think of ourselves as unique. It is unhelpful to pigeonhole people based on one characteristic,” Halloran says. “Think about yourself; you know there are a lot of different things about you. There are a lot of experiences you’ve had and others have and haven’t had. It’s important to remember that everyone goes through that.” And for you, it’s important to understand where your kid is coming from, too. Respect them for how they are different from you and that will be the first step in setting an example for how they interact with others in the world. There is plenty of wisdom you can offer, but first, you must hear what they have to say.

Compassion

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” It is the feeling of concern and sympathy for others’ suffering or challenges, and the motivation to relieve that suffering.

“Compassion is empathy in action,” Borba says. This can be as simple as trying to make someone’s day a little better by doing something kind, like holding a door open, or doing extended work like volunteering or service projects. When young adults have compassion, they are able to show others that they understand and respect their differences through their actions. 

By finding ways to connect with others, no matter how different they are, young adults build their compassion skills. “Just because somebody looks different than you, it doesn’t mean they’ve had a very different life than you,” Halloran says. Young adults should try to keep in mind that all people go through some kind of challenge. Talk with your young adult about a stereotype related to your family or background. You can also use this as an opportunity to discuss how diversity enhances our world, and how being compassionate and respecting others can help them learn more about the world. 

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Kindness

Kindness is treating others with respect, compassion, and care. It’s the golden rule: treat others how you want to be treated.

Research shows that kindness is linked to increased peer acceptance, improved academic performance, and positive mental health. It is essential in maintaining and making new relationships. When people are kind, they are more accepting of others and their differences, and they are better-able to form meaningful and strong social connections. The ability to be kind is an essential trait that can help contribute to a person’s personal and professional success.

As many changes are happening in your young adult’s life and questions of identity and purpose arise, it is a crucial time to talk about the value of being kind and welcoming to others. Young adults can practice kindness in all of their interactions. Simply having conversations with people they may not typically talk to or agree with is a good way to start. Halloran says it’s easy to be kind to those who agree with you, it’s much harder to show respect and kindness to those who you really disagree with. “Your goal is not to agree with someone,” Borba says. “The goal is to understand where the person is coming from and show kindness to them anyway.” And it’s okay to acknowledge that it’s not always easy. Working and interacting on a daily basis with those who have very different beliefs can be challenging at times, especially when it causes tension. “Validate that your kid may be in a tough position, but encourage them nonetheless,” education consultant Ana Hoyamoun says. When your kid is pushed out of their comfort zone, it’s going to be challenging. But challenging times are often the best time to learn and grow. 

Respecting differences is something your child will have to learn to do their entire life. This may seem obvious, but be sure your kid feels unconditionally loved. At a time with many changes, your young adult may feel particularly vulnerable. Even more of a reason for you to support them! This shows them that respecting and loving others for their differences and in spite of them is what is most important.

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