Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Light One Candle
They've got to be carefully taught

by Dennis Heaney

(From the Oct. 26, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Dennis Heaney Recently I was walking through an airport and heard an obviously very tired and frazzled mother, with two young children in tow, say in a very loud voice, “Just because your brother does dumb things doesn’t mean you have to do them too. Now shut up!”

I hope that my face did not give away my shock. And I tried not to make that woman’s day worse by staring, but I was taken aback by the intensity and volume of her remarks, especially in such a public place. Air travel is not easy today and traveling with young children has got to be daunting. I felt sorry for her stress, but I wondered how often she said things like that and what kind of long-term message she was sending to those children.

Day in, day out, raising young children leaves a parent borderline exhausted. Yet parents are the primary teachers of their children. If a young child hears a parent lash out in anger or make comments about others, isn’t that child learning a “lesson” in how to act or react in later life?

The legendary musical South Pacific has a powerful song called “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” and a couple of lines say, “It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear …You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight.”

As a parent and grandparent I know all too well that the young really do hear what we say and it registers – even though we complain that they never listen. I cannot count the number of times my children repeat something I said years ago, both good and bad.

In the Oct. 18 reflection in volume 40 of our Three Minutes a Day series, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, says that the way parents teach lessons in tolerance will be the groundwork for the child’s future tolerance for people of other colors, and other cultural and social differences.

When I was growing up, my grandfather absolutely would not permit racist comments or stereotypes in his company. Now, many years later, I still hear his reaction on the few occasions someone broke his rule. Very kindly, but very firmly, he would say “That’s not the way to talk about ….” I am sure that he helped frame my attitudes about justice and respect.

More and more, we find the world seemingly divided into two groups, us and them. Increasingly, it’s acceptable to judge, harshly criticize, even label, “them.” As Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said recently, “we have lost civility” and in doing so we are establishing “intolerance for differences” as the accepted mindset and the norm we are passing on to young people.

A child hears mom or dad making comments about another religion and thinks that’s the way to act and feel. A child hears mom or dad yell in anger laced with profanity at a person on the television news or another driver – and there’s another lesson learned on how grown-ups act.

There’s a lot wrong with our world and we all face stresses, but virtually every one of us is a teacher to the young, whether as parents, grandparents or simply someone passing by. We have countless opportunities to teach and pass on lessons and we also have a choice as to what that lesson is – positive or negative. Let’s try to make it a positive lesson that will make this a better world for today’s generation – and the next.

(Dennis Heaney is Director of The Christophers, an organization dedicated to the proposition that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. For a free copy of the Christopher News Note “Learning to Lead,” write to: The Christophers, 12 E. 48th St., New York, NY 10017; or "a href="">e-mail: You can visit The Christophers on-line at:

Inland Register archives

Home | Bishop | Communications | Parishes | Catholic Charities

© The Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved