While shopping in a local grocery store the other day, an exchange between a mother and son caught my ear.
"I hate little kids," said the child, who probably was 3 or 4, and sitting in a grocery cart.
"Wait. What? You hate kids? You are a kid," the stunned mother replied.
"I know," the boy said. "But I hate little kids."
That's as much as I heard before they moved out of earshot.
They were people whose paths I hadn't crossed before and possibly will not cross again. But it would be great to know more of the story.
What prompted the child to say that? Did the mother continue the conversation and what direction did it take?
Which was all brought to mind again the next day with an item posted on Facebook that was too good not to share. It was a close-up photo of a small child's face and the words alongside that sweet visage read: "I know nothing of hatred, intolerence, racism, bigotry, indoctrination, homophobia, and prejudice. I don't yet understand things like love, compassion, integrity, tolerance, human decency and truth. For the first, most important formative years of my life, all I will know is WHAT YOU TEACH ME. Choose well."
The posting drew a number of likes and shares. My Facebook friend Karen Mitchell Hakala mentioned a song from "South Pacific," the musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein from 1949.
That song is "Carefully Taught" and its lyrics are: "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. You've got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made. And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade. You've got to be carefully taught. You've got to be taught before it's too late. Before you are six or seven or eight. To hate all the people your relatives hate. You've got to be carefully taught!"
The boy in the grocery cart could have heard someone say "I hate little kids" in many places. It could have been on a TV show or in a movie. Heck, it might have been someone else in the grocery store who said it, because kids often repeat what they hear, much like parrots.
Not knowing the family, I would not begin to speculate he heard that phrase at home. His mother's stunned reaction made me think that wasn't likely.
But we all contribute to what the children in our lives think, both about themselves and the world around them. A child who is encouraged for her efforts and lauded for her successes by the adults in her world will grow up with a stronger self-image.
A child taught prejudice and stereotypes about those who are different than he will see them with a skewed perception. Depending on what those preconceived notions are, he may even fear someone from another race or ethnicity and shun them rather than even trying to get to know them.
The words we say matter, not just to other grown-ups, but to the little ears that might hear them. And use them to form their view of the world.
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.