After 31 years as a parent you would think I would have some sense of competence about the task. Well, I don’t. If anything, as time goes along, I feel more perplexed than ever.

Not that I am totally in the dark. There are a few things I am sure about. Chief among these is my firm belief that parents are the first and most important teachers children have. We teach our children, either intentionally or accidentally, lessons they will carry for the rest of their lives.

I see this in myself–not as a parent, but as a son. I am amazed how often my father’s words tumble out of my mouth. Even when I am in conscious disagreement with something he believed, I reason my way through it using the same methods of thought I saw him use a thousand times.

It is important for me to be consciously aware of what I have learned from my dad. Part of that I am sure has to do with a need to know my own thoughts and beliefs, to understand what truth I have adopted for myself. But part of it grows out of a simple sense of gratitude. He was my first teacher, and his lessons have been the most enduring.

Of those many lessons, I am particularly grateful for what he taught me about people. My dad taught me that people are important. I was raised to respect other persons. He taught me to value human life and human dignity. He demonstrated to me, in word and deed, that it is wrong to ever take advantage of another person.

That position was not always easy for him to maintain. My dad was a product of his own upbringing. He was subject to the values and beliefs of his father. In the 1960s, many of those values and beliefs came into conflict with the Civil Rights movement.

I watched my whole family struggle with racism. Some family members became entrenched in their bigotry. Hate and fear festered into a dangerous anger. I recall hearing vile and venomous language directed toward people of color. But I did not hear much of that from my dad.

I am sure he struggled with racism. But he did so quietly. Whatever uncertainty or fear or anger he felt inside, he never expressed it outwardly. I watched him as he listened to other family members rant about what was happening in the South. But he never entered into the spirit of hate.

Eventually his reason overcame whatever prejudice was in him. I recall him saying, “As far as the law is concerned, all people are the same.” That’s quite a statement, given his upbringing.

Which reveals an interesting twist to all this. Our parents are our first teachers, and their lessons are embedded deep in our souls. They become part of who we are and give shape to the way we think. But we are not slaves to the lessons of our parents. We are free to move beyond or even contradict their lessons. We are wise to take what is good from their lives and make it our own. But we are also obligated to leave behind what we receive from them that is not good.

This is hard to do, but it can be done. My dad taught me how. It is probably the most important lesson he taught me.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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