Do As I Say

full traffic

Photo courtesy of Rupert Ganzer/Flickr

He approached my minivan as we were sitting at a red light, watching construction trucks cross the intersection.

I rolled the window down, assuming he was a foreman directing traffic.

“You don’t have to leave twenty feet! If you’d pull up I could get around!” he shouted and then stomped off.

“YOU CAN BE NICE ABOUT IT!” I yelled back, as I let my foot off the brake — just a little.

In the rear-view window, I watched his white van squeeze by me and cut through the dry cleaner’s parking lot to make a right turn.

“Did you really say that?” a little voice from the backseat asked.


Sometimes I worry that one of my kids gets pushed around. Nothing big, but I’ve watched, silently, and heard other boys say things that are not nice, and my son shrugs it off.  It’s what we teach from an early age. In the sandbox, if another kid snags your shovel, it’s okay… let’s share. In the classroom, kids are taught to walk away from conflict. But sometimes we need to teach them to stand up for themselves.

Three times in the recent months,  Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue” has come up… in conversation, in writing. This is not a newly published piece, and when things come up three times (it’s a symbolic number), I usually take it as a sign to pay attention. Last night, as I was mentally replaying the incident at the stoplight, I decided to pull out my copy of Tan’s memoir “The Opposite of Fate” and re-read that essay.

“Mother Tongue” deals with the broken English spoken by Tan’s Chinese immigrant mother, and how in certain circumstances, she subconsciously reverts to that patois. The rhythm and the logic of her mother’s speech, Tan reflects, has shaped her own speech patterns and her worldview.

I lie in bed awake, wondering how my children will remember hearing my voice and seeing my actions. I blame myself for both my childrens’ passivity and their outbursts. What have I modelled that causes them to behave in this way? What did my own mother model that causes me to behave in the way that I do?

Another essay in Tan’s memoir, “The Language of Discretion”, discusses the concept that Americans have this perception of Asians as being quiet and polite, while the Chinese that Tan knows are brash and blunt. And how their politeness is merely an elaborate comedy of manners (“Here, you take the last scallop!” “No, you!”) that allows them to assert themselves, in a socially acceptable way. In situations where  those formalities are not required, Asians can haggle and argue in a way that is uncomfortable to American sensibilities. It can appear unrefined, especially when language difficulties are added into the mix. There are times when I want to complain or defend myself. But I don’t. Perhaps it’s out of a fear of looking uncouth. And I don’t know how to say something without embarassing myself. So I don’t say anything.

I don’t want to be like that. And even more so, I don’t want my kids to be like that.

As I related the story of the intersection to my husband, he joked that I should have thrown the car in reverse.

“That’s just being a jerk,” I countered. I don’t want to teach my kids that two wrongs make a right. I also don’t want to teach them that ignoring a wrong makes it go away.

In the flash of a second where I had to react to that guy at my window, I had the half-conscious thought that I needed to say something. If I had been alone, I might have just pulled foward and seethed silently. And I didn’t want my kids to see that.

While we finished our drive home, I explained to my kids, “Yes, I said that. If someone does something bad to you, it’s perfectly okay to tell them they aren’t treating you right.”

My example may not be perfect, but at least it’s something.


  1. says

    That is a great example of showing your kids to answer back and not just take it. I think we are taking PC too far these days. We and our kids should be able to say to someone, back off, you are overstepping your limits. Your kids will always remember what you did rather that what you told them to do. Good job hapamama!

  2. says

    What you do will always have a bigger impact than what you tell them. Actions are louder than words, you just showed them how not to let others bully them but to speak up. Great job hapamama!

  3. says

    Thanks for stopping by Mommy Nuggets! I appreciate the support. It’s a tough balancing act, trying to teach kids to both be respectful and kind to others… yet still being able to aware of their own feelings and express themselves.

  4. says

    And it’s not only about being an example to the kids either – I think the best thing about what you did is that you asserted yourself. I never respond to rudeness like that at the right time and always find myself kicking myself much later, when I finally think of what I should have said right then. It’s not about being aggressive or mean, it’s about standing up for yourself – I’ll be inspired by you next time meanies bother me (some rude seat-hogging ladies at a pizza restaurant come to mind).

    • says

      Susannah, I know what you mean about kicking yourself later! One of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld is the one where George thinks of a comeback later that day, and insists on going back to meet with that person so he can use his line “the jerk store called!”

      One of my goals in life is to be the kind of person who can recognize when I’m being treated unfairly, and speak up in a calm manner at the time. It’s a learning process for me, too.

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