Acceptance vs. Tolerance: An Example

by Scott Noelle

After reading the Acceptance vs. Tolerance groove, one of my clients asked me how it would apply to a real-life parenting challenge: getting his 3-year-old daughter to brush her teeth. Below is my response to him.

Here are examples of the four combinations of acceptance, tolerance, and their opposites, applied to your tooth-brushing scenario...

Tolerance without acceptance leads to resentment.

In this case, you tolerate your toddler’s refusal to have her teeth brushed (i.e., she “gets her way” and you choose not to impose your will on her), but you’re not at peace with it: you think it’s wrong, you’re afraid for her health, and/or you’re worried that you might not be doing your duty as her parent. This situation leads to resentment because it feels like she’s putting you in a bind — damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

Tolerance with acceptance leads to appreciation.

In this case, you choose to tolerate her refusal, and you find a way to make peace with it. Acceptance is easier to come by when you do some rethinking or re-framing of the situation. An example of rethinking is questioning the basis of your concerns: “Maybe she doesn’t really need her teeth brushed... Maybe her teeth will be fine without brushing for now... After all, virtually every species of mammal maintains healthy teeth without brushing, so the human species must have that same capacity.” This softens your internal resistance, creating space for acceptance.

If you can’t find a new thought that makes her refusal seem more acceptable, try re-framing: “Even though not brushing puts her teeth at risk, the quality of our relationship is more important, and maintaining trust and partnership now will make it easier to work together in solving any tooth problems that show up when she’s older.” This kind of re-framing is shifting to a broader perspective — seeing the Big Picture.

The ultimate re-framing is the essence of unconditionality: “All Is Well, no matter what.” This is the kind of thing that turns parenting into a spiritual practice. “My child is an expression of infinite Well-Being — even if she never has a healthy tooth in her mouth.” But note that just because you can re-frame it that way doesn’t mean you “should” tolerate bad oral hygiene. It just means that you can accept it whether or not you choose to tolerate it.

Seeing the Big Picture in this way leads to the kind of appreciation implicit in the popular phrase, “It’s all good!”

INtolerance without acceptance leads to conflict.

In this case, you can’t or won’t accept your toddler’s refusal to let you brush her teeth AND you choose not to tolerate it. Since non-acceptance equates with judgment and resistance, this situation will inevitably lead to conflict. When a child’s behavior is deemed “unacceptable,” it justifies the parent imposing his or her will on the child... “by any means necessary.”

INtolerance with acceptance leads to creativity.

In this case, you clearly intend to uphold a high standard of oral hygiene for your child, AND you are able to accept that your toddler is not willing to go along with your agenda. There is a gap between vision and reality, and there is a kind of tension in the gap. Your willingness to stay present and relaxed — in a state of acceptance despite the tension — makes you more susceptible to creative inspiration, and you easily come up with solutions that work for you AND her. You don’t need your child to actively participate in the creative process, but as she matures, you’ll be able to include her more directly in the process.

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