Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – ”Teach Your Children” Lyrics Meaning

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Written By Brendan Briggs

Brendan is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer. In 2022, he released his first album "Dive" under the name "Arctotherium".

“Teach Your Children” is a beautiful exploration of the relationships between the old and young. The lyrics focus on how those who are older should stay true to principles and instruct their children, while the young should uplift their elders with their spirit and ability to adapt to tomorrow. In addition, this song also preaches being slow to judge other generations, individuals, or age groups because we all have tragic reasons behind our mistakes.

Graham Nash is the songwriter for this track, and he got the idea in a touching way. Nash happened upon a photograph of a child holding a toy grenade taken by Diane Arbus. The angry, war-like look on the child’s face made Nash think about the importance of teaching children early, which became the seed for the song.

In this article, we’ll perform an analysis of these wise lyrics to discover their deeper meaning. We’ll also take a look at the songwriting story and the universal themes that make this song timeless. Without further ado, let’s get started!

“Teach Your Children” Lyrics Meaning

The lyrics begin by addressing people who are “on the road.” As will become clear later, this means adults who are already well into life’s journey.

The first advice the song gives for these adults is to live by principle. As Nash puts it, you “must have a code that you can live by.” This needs to be a code that is authentic to each individual, which can help you “become yourself.” If it’s just a rigid adherence to previous customs, it’s in vain. This is because “the past is just a goodbye.” Simply put, looking backward too much prevents you from moving forward.

Nonetheless, the lyrics remain balanced. The main responsibility of the parent is to “teach your children well,” not to learn from them. Basically, they impart things from the past while being in the present.

A good Christian could tell you that “teach your children well” is a biblical principle. This general phrase and concept is found throughout the books of Deuteronomy, Proverbs, 1 Timothy, and Titus. Using this turn of phrase is almost certainly intentional; it calls back to something older than any parent or child alive when the song was written.

The chorus moves us into some practical realities. After telling parents to teach, the lyrics remind them of the consequences of failing. Nash asks them to remember their “father’s hell,” which basically means the horrors of the past. The failures of history will repeat unless we learn.

Instead of teaching children inherited mistakes, parents ought to “feed them” with their “dreams.” By doing this, the child is free to “pick” from the healthy ways of life, not the destructive ones.

In the song’s bridge, we get a glimpse at how we’re meant to deal with shortcomings. When a parent sees their child make a mistake, the reason “why” is probably enough to make them “cry.” In other words, children carry internalized pain that can cause them to act out or have failures. Some of this pain is inherited from the past or even unintentionally from the parent. Nash is arguing that understanding this should create understanding, patience, and charity. After all, “they love you.”

Verse two tells the other half of the story and is addressed to those of “tender years.” First, Nash calls for the young to have humility and perspective. “The fears” that their “elders grew by” are bigger and older than young people may realize. So, when the young become frustrated with their elders being set in their ways, the response shouldn’t be criticism. Instead, it should be encouragement through the power of their “youth” combined with respect for history.

The last piece in the puzzle is that, as the children become adults in their own right, the parents begin to learn from them. This is because the new generation is meant to take on the world of tomorrow – a world that their elders only begin to see “before they can die.” However, before this happens, the parents are able to “seek the truth.” Basically, you don’t stop learning until you stop living.

To reflect this, the second chorus asks children to teach their parents. However, the “children’s hell” will “slowly go by,” just like all generations before. They, too, will make mistakes and harm their own children unintentionally. The lyrics simply recognize this as the way of human beings and ask for patience and respect from both groups.

In summary, “Teach Your Children” taps into a great truth about the human race. The ways of generational change and movement can be terrifying; Nash shows us a way for them to be beautiful.

The Story Behind “Teach Your Children”

According to Graham Nash’s autobiography, the tale behind this tune is very simple. He became something of an art collector around the time of this song’s creation and came across some interesting photographs.

One of these photos was taken by Diane Arbus, a photographer known for her interesting choice of subjects. In the picture, a young boy can be seen holding a toy grenade with an expression on his face. The image of a child combined with violence was enough to get Nash thinking. He reportedly thought to himself, “If we don’t start teaching our kids a better way… humanity will never succeed!”

Apparently, the public was hungry for this message. “Teach Your Children” reached a position of #16 on the Billboard Hot 10 and has become a folk standard. Needless to say, the critical acclaim and influence of this song is hard to overstate.

The next time you play this hearty song, let these pieces of music history make it even more special!