Sassos: Let’s teach our children not to hate

(Indianapolis Star, August 30, 2017)

It is with horror that we watched the news of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis rally in Charlottesville, Va. What struck us most about the marchers was their youth. This was not an old and shrinking population but a new and growing one. We asked ourselves, “How did they learn such hatred?”

It is said that no one is born hating. Recall the song from South Pacific: “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.”

Psychological research teaches us otherwise. Prejudice is not acquired from birth, but child development specialists’ report that by age 3, children have ideas about gender, race and people with special needs. To make sense of the world, children think in categories: girls, boys; black, white…. They divide people into good guys and bad guys. Children do not just naturally outgrow these ideas unless these intuitive ways of seeing the world are challenged.

So, it is respect, tolerance and love that need to be “carefully taught.” For too long we have assumed that if we take a color-blind approach to society, pretend not to notice differences, all will be well. But children are not color-blind. They notice that people have different shades of skin, types of hair, facial features. They observe that people celebrate different holidays, speak different languages, wear crosses, stars, hijabs and turbans. We have naively believed that if we didn’t point out these distinctions, our children wouldn’t notice them. But we have been wrong. Denial and avoidance don’t work.

When parents and educators focus on our commonalities only and don’t talk about what makes us distinct, children are left to surmise that difference is somehow bad, something adults are afraid to discuss. Without adult guidance, there is none to correct these misconceptions. We need to teach that it isn’t difference that is bad, but the belief that differences imply the superiority of some and the inferiority of others. We should teach children to not only accept, but to affirm and celebrate diversity. Children who learn the value of diversity are more likely to identify and reject prejudice and discrimination.

What can we do to help our toddlers grow up into less hateful tomorrows? We must acknowledge what our children ask and tell us about race and religion and talk openly with them about difference and diversity. We must help them discern stereotypes and correct oversimplification and false characterization. We must create opportunities for families to build friendships across diverse races, cultures and religions. We teach our children not only by what we say, but by what we do. Children are good observers of our behavior.

If we want our children to have hearts of kindness, it is not enough to for them to “save the whales” while ignoring another child in the classroom or playgroup. It is important to collect canned goods for the hungry and also to invite an unpopular classmate to the cafeteria lunch table. We teach our children to correct bad grammar. We must also give them the tools to correct gossip, hate speech and slander when they hear it.

The racists who marched in Charlottesville were wrong! Attempts to draw parity between the actions of those who hate and those who stand up to bigotry, especially when coming from the president, are morally reprehensible; a terrible lesson for our children.

Rather, let us teach our young about an America, which, in the words of President George Washington, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” As President Abraham Lincoln envisioned, let us renew the tasks of building a nation, “With malice toward none, with charity towards all,… that we might achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace….”

How presidential!

Sandy Sasso is senior rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University. Dennis Sasso is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis.