Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

You've Got to Be Carefully Taught

Children who appreciate diversity are ready to be global citizens.

The Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report from February 2017 includes an article showing that 70 percent of Americans think that civility has decreased since President Trump took office. (1) Compared with previous polls (about a third thought civility decreased after President Obama’s election), this is a striking increase. It mirrors survey research of 10,000 teachers who report increased incidents of derogatory remarks directed toward students of color and students with disabilities. About 80 percent of educators reported that students K-12 showed signs of increased anxiety about themselves and their families. For example, the day after the election, a middle school teacher in Massachusetts reported that a white student asked students of color whether they were in this country legally. (2)

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.

In 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote this song for South Pacific, which addresses racial prejudice. The two main characters, Nelly and Emile, find a happy resolution that was ahead of its time.     

People notice differences as early as infancy, with preferences for objects and, to an extent, for people who show preferences for things that the infants themselves prefer. (3) By the time children begin school, where prevention programs address getting along with people who are perceived to be different, some children have formed distinct opinions that are not amenable to getting along. (4)

 By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands - [314/365] Construction work, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Source: Source: By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands - [314/365] Construction work, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Research also shows that children who grow up with people who don’t look like them develop a rich curiosity about diversity that remains with them throughout life.  They are predisposed to explore diverse places and cultures, which enriches them as well as the communities in which they live. (5) Perhaps rather than an Achievement Gap we should be thinking about a Diversity Gap, since as the world becomes more diverse, it will be increasingly important for children to find a way to feel comfortable with new experiences.  

A recent CBeebies video, distributed by the BBC, shows a number of pairs of children who appear to be about five to eight years old. The announcer asks, “How are you two different?”  Each pair is made up children who have obvious differences. One pair includes a girl in a wheelchair and one who is not; they say they are different in how much they like tomato sauce.  A pair of boys, wearing the same school uniform, has a difficult time coming up with differences; they comment on how they are the same. Children do not see racial differences in the same way as adults do unless they are taught to see them. 

Source: Chalk drawing by Celia O’Leary. Permission and photo credit: Jen O’Leary.

The drawing was made by the daughter of a friend; she is being raised in a diverse environment. Her drawing shows what children can be taught that will advance civility in the conversation.  


Levy, S.R., *Rosenthal, L., & *Herrera-Alcazar, A. (2010). Racial and ethnic prejudice among children. In J.L. Chin (Ed., pp. 37-50), The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger…