I’m sure most of us remember the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning musical, “South Pacific.” They just don’t write them like that anymore! The score was written in 1949 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and is filled with memorable pieces that are part of the American songbook: “Younger Than Springtime,” “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” and “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” One song that is perhaps not as well known is “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” When the show opened in 1949 it was quite controversial; it spoke about how impressionable young children are and how hate and prejudice are learned behavior. “You’ve got to be taught from year to year it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.” Obviously the lyricists understood how impressionable children are, how their attitudes and impressions are developed at a very early age, and how they carry over into adulthood what they learn as children.

I was saddened to read a story on social media the other day. It was written by a mother in my little hometown. Her daughter, a second-grader, came home in tears after being tormented and bullied on the school bus. One of her classmates had called her names, and made fun of her for the color of her skin and other physical attributes. My mind immediately went to that song that was written decades before: “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught!” Where would a second-grader learn hate speech and ethnic slurs? Maybe from his or her parents? Maybe from older siblings or their friends? Maybe from watching inappropriate television or videos? I guess it hardly matters. The fact is that somehow, somewhere, a small, precious child heard and learned words and language that are unacceptable at any age. 

Some people will say that the problem of prejudice and hate is a recent problem, but it isn’t. There are examples of hatred throughout history, throughout the Bible. It’s been around as long as time. I remember when I was in first or second grade, there was a girl that I did not like. I remember coming home and telling my mother, “I hate Susie Jones!” (Not her real name.) My mother told me that I was not allowed to use the word hate, especially in that context. I was allowed to say that I “strongly disliked” her. Those words didn’t quite have the same impact. My mother was right, as she was more often than not. As it turns out, “Susie” and I were classmates up to and through our high school years. We lost track of each other for a while during college, but afterwards our paths crossed and we actually wound up becoming the best of friends. “Susie” confessed to me at some point in time that she, too, would go home and tell her mother how much she hated me; we had a good laugh about that.

I can’t tell you why I “hated Susie,” or why she “hated” me. But I do know this — my mother made it very clear that there was no tolerance for hate speech in our house. It’s a lesson I never forgot. We live in difficult times. 

As Catholics and as Christians we are called to model what we believe and share what we know with our children. We are our children’s first teachers. What they learn at our knee will be taken into their adult lives. It will become “gospel” to them, so it’s important that we teach them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot rely on others to shape and form our children morally or ethically. Of course our religious educators are part of their Christian formation, but make no mistake — children learn what they live and live what they learn. Now, perhaps more than ever, our children need and deserve strong roots and role models. If we speak the language of love, so will they. If we speak the language of compassion, so will they. And if we speak of God’s goodness and love, if we tell them of His Son, Jesus Christ, we teach them the beauty of living a life of faith, love, and joy. They’ve got to be carefully taught! And that my friends, is the Good News.

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6).

Anchor columnist Ada Simpson is former editor of Ministry and Liturgy magazine, holds an M.A. in Pastoral Ministry, and is the director of Music Ministry at St. Francis and St. Dominic parishes in Swansea.