Sean Penn (Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images); Hopper Penn (TMZ video)

(The Root) — At some point every child does something to disappoint a parent. It may be a poor grade, a questionable romantic choice or, in some cases, getting into legal trouble. But for some parents such deeds pale in comparison to the shame and embarrassment a child may bring upon the family through his words, particularly when the words are hate speech. Which raises the question: Who is ultimately to blame if a young person engages in hate speech?

There have recently been a number of cases in which the children of high-profile people have engaged in racist and homophobic language. In the most recent incident, caught on video, Academy Award winner Sean Penn's son Hopper called an aggressive member of the paparazzi both the n-word and a homophobic slur. Last week, the son of New York's fire commissioner was forced to resign his post as an EMT because of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic tweets.

Then there is white supremacist Evan Ebel, who was named as the gunman in the killing of Colorado Department of Corrections prisons head Tom Clements. Multiple news reports allege that Ebel's upbringing was contradictory to both his eventual life of crime and as an avowed racist. Sean Penn has been an outspoken supporter of gay rights, winning an Oscar for his portrayal of gay political trailblazer Harvey Milk. Meanwhile, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano had claimed that diversifying the racial makeup of the FDNY is a priority of his leadership.

So who is to blame for the offensive behavior of their offspring?

When asked to assess the role of parents in shaping racial attitudes, therapist Dr. Jeff Gardere explained, "They play an extremely important role, because they are the role models. In addition, studies show that as much as teenagers want to be different from their parents, they always drift back to the ideals and morals of their parents." When it comes to racist language he said, "Usually they have heard it at home. Even if not the specific language, at least they understand the attitude of the parents and will tend to adopt that."


Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees, but only to a degree. She explained that when it comes to raising a racially tolerant child, what parents actually say can be just as important as leading by example, if not more so.

While saying it is unfair to place "the blame squarely on the parents," Costello did say that when it comes to racist language, "The first place they learn it is at home. If you're looking at children under the age of 6, then usually they learn it at home." But as they get older, it gets more complicated as a child's network of influence begins to expand beyond Mom and Dad to include friends, classmates and then the larger world beyond home and school.

Costello referenced "code switching," a term for when different language and language cadences are adapted by one party depending on the audience. For instance, a rapper may speak one way with his friends and another way in a meeting with the president. Similarly, when I mentioned rappers who claim that while they may swear in their lyrics, they never do in front of their mothers or grandmothers, Costello replied, "And where did that rapper learn that distinction? His mother or grandmother taught him."


Costello said her point is that as someone gets older, it becomes less about the example Mom and Dad set growing up and more about what Mom and Dad have explicitly explained that they expect from their son or daughter as a member of that family.

"Let's say you have parents who don't use certain language, but if they don't specifically condemn it, then that is a real missed opportunity for them to make their values clear." Costello gave an example from her own childhood, explaining that her white friends used the n-word because they heard it from their parents.

Though her family never used it, Costello once quoted to her parents a friend who said it. Her father made it clear that under no circumstances was she ever to use that word anywhere again. She didn't. But she explained that many parents don't initiate the conversation her father did about why they don't use certain words and why they are harmful, offensive and inappropriate.


In some ways, Costello's explanation invokes parallels to sex education. Just as some parents avoid comprehensive conversations with their children about sex, either because of discomfort or the belief that their children will learn the necessary information elsewhere, or the belief that he or she is a "good kid" who doesn't need such a conversation, some parents avoid discussing racial sensitivity or other forms of tolerance. In both instances, however, a lack of information can cause troubling results.

Costello reiterated, "You have to be very explicit about your values."

Gardere concluded, "It is not fair to blame parents all the time. However, parents must take responsibility for their children's behavior. They have raised them."


Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter