I can still remember my grandmother using Turkish slurs for people of other races when I was a child. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. But a parenting incident of my own made me realize that children learn from everything we say and do — whether we want them to or not.
Most parents envision the happy, well-mannered adults their children will grow up to be. They dream of them working good jobs, living on their own, maybe having a family and calling home at least once a week. They take pride in the fact that a productive adult will be the result of their laborious, yet worthwhile efforts as upstanding and conscientious parents.
I am no different, and I distinctly remember when my son Jacob, then 2- years-old, caught me in a less-than-stellar parenting moment. It was 6:30 a.m. The two of us were in my in-laws’ kitchen and Jacob had spotted the Cheerios. Bleary eyed, I poured him a bowl and inadequately returned the box to the top of the refrigerator. When I opened the door to reach for the milk, the cereal box toppled down onto the floor and Cheerios spilled out, scattering everywhere. Under my breath I mumbled an expletive. At least, I thought it was under my breath.
Before I could bend down to start cleaning up, Jacob looked at the mess on the floor and started reciting, in his best singsong voice, “HO sheet. HO sheet. HO sheet.”
I started to panic. My thoughts flashed forward to the dinner party my very proper in-laws were having that evening. Most of the equally proper guests would be meeting Jacob for the first time, and I began to picture him putting on a repeat performance of his newly acquired “swear song.”
Fortunately, Jacob clammed up that evening, save for saying goodnight, and as the last guest left, I vowed to be more careful. But then another thought rushed in. What if, instead of a curse word, it had been a derogatory or racial slur that slipped from my mouth? What message would that have sent to my son?
I don’t use racist terms, and I admit that my cringe at Jacob’s swearing was due in part to my guilt of having taught him the word. But what bothered me more was hearing it come out of his mouth. I realized then that I had been desensitized to how terrible it sounded. How many parents out there are equally desensitized to their own racist comments?
A natural byproduct of becoming a parent is that you grow up yourself. All of us who interact with children—whether as parents, aunts, uncles or grandparents—need to be mindful, not only of our words but of the messages they send. While the lessons of prejudice we were taught as children may have seemed innocuous back then, we now know that they are not. We therefore have a responsibility to insure that future generations are learning the right lessons from us: those of tolerance, acceptance and awareness. Everyone makes mistakes, of course; we’re all human. But this shared humanity just underscores how necessary it is that we not only teach these things to our children, but embrace them ourselves.