What Children Overhear Matters Now More Than Ever

by Mark Oliver February 09, 2017

human mind with wire clew vector illustration

“Kill Mexico” The words were scratched onto the desk of a ten-year-old boy. He'd been born in America, but his parents were immigrants, and the meaning was clear. His classmate wanted him to know that he was no longer welcome. His teacher found the message when she sent the kids out for recess. He stayed at his desk, looking at down, fighting back tears. The teacher is a friend of our family. When she shared this experience we were in shock. How does this happen? How do ten-year-olds get so filled with hate that they pass racist death threats to their classmates? It’s tempting to write this kind of thing off as an anomaly – to believe that it’s the work of one sociopathic kid out of thousands of decent ones. But this wasn’t the only story like it that we’d heard. Most of our friends are teachers, and, for the last three months, we’ve been hearing stories like this every day. It’s not always about a child threatening another classmate, but politics are spilling into the classroom. Things are happening in the world right now, and we can get so caught up in it that we may not notice how it’s affecting our children. They’re not ignorant. They know we worry about things. They hear what we’re saying, and it’s affecting them in more ways than we might think.

Kids Repeat What They Hear

Not every kid’s going to go around threatening their classmates, but what they hear at home, they’ll repeat at school – even if they don’t understand what it means. Another friend teaches third-grade. She slipped a little Spanish phrase into a day’s lesson one day when an eight-year-old raised her hand. “Teacher,” the girl said, “My Dada says we don’t need to learn Spanish. Trump’s going to get rid of all the Mexicans.” We know that our kids are sponges. We’ve heard them mimic our turns of phrase and the little words they overhear, but we may not understand the impact on our children. Right now, many homes are buzzing with politics. The news is blaring on TV. We're talking about it over dinner. We have strong feelings about what’s happening in our country and we want to express them – and we usually don’t think twice about it. Our kids, however, pick up on the little things. This became clear one day at dinner when our four-year-old blurted out, “You are listening to Fox News Radio.” We had just come back from his grandparent’s, where the house thrums with a constant background murmur of InfoWars and Fox News. My wife and I are used to the sound. We hardly notice it anymore – and we had no idea that, while our son was sitting quietly, he had been listening to every word.

Kids Are Forming Opinions

Our son is not about to vote in an election, and he certainly doesn’t understand the complex fabric of American politics – but he doesn’t know that. No four-year-old thinks of himself as simple-minded. They think about the things that they hear. They make decisions and they come to conclusions. Before the election, we had the debates running on the TV. Our son didn’t understand much of it, except that the man was named Trump and the woman was named Hillary and that we were meant to decide which one was our favorite. We didn’t think he was paying attention until he announced, out of the blue, “I like Trump the best.” He’d vote Republican, he explained, because Trump, “is funny and he has a nice tie.” My wife told me a story afterward. She was twelve years old during the election of 2000, too young to understand a thing about it. But she’d heard her parents talk, and she fed off their emotions. “Because of what I’d heard my parents say, I felt like there was an evil faction trying to take over the world,” she told me. “I really felt like Al Gore was the Antichrist.” That night, a twelve-year-old girl prayed to God to keep a man from becoming President.

These Opinions Affect Who We Become

There’s a reason there are red states and blue states. We grow up in a cultural context and form opinions of our own as we get older, but the ones we are immersed in as kids remain our default setting. We have to work to reject them. It’s hard to notice this in the context of one's own culture. It becomes obvious when you witness it as a guest in someone else's. I taught, for a time, at a high school in China. Kids there, from a young age, are taught about the Japanese War of Aggression and that the South-Pacific Sea is China’s by right. When they’re kids, these are just stories – but as they get older, those stories affect who they are. A student once stood up and declared, “The Japanese are dogs, and we will go to war!” The whole class applauded. It seemed crazy to me at the time, but it's barely noticeable when it’s your own culture. Here in Tennessee, a worried child in a forest might ask, “What if the Indians attack?” Or a child might learn to copy her parent’s nervous flinch when a man in a turban boards an airplane. Tennessee isn’t my culture, either. I’m from Canada. When I told my friends where I was moving the reply was, “You mean the Bible Belt? Are you sure you want to live there?”

We Need To Be Careful What We Say

Talking about politics around the kids isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it might even be good for them. One study suggests that kids whose parents talk about politics at home grow up more willing to listen to, and consider different political opinions. We have to be careful about how we do it, though. If we sit around the dinner table talking about how a group of people is dangerous or about how half of the nation is stupid, we’re not promoting open thinking. We’re normalizing a dangerous and divisive worldview. We have the chance to make the next generation better than we are. Our kids could be overhearing us trying to understand both sides of an issue. They could see us encouraging them to see things through other peoples’ eyes. Little ears are listening, and little hands don’t write things like “Kill Mexico” unless they’ve heard them from big people’s mouths.

Mark Oliver


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