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We Can Teach Children Not to Hate

You’ve got to be taught…
Before you are six
Or seven
Or eight
To hate all the people
Your relatives hate
You’ve got to be Carefully Taught

These words are from a song in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, written in 1949. In 1952, Oscar Hammerstein introduced the song during The National Conference of Christians and Jews Brotherhood Week. Here’s a clip from CriticalPast, an archive of historic footage. That was 70 years ago! 

They were right then. Their words are right now. Children are not born hating other children. Toddlers on a playground approach any other toddler is a potential friend. A recent post in Facebook showed 2 preschool children, 1 Black, 1 White, who got identical haircuts so their teacher wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Kids are not by nature racist. They have to be taught to hate.

Or they can be carefully taught to hold onto their natural acceptance of others. 

I am white. I don’t believe it is appropriate to ask the targets of racism to root out the hate and fear that run deep in the culture of white privilege. Carefully teaching white children to not hate, to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem, requires white commitment to actively support values of equality, compassion, and respect. The struggle for racial equality can’t be left to chance. It never could be. 

A struggle that has been going on since white people set foot on American soil won’t end because of another round of protests. Such actions give a voice to the unheard and send an important message to our government — and to our children. But it is not by watching us join in an occasional march that teaches our children not to hate. It is what children observe us doing day by day by day that gives them a moral compass.

Ways to carefully teach anti-racism:

Reflect: First, and most important, is to do our own internal homework. It’s too easy to tell ourselves that we’re not racist; that we’re not complicit in the maintenance of systemic racism. We need to be brutally honest with ourselves about our own participation, even if it is by lack of participation, in making things better. The kids pick up our beliefs through the pores of their skin. They are always watching us.

Start early and often. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children start to internalize racial bias as young as from 2-4 years old. It’s never too early to start combating it through careful teaching. Read them story books that include diverse characters. Provide them with diverse dolls, action figures, and dollhouse families. 

Monitor Media: Limit time on screens. (Here are recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics). 

A steady diet of clips of police brutality, people being obnoxious to people different from themselves, and of looting during protests can overwhelm and confuse kids. Be sure to talk about what they see in terms they can understand. Counter those videos by showing them others where people are acting with compassion and support. Talk about that, too. 

Identify racial bias: Point out racial stereotypes when watching TV or reading with your kids. Are all the villains of one race; all the heroes another? If you all observe a racially motivated encounter, choose wisely whether to get involved when the children are with you but do talk about it later.

Develop a diverse social network: Children learn to be comfortable with people different from themselves by being around people who are different from themselves. Make the extra effort (if that’s what it takes) to get to know people who are different racially, ethnically, and nationally.

Do you live and work in a homogeneous environment? Then stretch yourself. Join an activity, a political effort, or a volunteer program that puts you in regular contact with a diverse group of people. Friendships often grow organically when people work side by side on something they care about.

Discuss, don’t scold: In their efforts to understand differences, all young children make tactless remarks, e.g., “Why is that lady fat?” Every such comment is a teachable moment. Help your children learn that people come in different sizes, in different skin tones, and with different customs and languages — that we judge people by what they do, not by the color of their skin or where they or their parents or grandparents came from.

Teach conflict resolution: Normal siblings fight. Kids inevitably get into tussles with their friends. These are also teachable moments. Take the time to carefully teach them how to disagree without needing to dominate. Teach them how to navigate conflict so that everyone leaves the conversation feeling respected.

Model: Children learn by observation. Walk the walk. Talk the talk. Model kindness and respect when talking with everyone. Go out of your way to express gratitude to others and to visibly support people who are doing the right thing. 

Get involved: Yes, peacefully protest. Take the kids along if it’s safe. But don’t let that be your “one and done” effort to combat racism. Write letters and make calls to your members of congress. Write a letter to the editor or an opinion piece for your local newspaper. Join a political committee. Volunteer to help with a campaign. Help with voter registration or at a polling place. Donate to causes that are working to make things better. Your kids will notice.

Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) wrote in his 2013 book that a 1962 Diane Arbus photograph Child With a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, left him horrified. He said that the words to his song, Teach the Children were the result. “‘If we don’t start teaching kids a better way of dealing with each other”, he said, “humanity will never succeed.”

From Teach the Children by Graham Nash:

“Can you hear and do you care
And can’t you see
We must be free
To teach your children
What you believe in
Make a world we can live in” 

We Can Teach Children Not to Hate


Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.


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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). We Can Teach Children Not to Hate. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/we-can-teach-children-not-to-hate/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Jun 2020 (Originally: 10 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Jun 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.