Padan muka. Serves you right. I remember hearing whispered tales about problematic young people getting into trouble for not listening to their parents. Or even watching something tragic on the news. “Padan muka!” It seemed so justified – this decisive negative judgement on anything and anyone that didn’t fall into the parameters of ‘acceptable’.
My husband grew up in Malaysia and emphasis how “kurang ajar” (or having ‘poorly taught manners’) is the worst insult. “Calling a child kurang ajar is not only an insult to the child,” he explained. “That’s an insult to a child and his/her parents.” There is a huge emphasis on good manners in this part of the world. Multigenerational households are the norm, and so is the emphasis on respecting elders and unfortunately, sometimes at the expense of children.
Padan muka! Kurang ajar!
These Malay words evoke such strong feelings of shame in me. I don’t remember them being used on me because I was far too afraid to ever fall out of line as a child – part of being the oldest daughter in an emotionally volatile household. My memories of childhood are blurred at best. I’ve learned how dissociation is protective mechanism. Certain phrases, though, have left a visceral imprint on me.
These Malay words evoke such strong feelings of shame in me. I don’t remember them being used on me because I was far too afraid to ever fall out of line as a child – part of being the oldest daughter in an emotionally volatile household.
Now that I’m a mother, I can’t imagine saying to any of my children “serves you right!” after watching them get hurt. Equally, I can’t imagine seeing any other child misbehaving and scolding them with, “You’ve been taught very bad manners!”
Across different families and cultures, when a child is ‘acting out’, they are often immediately shamed into stopping said behaviour. But what happens if that child is in the middle of a meltdown? Or is having sensory overload? No amount of shaming can help him/her hit the cognitive brakes. No amount of shaming can help them learn that lagging skill.
Instead of defaulting to shaming and blaming, I choose curiosity. When my children act out, if I’m calm enough to not be triggered, I ask myself, and then him or her, “What’s wrong?” Obviously, this does not work very well if I’m furious in the moment, because then we’re equally dysregulated.
When I soften, validate their feelings, then and ask what’s wrong, I almost always get a softening in them too. Then they can tell me what’s wrong. “I’m hungry, he hit me first, I’m worried.” And we can problem-solve. That’s the kind of awareness I want to model for them – figuring out what’s bothering them, then we can solve it. No need to shame or blame.
When I soften, validate their feelings, then and ask what’s wrong, I almost always get a softening in them too.
With everything brain science is teaching us, especially when it comes to invisible disabilities like learning disorders, it’s clear that kids do well when they can. When they behave defiantly, it could be anxiety. It could be auditory processing delays. It could be sensory overload. It could be any manner of lagging skill which I – the parent with a fully formed frontal lobe – can help to teach, over many iterations.
That being said, I’m only able to notice what’s bothering my children after I address what’s bothering me. I’ve noticed that my fuse is a lot shorter during lockdown, and especially when I’ve had a flare up of illness, or when I’m anxious about something else. I’m getting better at pausing and explaining, “I’m upset and need a break. I’ll be in my room.” That’s an improvement over just walking out, and definitely an improvement over exploding at them.
Speaking to my children and singing to them in Malay, with love and compassion is rewiring my brain and theirs to expect that from our ancestral tongue. I am excited to be part of a generation of untigering parents who meet our children with playfulness, curiosity and unconditional love. I want them to remember me using Malay not as a weapon of shame and blame, but as a language of love, nurturing and banter.
There is so much beautiful, evocative Malay poetry – syair – and as my own understanding of Malay improves, I hope to appreciate and share that with my children. There is a lightness in Malay humour — from kids’ cartoons like Upin and Ipin, to slapstick comedy in P. Ramlee movies, and of course, supernatural horror and comedic drama like Hantu Kak Limah.
There are beautiful Malay phrases like gotong-royong (or shouldering each other’s burden) that speak to communal love and concern, without any shaming.
There are beautiful Malay phrases like gotong-royong (or shouldering each other’s burden) that speak to communal love and concern, without any shaming. Before colonisation came along and othered us from ourselves, we were already enough. We are still enough. There is so much existing beauty and mercy in Malay culture, and I want to draw from it and eliminate the shaming aspects.
I’m grateful to report I don’t have to wait till adulthood to see the results of parenting my kids with compassion instead of shame.
“I slept late last night. That’s why I’m grumpy,” I sheepishly explained to my six-year-old.
She smiled at me with sympathy and said very wisely, “Even Mamas make mistakes.”
“You shouted at me!” my three-and-a-half year old told me, eyes narrowed.
“I’m sorry,” I replied contritely. “Do you accept my apology?” She immediately brightened.
“Yes. I do. I’ll give you a flying kiss.”
My youngest is turning two. He’s still learning how to speak, and is the most forgiving out of all of my children. I recently trapped him in his cot to stop him from running out of the bedroom so I could use the bathroom. “Kiki Mama!” he protested, which I realised was him saying, “Cheeky Mama!”
Well. Clearly they have no problem being honest with me, which is exactly the kind of connected relationship I want to cultivate with my kids for the rest of my life, with the help of my native tongue.