Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

This is the first in a series of guest blog posts for AARP Massachusetts by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author and resident scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. 

If hate and love must be learned, then who is the teacher?

After last summer’s riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, former President Barack Obama took to Twitter to post a Nelson Mandela quote that would become the most-liked tweet in history: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

 If hate and love must be learned, then who is the teacher?

It’s all of us. We – a grandmother of 10 and her oldest grandson – noticed that a lot more happens at our family dinner table than the act of eating. It may seem like we’re just having fun, but during family time we also do the important work of passing on the skills to promote good citizenship and a functioning society. We are constantly demonstrating our values in the way that we share, problem solve, criticize, and praise.

In fact, every skill needed for good citizenship we are teaching and learning in our home. For us, vacations are a time to change routines, to have fun and to develop new practical skills. But this time of family interactions also provides an opportunity for civic learning. The way we settle disagreements, the way we deal with unexpected situations and the way we treat each other all send messages to our children about what it means to be a good family member, a good citizen, and a good human being.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

– tweet from President Barack Obama; quote from Nelson Mandela

As grandmother and oldest grandson, we teach tolerance to the younger ones. As we modify the rules of capture the flag to accommodate a younger cousin, sit down to dinner a few hours early so the little ones can get to bed on time, and carry out chores for those who can’t do them, we lead by example to teach work ethic, empathy, and patience. While teaching compassion is far from a science, we know that modeling good behavior helps us all get along. Not doing so only escalates tensions – in that sense, home is much like the political arena. Spending time over the summer with 20 relatives provides plenty of opportunities to get angry, annoyed, or frustrated, but an unwritten social contract between us drives us towards understanding and cooperation and allows us to live together. That is what it takes to make a family work – or a democracy.

Not everybody is lucky enough to come from a tolerant, caring family. Those of us who do must view our behavior not only in the context of the moment, but also with an eye to the lessons we’re teaching, consciously or not. What happens at home doesn’t stay at home. Each of us must give our children the tools to come to compromises, to settle disagreements, and to tolerate their neighbors. These skills are well worth cultivating in the lazy days of summer and the rest of the year.

Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children, and Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family. Samson Mostashari is Dr. Nemzoff’s eldest grandson. This column previously appeared in the HuffPost.