“Careful the things you say, children will listen.”
This is a line from a Stephen Sondheim song written for the Broadway show “Into The Woods.” The words of the song advise us to think twice before we speak in front of children. It tells us that even though it may seem as though words are not being heard, the children are hearing them, and we know we are “bending the twig.”
We forget that babies are born into this world without prejudice. The true meaning of their innocence is that, in their purity they see all people as equal. Of course, it seems that as parents and grandparents we cannot wait to corrupt that innocence with a strong dose of our prejudices inherent in some of our beliefs
It is very hard to keep our view of the world and its people to ourselves. I am not thinking of those things that can cause hurt or harm. We most certainly have the obligation to protect our children from as much of what is harmful as is possible. It is our responsibility to see that they know to observe for traffic before crossing a street, or that a knife can cut or fire burn and are aware of all the hazards around us.
We must love and nurture the children and provide a safe environment that will be safe from physical and psychological harm. We are all aware of this, and we would say we do our best by the little ones.
But do we?
From the time the infant is brought home from the hospital there is an indoctrination that begins and continues. During their childhood, we pass on our beliefs and, sadly, our prejudices. It is during this period that hate and ignorance get to “live another day.” We may have the correct words on our lips, but those words are easily betrayed by what is in our hearts. There are few guards in place that prevent the contamination of the young by their elders. The only possible guard is one we may choose to impose upon ourselves. Most times that guard is not imposed because we are ignorant of the fact that it is needed.
So, it continues, and prejudice gets to live another day. Often we do it with words. We might demean a race or ethnicity because we do it in language we have always used, and it is so ingrained in us that we no longer think of what those words actually mean and how much they take away from the dignity of another. We might think nothing of telling a joke that puts down women (or men) and thereby show our children that our sex is the superior one. Branding groups as sinners or as worthy of hell’s fire because their religious or spiritual beliefs are different than ours, or because their way of life is different from ours and different from what our religion says is permissible, has the blessing of many churchmen. These are all routes to perpetuating hate and go hand-in-hand with the belief that those who are different from us, are somehow less worthy of the world’s respect.
If we think about it, there is no rational reason for us to fear members of a minority, those of a different ethnic background, those born with a different sexuality, or those from a different socio-economic background. Yet hate and disrespect abound. It is bad enough when we realize that so many prejudices are alive and well in our own breast, but the realization that we are, even inadvertently poisoning the mind of a child and perpetuating into another generation, the biases that were given to us before we had a choice as to whether we would accept them or not.
It is very difficult to change the mindset that was given to us as children. Our prejudices become like shackles locked onto us, and we carry their weight through life. Most of us don’t question them because we have been so convinced that they are right. We may be able to verbalize that racial minorities are as “good” as we are; that members of other religions are as worthy; that atheists can be moral; that gay men and lesbians are deserving of equal civil rights. We may know it is not wrong to question the tenets of any church or religious sect that demeans any group. We may be able to verbalize what is politically correct, but internally we might hold onto the thoughts our parents and other adults gifted to us and modeled for us when we were children.
It could be that we cannot rid ourselves of all of it, but we can try. Another thing we can do is remember to exercise care when children are with us. We can remember that children will listen, and as the song goes, they will learn.
If we remember this, maybe we will exercise care when we are angry, or when we want to repeat a joke, or when we talk about another religion or the absence of religion. Maybe we can teach our children to be a little kinder to those who are bullied at school, and this just might prevent another child’s suicide.
These are worthy goals, and if we make a conscious effort, we might have a world where there is less pain, less strife and less polarization. If we make a conscious effort, we might be able to live up to our obligations when rearing our children to do right by them. We’d be sending them off into a better world than the one we inherited.
Hate and polarization has made such a mess of things! It may not end for us, but if the world lasts, maybe we can end it for our kids.