How You Came to Understand the Word “Tolerance” (or The Night You Told Your Mom to Shut Up)

We don’t hug people that we tolerate. We don’t laugh with them either. We just sit in judgment of them, thinking ourselves better or superior or more important.

How You Came to Understand the Word “Tolerance” (or The Night You Told Your Mom to Shut Up)

Image by cdd20 from Pixabay

22 April 2020

Dear Gus,

Tonight, in the midst of another argument about whether or not you needed to take a shower and brush your teeth, you told your mom to “shut up.”

I’ve never honestly feared for your well-being as much as I did in that moment. But I maintained my cool. I'm not going to lie: I am rather proud of how I sat there, looked at the shock on your mom’s face, and then told you in the coolest, calmest, nothing-but-ice-water-in-these-veins voice: “Go upstairs; we will continue this conversation after you've showered and are in bed.”

“After reading time, you mean,” you said in your rebellion.

“No,” I said, and my voice grew even quieter, “Our little conversation will take the place of reading time.” You looked at me with big eyes, and I whispered, “Go.”

That was the first time you obeyed me tonight.

Mom and I had been experimenting with a new looseness in our parenting style. To be honest, we play it pretty loose much of the time. We like for you to make your own decisions and do your thing. However, we do feel that there are certain non-negotiables. Do you remember what that word means, “non-negotiable”? It means that we take them as laws of the universe, essentially; they are givens that will not change no matter how much we argue about it. When I tell you something is non-negotiable, really I’m telling you that your arguing will do nothing more than contribute to climate change by spewing extra carbon dioxide out into the atmosphere.

One of those non-negotiables is good hygiene. You’re going to have to shower and brush your teeth on a regular basis. Non-negotiable. It’s the law. If you can’t do it on your own, then we’re going to find ways to force you into it. That’s the deal. We may even have to hit you where it counts, our go-to consequence: no Dude Perfect for a whole week. (When you’re older, you’ll realize that this is a win for all of us.) Yes, indeed, Mom and I will take extraordinary steps to ensure that you’re not gross.

We do, however, have certain rules or customs or traditions that are negotiable, open to conversation. In this global pandemic, coronavirus weirdness, we decided that maybe bedtime could be negotiable. What if we left it up to you to determine when you wanted to go to bed? After all, we’ve got nowhere to be tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. Why not just let you fall asleep when you’re tired? So we did…

And it worked! We had a great time for almost a week.

Each night, as it got later and later, I’d coax you into reading time in the bed. I’d lie next to you with my book and you with yours. We’d read and read and read and read. I loved it! Eventually, you’d turn your body to face the wall, your index finger wedged into your copy of The Last Kids on Earth or Harry Potter or that National Geographic Atlas of the Solar System that you sometimes stare at for hours. Your breathing would grow heavier, and occasionally you’d let out a twitch—how a whole body can twitch so violently yet remain asleep, I do not pretend to understand. When I knew it was safe, when you were past the point of no-return in your slumber, I’d carefully extract myself from the bed, tuck you in, turn off the light, and leave.

After several nights of this, however, you decided to start pushing it. I don’t blame you. It’s what you do. Your whole life—all nine years—has been a constant effort to test the defenses of the various cages that the world has put you in. I should have seen this coming, but I didn’t. I was blinded by how much I was enjoying our little evenings, reading beside each other in bed.

Your boundary testing began a few nights ago. You didn’t want to have reading time at the end of the night. You wanted to do origami, play games, watch movies, etc. At first, I let it go, thinking that you’d come to bed and read with me. But you didn’t. This happened the next night too. Your whole attitude about the evenings changed. You started to get angry when I’d try to get you to do anything.

So, tonight…

We sat in the kitchen. Mom and I had asked you to go upstairs, take a shower, brush your teeth, and ready yourself for reading time in bed. In our minds, this was a non-negotiable: good hygiene, right? You expressed a hard no, so we came back with a harder yes, things escalated, and before too long, you told your mom to shut up.

The room got quiet. My fingernails dug into the wooden arms of the chair I was sitting in. I haven’t checked, but I’m sure there are claw marks there. The entire atmosphere changed, like the air just floated up and away from the surface of the Earth, vanishing into space. With the loss of oxygen, I experienced shortness of breath and found it difficult to speak, but I managed to command you, in a small, quiet voice, to go upstairs.

Against anyone’s better judgment, and without any heed for the fact that it was nearly impossible to breathe in that room, you tested the waters, yes, but just one protest, and then you acquiesced. I think you knew that you’d crossed a line. You went upstairs, expressing your frustration with light stomps on each step, and you got down to the business of the non-negotiable hygiene.

One peculiar thing about you, Gus, and something that I rather envy, is your ability to shake things off. Sometimes, it’s maddening just how good you are at being in the moment, but I know it will serve you well later in life. This was one of those times where it was absolutely maddening. In the immediate aftermath of our argument, as your mom and I sat in the kitchen expressing our shock at your crappy attitude, as the shower upstairs ran and the steam collected on the bathroom mirror, you began to sing. I don’t know what you were singing. I couldn’t make out the tune, but it sounded…happy?

The idea that happy, joyful sounds could possibly come out of your body annoyed me. If I had concentrated on it, if I had allowed it to fester, I’m sure it would’ve enraged me.

But I took a deep breath and so did Mom.

When I came upstairs, after you’d showered and brushed your teeth and put on your pajamas, I sat down next to your bed, and I said, “We will not tolerate your disrespect.”

You interrupted: “What does ‘tolerate’ mean?”

I said, “To tolerate something means to put up with it, to pretend that it’s okay, even though it’s really not.”

We went on with our conversation, but later I asked you if you liked it when I said that we “tolerate” some things that you do. You told me that you didn’t. You told me that you wanted us to think that everything that you do is “cool” or “good” or “awesome.”

“I want that too,” I said, “I really do. I don’t want to ‘tolerate’ you or ‘tolerate’ anything that you’re doing.”

When you really think about it, Gus, “tolerate” isn’t a very nice word. When we tolerate something, we are expressing our disapproval. Even worse, when we say we tolerate a certain person or a certain type of person, we not only express our disapproval, but we also fool ourselves into thinking that we are somehow morally superior: I turn my nose up at this thing, but, because I’m such a great guy, I’m letting it go; see how great I am? I can look at the thing that is so ugly, so distasteful, so intolerable, and muster up the strength to tolerate it because I’m such a wonderful, big-hearted human being.


I hope I’m never described as a “tolerant” person! What an insult! That would be like saying: “Stephen was super-judgmental, but he always pretended that he wasn’t.”

Tolerance is not a value to admire. Tolerance is a thing to avoid. Tolerance is small-minded and small-hearted. Tolerance props me up and puts you down. Tolerance is judgmental and petty; it’s unkind, lacks generosity, and seeks to say “my way or the highway.”

We cannot just tolerate; we have to be better than that.

Instead, we should be accepting and forgiving, generous, kind, magnanimous. We should look at other people and love them because of their differences, not in spite of them! Never do we simply want to tolerate a person. No! We don’t hug people that we tolerate. We don’t laugh with them either. We just sit in judgment of them, thinking ourselves better or superior or more important.

So, I agree with you, Gus, I don’t want to tolerate you or anything that you do.

I want to love everything that you do.
I want to celebrate everything that you do.
I want to go around to my friends and my family
and hold you up as an example of supreme awesome-ness.
(And often I do!) But never do I want to tolerate you.

No, I will not tolerate you being you. But I will accept you for who you are and love you…even when you tell your mother to shut up. I will not tolerate you talking to us like that, no. But I will forgive it and hope we all grow kinder and wiser from it.