They’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Oscar Hammerstein II, “You’ve Got to Be Taught” from the musical South Pacific, 1949
Photo by Todd Trapani on

One thing I’ve learned as a parent and as an educator: children mirror our own behavior. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Has anyone had their own child pick up some naughty language which was repeated at a most inopportune moment?

Besides being excellent observers, children look to adults – those who are their caregivers and those encountered through media as “celebrity” – for models of acceptable behaviors and interactions.

This, of course, causes me to wonder about the effect the racist and hyper-charged hate-filled “soundbites” that are blasting into our lives on a daily, and oftentimes hourly basis. What impact is this having on our children?

When adults use disparaging taunts and insulting nicknames to refer to others around them, particularly those with whom there is a disagreement, children intuit that this is an okay way to react and respond. When an adult feels compelled to tell someone to “go back where you came from” or targets people of color, the message is again condoning what I believe and know are unacceptably racist behaviors.

It won’t take much for this to spill over into diverse classrooms. School staff – all of us really – will need to be ready to counteract and replace the unacceptable with inclusiveness and kindness. While that is going to be challenging when each day brings a new low in personal interactions from some corners, it is important, essential work.

Because they’ve got to be carefully taught can run both ways.

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