Is this election showing our kids it’s okay to be mean? (iStock)

It takes very little effort for a child to learn to hate. It’s the status quo, after all, according to the often-repeated phrases “girls can be mean” or “boys will be boys,” usually accompanied by a shrug implying “that’s just how it is.” Teaching kids to not hate is much harder. It takes effort, and work. Family doctor and parenting expert Deborah Gilboa says many people assume that children learn hate and racism and xenophobia at home, but that’s not always the case.

“Young children and cautious children often have an inherent distrust of that which they don’t recognize as familiar — people, and also food, activities and so on. As parents, it’s our job to help our children respect others and learn to see differences as interesting, not scary,” says Gilboa. “We have to teach our kids to avoid sweeping generalizations about people — by gender, by religion, by culture, by race.”

With four sons, Gilboa often hears generalizations about boys. She doesn’t always have a chance to engage in a discussion with the person making the comment, but she talks to her sons about it.

“When we hear these oversimplifications, I say, ‘I know it makes us feel comfortable to generalize so we understand, but that’s not true.’ I tell them I don’t know every boy, so I can’t speak for them all, because everyone is different. I talk about people we know in that category or introduce them to someone who can answer their questions about what they believe.”

Our children are subjected to a constant stream of negativity and anger on TV and on devices. Just search the hashtag #altright on Twitter and it’s easy to see how far some in our society have fallen into an ugly, hateful crevasse.

By spreading words of hate without any offers of peaceful solutions, they are opening the door for followers to believe the worst, and act accordingly. It arms people with excuses to carry out acts of violence against others. And our kids are watching.

For better and worse, the internet has allowed us to connect with anyone, and say whatever we want under cover of keyboard and IP address. On a thread I was reading recently, a poster was mocking a stranger, then wrote: “It’s social media — I can say whatever I want. LOL.”  My response: “You can, but that doesn’t mean you should.”

We have, through our public actions and silence, created an “us” and “them” syndrome. Conservatives versus liberals, men versus women, black versus white, Muslim versus Christian. When we let our kids see hate and divisiveness, we are planting the seeds of discord for future generations.

Teaching our children how to think critically allows them to consider the people they know, instead of painting everyone with the same broad brush. It allows them to look at others with an open mind and mitigates the hate that fear brings. By preventing a mindset that engenders dehumanization, we have a better chance of understanding in the future.

As parents, it is our responsibility to tell our children it’s not acceptable to tell another kid that she should kill herself, or to post humiliating photos of another kid, or harass people online. Help them get to know individuals and ask questions. Show them that the people you know don’t represent every person in a demographic. Get kids in the habit of asking questions rather than assuming.

Gilboa suggests that a kind first impression is a good start.

“For every person we meet, we stand up and look them in the eye,” she says. “A handshake is a nice touch, if they’re willing. This process teaches open-minded acceptance of others and respect.”

The problems we have seen in our country recently are deep and twisted and rooted in our culture. In order to unravel all of that, we need to listen to each other. Talk to our kids about hard issues. Be kind and show compassion. We can make gestures such as signing up to be a mentor to a child in need, or becoming a foster parent. Even small things, such ensuring that kids treat every adult with respect, and teaching them to not act like jerks to other kids and to stand up to bullies, can help. We can encourage them to support leaders in all walks of life who show strength through love, rather than hate and derision.

Our kids may not seem like they are always listening, but they are definitely watching. As “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie said, “Always be a little kinder than necessary.” It’s the only way we’re going to climb out of this hole.

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer and producer of the “Listen to Your Mother” show, Austin. She blogs at Two Cannoli. She tweets @firewheelcomm.

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