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You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught: How to Explain Hatred to Your Children

With world events occurring at lightning/frightening speed, adults who may be bewildered themselves, may feel at a loss to answer the questions their young ones may have about topics they see broadcast on television or hear about on the school bus. In the wake of the virulent rally in Charlottesville and those that have followed since, it is an even more important topic for parents to address. Children will ask questions and it is crucial for answers to be available and not brushed under the rug, as it might seem easier to do.

One such parent is Stefanie Nicolosi, a Philadelphia area photographer. In an article for Newsworks, she explains why she feels it is important to educate children about bigotry in order to create more caring human beings and a just society. The question remains about whether by sheltering our children from the news about what is going on in the world, we are doing them a disservice.

When the World Was Rocked in 1963

I recall vaguely when President Kennedy was assassinated (I was 5 at the time), I couldn’t understand why the adults on television were crying. My mother explained what happened in a way my pre-school age mind could absorb that someone did something bad and killed the president. I don’t remember if I asked why and I imagine my mother would have been hard pressed to have come up with an answer, but try she would have. When I look back at that November day, my child’s mind could have perceived that if the president wasn’t safe from a murderer’s bullet, then how could I be? To the best of my memory, it didn’t go there. I somehow felt protected.

I grew up in Willingboro, NJ (one of the Levitt communities built after WWII; NY and PA are the locations of the other two) which was not an overly diverse town at the time. That evolved by the time I was in high school. We were encouraged to have friends of all religious faiths and we sometimes went to church with them, even though our practice was Judaism. At our Passover table, each year were folks with different beliefs as well. Our Christmas eves were spent at the home of my mom’s BFF Miriam and as we woke up to their rainbow light and tinsel-clad tree with trains running around it, I often wondered how Santa knew to leave presents for two little Jewish girls (my sister and me). Each year my parents took us to an international festival at our local high school and we sampled food, listened to music and learned about various cultures. In 1964 and ’65, we headed to NY for the World’s Fair. There began my love affair with India, since we visited the Indian pavilion. It was the first time I had seen women wearing bindhi and smelled the delicious aroma of Nag Champa incense. Indian cuisine is among my favorites and kirtan (sacred call and response chanting in Sanskrit) part of my spiritual practice.

Why Would Anyone Teach Hatred?

One clear memory was listening to the Rogers and Hammerstein song from the musical South Pacific called “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and questioning my mom about the meaning. I was likely somewhere around 10 at the time.

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.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

I wondered why anyone would want to teach their children to hate and fear anyone who was different. She patiently explained that some people were so afraid themselves that they passed it on to their children. Blessedly, we were taught by example to love, without regard to differences.

In 1968, in a school in Iowa, 3rd grade teacher Jane Elliott conducted an experiment called A Class Divided which highlighted what happens when children are taught to believe that one group is superior to another by virtue of eye color.

Pro-Social Activism Is Learned

Another anecdote that reflects the values with which my mother was raised that she deeded to me came later in her life. When Barack Obama was elected for the first term, I mused with her about how amazing it was, given that I grew up in the 1960’s and witnessed the inequities that divided folks based on the color of their skin. She related that when she was 18 and her father had recently died, she and my grandmother took a bus trip from Philly to Florida. This was 1942, during WWII and the bus was filled with soldiers, sailors and marines. When the bus pulled into DC, the white bus driver yelled, “All you (and he used the N word that I won’t glorify by spelling out), get to the back of the bus.” At that, my mom stood up and said to my grandmother, “Come on, we’re moving too.” And so they did. I asked her what the driver said and she replied, “Nothing.” And, what did the other passengers say?  “Nothing,” but each time they stopped along the way, the military personnel surrounded them to protect them from potentially angry white passengers. I marvel at this anecdote and the family in which I was raised.

When I look back at the past 58 years, I can honestly say that I have not faced overt anti-Semitism. My father related stories of what he experienced as a first- generation American Jewish man in the aftermath of WWII. One was when a fellow sailor examined his hair looking for horns, since this Southern born and bred man was taught that Jews had them. He had epithets such as ‘dirty Jew’ and ‘kike’ hurled at him. I often thought it bordered on paranoia at times, as I called it ‘looking for an anti-Semite under every bed.’

My parents modeled generosity as they volunteered in the community; my mom in the local hospital and with Girl Scouts (she was a cookie mom), our homerooms and swim meets and my dad as a firefighter, in our synagogue and with a young girl in our neighborhood who had Muscular Dystrophy and he did what was then called ‘patterning.’ As a result, I became a volunteer for various organizations, including our local recycling center when I was a teenager. When my now 30 year old son Adam was in high school, he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, and now as an adult, he put his cooking talents to work for a charity fundraiser via the company he works for.

As parents, Michael (my husband who died in 1998) and I instilled in him the importance of honoring diversity and in his teens, one of his close friends was Gay and to this day, they remain in touch and he was happy for Paul when he heard he got married to the love of his life; another man. His BFF is bi-racial and we refer to him as his “brother from another mother”. At Adam and Lauren’s recent wedding were same sex couples and friends from all over the world.


Family values in our home are wrapped around love, acceptance, dialog, affection, education, activism, mutual respect, service, and celebrating uniqueness.  We were carefully taught and so I taught my son. May he pass on that legacy to his children.

How to Share the News with Children

  • Be informed yourself by watching, reading and listening to reputable news sources.
  • Provide information in an age appropriate way, using concepts that your children will grasp.
  • Assure them that you will do your best to keep them safe.
  • Don’t have the news on 24/7 even if it is tempting during a crisis.
  • Let your children know that there are things to do to prevent a sense of helplessness, such as getting involved in the community.
  • There are signs that many families place on their lawns that read, “Hate Has No Home Here” that takes a pro-social stand.
  • Speak with them openly about peaceful co-existence with people from other cultures and religious beliefs.

Source: psychcenteral