Children Learn What They Live

…or so goes the famous poem that has adorned refrigerator doors since it first appeared in the Torrance (California) Herald in 1954.

It was written by Dorothy Nolte, who couldn’t think of an idea for her column that week.  She wrote it in half an hour, crossed her fingers, and sent it in.

It was, as they say, a hit.  And its meaning is as true today as it was in 1950’s—or the 1850’s for that matter.

If children live with criticism they learn to condemn.

If children live with shame they learn to feel guilty.

If children live with racism they learn to smear shoe polish on their faces and wear pointy white hats for fun.

As a nation, we’re all looking at the mess in Virginia and scratching our heads.  Sure, people have always been stupid, but how could they be so publicly stupid.  At some point shouldn’t the little voice in your head suggest that while taking such an obviously racist picture was ignorant, deciding to put it in a yearbook created for posterity was doubly ignorant?

And yet, there they are:  images suggesting that, at least for some of Virginia’s white folk, the lynching terror instilled in America’s African-Americans by the Ku Klux Klan was the stuff of slapstick.

I’m willing to concede that today’s younger generation has it all over my generation in a lot of ways.  They have grown up in a culture that, while not perfect, has made giant strides in overcoming the unthinking racism that cast such a dark shadow over the first two hundred years of our nation’s history.

But the self-evident absurdity of racism so easily grasped by the Millennials, Gen X’ers, etc., actually works against them as they try to understand Virginia’s self-inflicted shot of moral stupidity.

They’re judging the actions of the past by the standards of the present.  The hard truth is that such comparisons are unfair.

Bear with me.

To say that various old, white, elected officials in Virginia should have known better when they were in their 20’s is both true and false.  It’s true:  the moral benchmarks of the Bible, the Preamble to the Constitution, and even the Pledge of Allegiance make it clear that we are all equal, not just in the eyes of the law but in the eyes of God.

But it is also false.  Even today we can look at statements like “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” as little more than lofty ideals someday to be achieved.  Sadly, we are still capable of turning our deepest moral imperatives into a sort of background cultural Muzak.

We’re gaining on our ideals, but we still have a long way to go.

So who’s to blame for privileged white southerners who thought there was humor in donning shoe polish and grinning for the Klan? Sure, the individuals are to blame.  Despite the Southern cultural tolerance for such acts at the time, it’s still their fault.  They were young, stupid and should have known better.

But I put the real blame on the parents and other adults who helped raise them while they were young, who themselves would have grown up in the pre-Civil Rights era.  Because if a child learns from the adults around him that such things are all in good fun then that’s what he’ll believe, regardless of how we react forty years later.

You can see the same principle echoing in the way the #MeToo movement is playing out.  All across the world, young professional women have been asking their mothers why they put up with all the sexism, butt-pinching, and leering.   The common answer?  “Well, that’s just the way it was then.  But I’m glad things are changing.”

Perhaps that explanation doesn’t sit well with you.  If so, good for you.  It shouldn’t sit well with you here in the 21st Century.  Because you’re better than that.  Because true social progress is measured not in legislation or court decisions but in generations, and each generation moves us stumblingly closer to our higher goals.  Because, thank God, you were taught better when you were young, and children live by what they learn.

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