When Children Repeat our Hate Speech

The world crashed down before I even had my first cup of coffee, before actually I had even turned the coffee maker on. We had only donned slippers and robes moments before, just out of bed, I’m not sure I have even visited the bathroom yet, surely I must have or I would have lost control of that function right there on the steps as my grandson uttered hate speech. Of course he didn’t know the meaning of the words he used, merely repeating something in the manner of growing his vocabulary. Of course I delight as he uses ever larger words and deeper concepts that he picks up from listening and exploring his world, I have always delighted, until this one morning. My heart broke before it even had time to fully wake. Spreading the reputation of my Plum far and wide as a joy bringer maybe has brought more pressure than this 6 year old can bear. As he nears his next birthday, I too am getting closer to admitting that he doesn’t always bring the smiles and lighten my heart, he is reflecting the world sometimes to me and it isn’t pretty.  I much prefer when he shows me God.

The old show, “Kids say the Darnedest Things” takes a lighter view of the utterances of children, when they repeat the curse words mommy said or describe how daddy put the moves on mama. We laugh when we hear adult talk emerge from little mouths, highlighting the absurdity of our concerns and our proclamations. Yet what of the times that they repeat hate speech? What does that say about the world they are exposed to, how do we control what they know and hear and say without limiting their growth? In a society that allows white supremacists to march freely without the need for hoods, there should be no surprise that this ugly talk has filtered down to my first-grade grandson. Apparently it began on his bus, when he was being bullied by older kids who eventually were sent to see the principal and he was moved to the seat right behind the bus driver. Yet no one bothered to address the language used against him, to explain why it was wrong. He only knew it felt hurtful to have the older kids taunting him. Other kids ran to tell Mama as he got off the bus and sat down in tears, unable to make it even the block to his door, such was his shame. So when our very large white Labrador blocked his path on the steps, it seemed the perfect time to use his new words. Frustrated and annoyed, he blurted out, “Move it you white cracker!”

My first instinct of horror and shock ruled my own words: No Plum we never ever ever say that, that is ugly horrible talk. Then I got some coffee and invited him to sit with me as we dug into the why. We talked about slavery and the idea that some people are worth less than others, something he thought was outrageous and my heart began to mend. We talked about another ugly word, one I never ever want him to use and why. We explored how angry people are right now because they are being treated as less than still and he is white skinned and he is expected by many to be better just because. We talked about a war within our country fought by those who wanted slavery to continue and those who didn’t and how grateful we are that the North won. We also talked about bullies and hurtful words and how the things those folks say are probably things we don’t want to allow to come out of our mouths. He apologized to our dog who was none the worse for it all but my Plum was learning that words matter.

A deeper fear was lurking within me though, one that screamed that I must stamp out this hate speech before it can grow any roots. Somehow I missed some moments with my own son, in spite of all the posters and quotes and books and moments to address his innocent utterances as well. He was one person, an addict but not a racist, before he went to prison. When the gates opened, he was clean and sober but covered in swastikas and runes and subtle references to white supremacy organizations. His experiences inside had exposed him to a race war that our war on drugs has elevated, he became an enlisted soldier in an army that was bringing its fight outside the cells and into the streets. Mama and I feared what he would plant in this sweet child’s head, how would we continue to nurture a child who loves everyone if his father was telling him to hate some? Yet Arrow has chosen to separate from his son, to disappear and begin a new family outside the influence of our ideologies. While his son is white, he has become less than worthy in my son’s construct, a heart-breaking possibility when we measure people by what they can do for us and not by virtue of their existence. Still, everyday I worry about this man who was once my little boy learning that words matter and love was better than hate. He is engaged in a war that has already been lost, on many fronts. My soul aches for this lost boy.

So we try again, with this child, to eradicate hate speech before it can destroy a little boy’s loving heart. Every day that he leaves our homes, when he climbs aboard a bus or hits the playground, he is exposed to a world that is struggling with racism and sexism. For now, he knows that God made us all, that we look alike on the inside, where it matters most and that we are all important to God. He told me today that he is a follower of God, not bullies. My joy bringer reflects God to me, and I have to be strong enough and honest enough to reflect God right back, especially during the hard talks, even before coffee. I have to be brave enough to tell him words that he cannot use, even against our dog, who truthfully, is quite annoying. We are meant to be light and grace during these turbulent times, our children are watching and listening, and in spite of us all, repeating our embarrassing words. His “shits” and “damns” don’t seem all that bad any more.  Neither does home-schooling.

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