The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” topic this week is kids. Specifically, “Are modern parents being rude when they impose on other people on sidewalks, planes and bar stools? Or just doing what’s best for their children?” Per usual, there are some worthwhile contributions. And then there are the clueless:
Many people don’t want our “breeder” strollers on their sidewalks or our loud children in their bars. They don’t want kids on airplanes or in restaurants. They think it is parents of young children who have become self-absorbed, but I think it is something else. It’s our society. It’s broken.
We no longer have any tolerance for other people’s needs.
As parents, our entire worlds revolve around these little people. We bathe them and feed them and dry their tears. We bandage little knees and transport them to 100 activities a day. Parenthood is overwhelming and hard and stressful at times.
Nice people make it all easier. People who smile at our tantruming child with a face that says “I’ve been there, too” fill us with relief. That nice older man who holds the door for me as I struggle to squeeze my double wide stroller through the door at Starbucks makes my day. It’s not ideal. I feel guilty and encumbered by 1,000 things. But a little thoughtfulness makes me feel like we are all in it together. I get that it was my choice to procreate. I am not asking for “special” treatment. I just want kindness and respect.
My children have as much right to be on a plane and as much right to cry when their ears pop as the single, childless hipster in his fedora and skinny jeans. My children have the right to eat in a restaurant and learn to keep their volume down by experimenting. I have a right to use a stroller and not get dirty looks. Kids are just small people. Deal with it.
I agree that many of us lack tolerance for other peoples’ needs — and folks who live in NYC and push double-wide strollers into tiny crowded restaurants so that waitstaff and other patrons can’t get by are high on the list of the supremely self-absorbed.
Hostility towards children in public is obviously supremely uncool. But here’s the thing: Lots of people are self-centered assholes. And lots of people don’t stop being self-centered assholes just because they have kids. And when you live in a city where there isn’t a lot of extra space, and where a lot of one’s life takes place in public, mutual respect is imperative. Kids in bars or restaurants? No biggie. Treating a bar or a restaurant like a playground? Not respectful to the other patrons! This isn’t rocket surgery, and some of the frustration at children in dining establishments does not come from a place of child-hate. It comes from a place of frustration toward parents who are being disrespectful.
Do children have a right to be on a plane? Yes. Families need to travel sometimes too. Are children on planes probably going to cry? Duh, yes. Are people who get actually mad about crying babies on planes, to the point of glaring at parents or making snotty comments (instead of just inwardly cringing and then realizing that the baby’s parents have it way worse), pretty big jerks? YES. Is “My children have as much right to be on a plane and as much right to cry when their ears pop as the single, childless hipster in his fedora and skinny jeans” a very convincing argument? I fly a lot, and while I’ve had my share of unfortunate travel experiences, an adult man screaming and crying on an airplane has not been one of them. Babies screaming and crying on airplanes though? Happens nearly every time I fly. Because they are babies, and crying is what they do. And that’s ok!
But let’s be real about the “I don’t want special treatment” thing. Of course you do. I mean, if “kids are just small people” and you don’t want special treatment, then you buy your baby a seat on the plane, right? You understand why people are hostile toward a crying baby, the same way they would be with an adult who spent the entire plane ride screaming? No? Sometimes special or different treatment is ok, because babies and children are unique classes of people with unique needs. Their brains, social skill sets and communication abilities haven’t fully developed. And so any decent society should understand that they deserve a little extra leeway. That’s a good thing. But let’s not pretend that it’s not special or different treatment (of course, let’s not also pretend that society isn’t pretty shitty to parents, and to mothers in particular). And reasonable parents seem to understand that part of parenting is socializing your child — taking them out to parks and to play with other kids while stepping in if they start to hit; taking them to “grown-up” restaurants and expecting that, like all other patrons, they stay seated, and not bring an iPad turned up to max volume for entertainment; taking them to movie theaters, while explaining that talking during the movie isn’t appropriate; taking them on planes while not tolerating them kicking the seat; etc etc etc. You know, helping them to develop and understand social norms and good behavior.
As you can probably guess, the line that got my hackles particularly up was “My children have the right to eat in a restaurant and learn to keep their volume down by experimenting.” Ha. Sure. Yes, it is your children’s RIGHT to scream in a restaurant, and you are definitely not going to interfere or tolerate a dirty look from another patron who does not enjoy hearing screams in restaurants, because your children are EXPERIMENTING as is their RIGHT! No special treatment requested, though. None at all. And it’s definitely everyone else in New York City who’s a self-centered jerk.
Kindness and respect go both ways.
The contributions from bartenders and waitstaff are also important:
But children absorb and internalize how their parents behave. So what happens when a kid sees his mother hogging tight restaurant space with a gigantic baby stroller while anesthetizing him with portable DVD player playing at full volume tableside? What life lessons does he learn when this father lets them run between the legs of servers who are carrying bowls of hot soup? It teaches children that they can do what they want whenever they want and ignore the needs of other people. If you ask me, that’s setting up kids for a future of dealing with irate waiters and sky-high psychotherapy bills.
That possible outcome doesn’t stop some parents whose self worth is neurotically tied up in their kids from demanding that restaurants bend over backward to accommodate their offspring. That is a mistake.
Children need to be exposed to the world of adults — a world that does not always have to be infantilized for their supposed well-being. Watching their moms and dads politely interact with other grown-ups in a restaurant teaches children how to say please and thank you, sit still and appreciate the hard work of servers and busboys hustling to make a dime. Indeed, a restaurant can help raise a child, but only if the parents teach and practice good manners themselves.
What a ground-breaking observation.