When I was growing up -- probably well into my college years -- Mama's last words as I walked out the door were always the same: "Be sweet."
Not even when I started driving and she should have said "be careful" did she deviate. Somewhere along the way, though, she gave that up. Perhaps because she decided I would never be sweet or perhaps she thought I had finally learned it well enough. But, truthfully, I think it was because she finally switched to "love you" as I left.
It was embarrassing when my date and I stuck our heads in the den door to say good-bye before we left for the evening and Mama, normally hemming a garment, would chime happily, "Y'all be sweet. Y'all hear me?"
I'd roll my eyes and sigh heavily that age-old teenage favorite and moan, "Yes, Mama."
My boyfriend, always well mannered, would cheerfully reply, "Yes, ma'am. You can count on me and I'll make sure she is, too."
Not long ago I made a perfectly witty, private one-line observation about someone and entertained myself so deliciously that I threw back my head and laughed. My sister, tempted to snicker, bit the edge of her lip, tossed me an amused look and said, "Now, be sweet."
To be honest, I never thought much about it until recent years as the talk of bullying and mean kids has become so prominent. Are there really that many mean kids out there now? Kids who taunt and criticize? If they are, it's because they aren't taught better at home. I was reading a book about the actress Farrah Fawcett by her longtime love, Ryan O'Neal. In the book, he had included a handwritten note from the well-mannered, Texas-born Miss Fawcett to their son, Redmond. He was a young boy at the time so she was reminding him to do his spelling homework and a couple of other things about school. She ended the note with, "Be good and be kind."
Kindness. Sweetness. Though harder to find these days, those teachings begin at home, along with manners. In our family, teaching kindness to the children is as important as saying "yes ma'am" or "no sir." When I was a child, no more than 7 or 8, Mama got a call from my teacher who explained that I had been going without lunch for a few weeks, choosing, instead, to buy lunch for a poor, half-starved classmate (in the days before free lunches). The next morning and all the days that followed until the girl moved away, Daddy gave me enough for two lunches. I wasn't complimented. I had simply done what was taught and therefore expected.
My nephew, Rod, was 4 and spoke in that endearing way of children who mix up consonants. In his pre-school class was a pretty, blonde girl who was severely challenged, physically and mentally. She walked with great difficulty, couldn't communicate and drool poured in a steady stream from the corner of her mouth. One day at recess, several children mocked her, saying, "No! You can't play with us."
She crumbled in tears, sobbing at the unkindness. The teacher watched as Rod, gentle and sweet always (as is the man he grew to be) walked over to her, put his little arm around her shoulders and said comfortingly, "Don't twry Ashwey. Me will play with you."
A mother approached my niece, Nicole, one day at carpool and said, "Let me tell you about your son." Nicole froze a bit, not knowing what was coming. The mother, who began to cry, explained that her son is autistic and faced daily taunting and jeering by classmates. Every day, he came home sobbing, heartbroken. One day he stopped crying suddenly and smiled brightly. "But I do have one friend. Nix. He's my angel sent from God. He always takes up for me."
Be sweet. What a powerful parental teaching.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of the forthcoming "There's A Better Day A-Comin'." Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.