With so many different cultural norms and regionalisms, it’s only natural to stumble across a few moments where we are raising our children differently. I would never presume to know better or more than another parent, and yet other parents and adults constantly feel the need to edit the behavior and mannerisms of my son. Even when I am right next to him.
A few months ago my 6-year-old son, W, and I were at a coffee shop enjoying a rainy afternoon. We had our heads down and were working on a coloring page together. At a table nearby we heard the sound of glass and then a woman exclaiming.
My son immediately ran over and asked if she was OK and if she needed any help. The woman thanked him and asked if he could run get some napkins to sop up the water that had fallen into her purse.
When W returned with the napkins, the woman remarked to him, “You are so kind!”
She beamed at him and then pointed over to me asking, “Is that your mom?”
W responded, “Yes, ma’am.”
You would have thought my son had slapped her across the face. The woman actually recoiled. Her entire face changed and stonily she said to W, “Don’t call me ‘ma’am.’”
W looked over at me completely confused and I waved for him to come back to our table. He was crushed. He didn’t understand why the woman was upset, and while I could guess, I didn’t agree with how she treated my kid.
“Ma’am” is not an insult.
I absolutely understand that it is a word that not every woman or parent feels the same about, but if you hear my son using it, I would so appreciate it if you wouldn’t chastise him.
As soon as W was able to talk, I started teaching him about manners. I didn’t care how well he was able to say the word, but I wanted to emphasize the intention. If he wanted an object, I wanted him to say “please.” Upon receiving the object, I wanted him to say “thank you.” If he hurt someone, intentionally or not, I wanted him to say that he was “sorry.”
This is also when he started learning about the use of “sir” and “ma’am” as a sign of respect and kindness.
Now I don’t know about you, but I was raised that anyone older than I am or anyone who is in a respected position or situation is addressed as sir or ma’am. I grew up calling and still call pretty much all adults sir or ma’am. When I need to get someone’s attention, it’s “Excuse me, sir!” or “Hello? Ma’am?”
At some point it seems ma’am became a dirty word to some. It became — broadly and generically to them — an attack on women, something that made a woman feel old and aged out. Meanwhile, sir sailed ahead and continued to be a word of respect. I wonder why that is.
Why did ma’am get the shaft, so to speak? Why did women start to recoil if a child called them “ma’am”?
I’ve seen people exclaim online, “Oh no! I’ve just been ‘ma’amed’!” They panic and search for why a person would have called them such a thing, because — GASP — only old ladies are ma’ams. Why do some women equate the word ma’am with old?
When my child says, “Hello, ma’am,” he is absolutely NOT saying, “Hello, you old bag.”
If you look up ma’am in the dictionary, there is nothing negative, nothing about age, zip about old ladies. Judith Martin, the woman behind the syndicated Miss Manners column, says ma’am is a dignified term:
“Everyone is in denial about age. Why would you want to do away with showing respect for age? What do you gain by saying don’t treat me with respect just because I’m older? What sort of devil’s bargain is that?”
I do not believe you must teach your child to call me ma’am. It’s not for me to tell you how to raise your child or school you on manners or etiquette. All I ask is if you encounter MY child out in the world and he shows you a sign of respect by using sir or ma’am, don’t oppose his belief of your deserving that respect by failing to show him and his upbringing respect in return.
I will thank you most kindly, ma’am.