Mind your manners, mama

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

As the car in front of me veered erratically between the two-lane stretch, I kept a careful distance behind. Then, just as I thought it was safe to pull ahead, the driver cut abruptly into my lane, forcing me to jam on the brakes.

"Stupid jerk," I hollered as I blared the horn in outrage. I was mere inches away from kissing his bumper.

As the car swerved back into its lane, I drew parallel with it for a better look at the offending driver. He was clutching a phone in one hand, oblivious to the near-miss.

I was livid.

Inconsiderate road users always drive me nuts because their selfishness puts my life at risk too.

"What a stupid jerk! Did you see that?" I asked my son, who was seated next to me. "He's talking on the phone while driving!"

My son did not respond and I figured he was rattled by the close shave. A few minutes ticked by before he said: "I don't think it was nice of you to call him a stupid jerk."


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I was incredulous.

"He was driving so dangerously! He nearly..." I broke off mid- sentence as the irony struck me.

It was as if we had traded places. I was acting the same way my son usually does when I tick him off for unbecoming behaviour - defensive and truculent.

I laughed.

"You are right," I conceded. "That guy was in the wrong, but that doesn't mean I was right to call him names. I lost my cool there."

I could have said far worse things about him, but decided there was no lesson to be mined from that extra detail. Better quit while I was ahead.

My son wasn't about to let me off so easily, though. A few days later, as I was driving him home from school, my eight-year-old announced solemnly: "I told my friends you called someone a stupid jerk."

"You what?" I began to splutter with laughter. "Why? What did they say?"

He smiled, looked out of the window and said nothing. That was that. I was left to stew in shame, the mean mum who dared use the "s" word.

The vulgar synonym for crap is bad enough, but the label that condemns someone's intelligence is just cruel, almost unforgivable.

I was the one who taught him that. Yet, I was also the one who gave him a live demonstration on how to amp up its abusive power by pairing it with another insult.

You know that parenting adage about how kids do as we do and not as we say? Well, it turns out they say as we say too.

Case in point: I've been trying in vain to get my son to stop saying "wah lau" simply because I, too, can't quit using the crude Hokkien exclamation that can convey anything from disbelief to disgust. It's just too versatile an expression to banish from my vocabulary.

Mostly, though, I think I walk the talk quite well. I don't swear. Okay, maybe once in a while. But it's "s***" at worst and never the F word, and it's usually out of panic rather than malice. I'd go as far as to say I'm pleasant and polite. Most of the time.

Perhaps that is why when I slip up, my kids pounce on me quickly.

"I thought you were a nice person," my son said after the "stupid jerk" episode. I read in his offhand remark a stinging reproach.

Just as I don't let them get away with bad manners or behaviour, they don't tolerate lapses in mine either. And that forces me to up my game, to strive to be a better person for their sake.

Once, when a pedestrian stepped off the kerb to cross the road despite my car being within touching distance, I swerved into the next lane to avoid her, drawing the ire of the driver to my right. "Crazy woman," I exploded at the jaywalker as we drove on. "She could have gotten us killed."

My son's reaction was yet another guilt-provoking one-liner: "I thought you said it's rude to call people crazy?"

"It is," I agreed, and spent the rest of the journey wondering what would have been a more polite way to express my shock and anger.

As embarrassing as it is to be called out by my kids for not practising what I preach, I feel a tinge of pride too. I'm glad they think instances of inappropriate language and overreaction warrant at least an apology.

I'm glad they know what constitutes good manners, even if they may not always display them. 

Above all, I'm glad that most of what we teach them seems to be sticking, even if we ourselves are not always the best role models.

The lessons kids can draw from those times when parents mess up are perhaps just as vital, if not more so, than when we tell them to be good and to do good.

As the saying goes, kids follow our example, not our advice.

Learning to deal with anger appropriately and making amends when you don't would surely come in handy as a life skill.

I'm certain my next outburst is just around the corner. I just hope what I say then would be a suitable expression of irritation, and not some rude name-calling that would scandalise a bunch of eight-year- olds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Mind your manners, mama'. Print Edition | Subscribe