We were at craft time in the library today coloring and pasting pictures of animals and geographical features on a cut-out of Africa. One of the animals was a tiger, which, if I’m not mistaken, lives in Asia. My kids didn’t mind, though, so I won’t make a big deal about it. I’ll just have to supplement their education about the continent of Africa on our own.
At the table next to us, a woman sat with her daughter, who I guessed to be about 3 years old. Her daughter was animatedly talking about the animals and the crayons she was using to color them.
“Do you hear anyone else yelling?” her mother hissed at her, loudly enough that I could easily hear her about five feet away. “You’re embarrassing yourself!”
Her daughter looked up at her nonplussed and then went back to her coloring. She didn’t say anything over a whisper the rest of the time we were there.
Soon after the mother scolded her daughter, my son started talking loudly about the characters painted on the wall and which ones were wearing hats. He busted into the theme song to “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That” TV show on PBS, as I reflected on the other mother’s reaction to her child’s exuberance.
As someone who is naturally quiet and who was trained from birth to be even quieter (my parents were big fans of the adage, “Children should be seen and not heard, and seldom seen,” which they applied in conjunction with a witticism attributed to my maternal grandfather: “Every child deserves a pat on the back: often enough, hard enough, and low enough.”), I can relate to this other mother’s discomfort with her child’s noise level. My children seem wild and unruly to me, and they seem to have just one volume setting. I frequently find myself shushing them in public places so they don’t bother other people, even when none of the other people have indicated that they were bothered. And while I disagree with her technique of shaming her child into silence, I can’t say that I’ve not tried the same technique when my own discomfort with my children’s expression of happiness was too great. Let she who is without sin, right?
Just this morning, my friend Tucker shared a link to a 1992 essay by Barbara Kingsolver entitled, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby.” In it, Kingsolver reflects on the impatience and outright rudeness with which children are received in the United States, and contrasts that with how they’re received in Spain, where she was living at the time.
“For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do.”
The essay brought me to tears thinking about the wide gap between how children should be welcomed in our culture and how they actually are (or aren’t).
I was at the library fresh from reading that essay, and it led me to wonder what had happened in this mother’s life to cause her to feel so embarrassed about her daughter’s volume of speech, particularly in a children’s activity on the children’s floor of the library with another little heathen-child belting out “You Are My Sunshine” just five feet away. If this is what our culture encourages us to do, I opt out. I reject the idea that my children should consider the comfort of strangers before expressing their happiness.
In the wake of this experience, along with my focus this month on sharing my own happiness, I’ve recommitted myself to allowing my children to express themselves in the manner that seems right to them, provided it truly isn’t hurting anyone else. As Gloria Steinem noted in a speech of hers I attended at Duke University many moons ago, we put up with so many other sounds in our environment—cell phones, airplanes, traffic, car alarms—the sounds of children shouldn’t bother us at all. In fact, they’re probably the most pleasant of the noises that interrupt our peace.
We all were children once. As adults, we may have chosen for whatever reason to squelch our own exuberance, but that doesn’t give us a right to diminish the joy of today’s children.
If anything, I want to learn from my children how to shine bright, not extinguish their glow.