I am sure you’ve heard this about a million times before “ya pappy, kam mara iltilak haj thot ossba’ak bi mounkharak” (oh, daddy, how many times have I told you to stop putting your finger in your nose). Oh no, wait, it’s not what you think… it’s not the child reprimanding the dad for putting his finger in his nose. It’s the dad whose calling his son dad.
In a society where child rearing practices are characterized by the discipline and protection the parents impose on the children, it is in fact very common for family members to call their children by their own family title role. Unlike Western societies, parental control does not stop at the age of 18; instead, it continues for as long as the child lives in the father’s residence or until the child marries. In the street it can be comic to overhear the reprimand, especially if you are trying to explain it to a non-Arab friend. It’s a form of endearment that probably has our children ridiculously confused. if you hear a mother shouting out to her kid and calling “mama” and having all the kids wondering which mom is calling after which kid, be sure you are in Lebanon.
It truly is a fascinating habit. Some say it stems from parents addressing their children with “Ya habib mama” (mummy’s darling) and then shortened to “ya mama”, with this being eventually shortened to mama. Others say it is a way for the relative to highlight their role in the child’s life, thereby teaching the kid to call them by the right name. Still others say it is a way to instill courage in a child by addressing it with adult titles. In Lebanon, the form of address is the speaker’s own title, hence it isn’t gender specific to the child. A father will call both his son and his daughter “papy”, not the son “papy” and the daughter “mamy”.
A child, no matter his age (from 0 to 95 years old) may be called mama by his mother, baba by his father, a’mmo by his uncle, khalo by his maternal uncle, teta by his grandma and jiddo by his granddad.
I believe in a society where the family nucleus is essential, parents calling their children by their own title role is the ultimate sign of love. It kind of reflects the mirroring relationship between child and parent. The concept of mirroring involves a parent’s accurate reflection of a child’s expressed thoughts and feelings. This reflection leads to the child’s experience of acceptance and validity. Over time, the validation is internalized and the child enters adult life with self-acceptance and self-awareness. This self-awareness enables the person to experience social acceptance and competence.
Ultimately, it is about loving our children unconditionally. When a mom calls her son mama, she is mirroring herself to him. They become one and the other. Intertwined between self and other, a relationship of utmost love is built on caring, nurturing, and love.
I love you
You are my son
Whatever is mine is yours
You and me are one
My name is yours and so is my heart
I love calling my boys “mama.” I wouldn’t call them any other way. As I do it, I feel that I am safeguarding a bond that my parents taught me. The ultimate gift that one human being can give to another is the gift of unconditional love. That’s what this little confusing and comic title reversal is.