When I was growing up in south Mississippi, there were some Pentecostals who sold peanut brittle door-to-door and in grocery store parking lots. At one point in my childhood, I remember having a positive view of them because -- well, they had sweets. But my dad took care of that really quickly.
Dad said they were part of a cult, and whenever they approached us, he wouldn't even acknowledge them. Behind closed doors, he also made fun of them. I took note.
One day, some ladies came to our small apartment building wearing ankle-length blue jean skirts, long sleeves, and beehive hairdos. When I saw the peanut brittle, I knew it was them. I watched them go to each apartment, selling their wares, and I began jeering at them. They ignored me.
As they were leaving, they walked under the staircase where I was standing, and that's when I did something I still regret to this day: I got as much phlegm in my mouth as I could and then I spat. It landed right in a teenage girl's hair. She just kept walking.
You know something interesting about that memory? I'm certain my father wasn't there, but it feels like he was when I recall it. I think it's because my decision that day was fueled by the many times I heard him mock those people. But those weren't the only folks he ridiculed.
I heard Dad make fun of Yankees, Democrats, and a host of other folks who weren't like us. And when I heard him do that, I took it to mean that it was okay to objectify those people. They weren't any bigger than their political party, their accent, or the peanut brittle they sold.
All of us who are raising or influencing kids should recognize that when we mock other groups of people, we poison our kids' ability to see those people as individuals. Maybe we do it by impersonating accents, using demeaning names to refer to a racial group, or always casting adherents of a particular religion as the bad guys. It's a great way to handicap our children, to make it harder for them to grow up and engage with other adults maturely.
You know, if I could find that teenage girl who walked away with spit in her hair, I would apologize and beg her forgiveness. That may not be possible, but there's one thing I can do: watch the way I talk about other people around my kids.