“These Are My People”

This post was written as a response to this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge from The Daily Post.

I’ve been asking around, both in person and online, for people’s opinions about children in public. The consensus seems to be that children are people and should be permitted to go to any place that people are allowed to go (barring a few places that children should definitely not be (strip clubs, NC-17 movies, etc)). There is also agreement that there is a certain expectation for behavior in each public space, and it is the parent’s responsibility to judge whether at that moment his child is prepared to meet that expectation. For example, if adults are supposed to be quiet in a particular venue then children should be quiet, too, and their parents or caregivers are responsible for making sure that they are or removing them from the public space.

I agree with this idea, too, but I find that it’s not always easy to discern what other people’s expectations for a child’s behavior are.

Back in Utah, the university put on productions of favorite plays for children. Homeschool families were invited to buy tickets in the nosebleed seats on the days that school children were being bussed in for daytime performances. I took my 5-year-old daughter and one-year-old son to a performance of Frog and Toad: The Musical. We made a day of it, taking the bus and light rail to the university, always a thrill for my kids. At the theater, the school kids down in the seats below us cheered and groaned and bounced in their seats as they responded to the action in the play. My daughter loved the performance. My son was mostly interested in smiling at our friends behind us and across the aisle. When he started to get fussy, I nursed him and he fell asleep. He napped for most of the performance.

It was a raucous scene, but that was to be expected with an audience full of kids. Besides, it was fun and none of the raucousness seemed to disturb the actors or diminish anyone’s experience of the play. But someone must not have appreciated it because after that performance, word went out that future performances would be for school-aged kids and their parents only; younger siblings were no longer invited to attend.

The restriction against younger siblings seemed strange to me. Were they sure it was the siblings and not the school-aged kids who were noisy? Could they have taken care of the problem had they made their expectations for behavior more clear ahead of time so parents could understand better how to encourage their children to act? There’s no way to know because the people behind the program jumped right to “no younger siblings” without trying better communication about expectations first. We didn’t attend another performance, so I don’t know what effect—if any—the restriction had on the chaos. For our family, the restriction against younger siblings was effectively a restriction against my older daughter as well.

Another example of clear versus unclear expectations happens for us at the library. In Salt Lake City, the expectation for behavior at the library was clear. The Main Library was set up with the noisiest areas—children’s, circulation, the coffee house—at the lowest levels. As you went up towards the fifth floor, the atmosphere got quieter and quieter. Patrons knew that if they wanted to focus on quiet research, the fifth floor was the place to go. But if they were down in the children’s level, they should expect laughing, playing, jumping, skipping, and singing. My children knew that this was the expectation, and we all acted accordingly.

Our town library here is much smaller. There are two levels, a children’s level and everything else. When I’m picking up holds or checking out “grown-up” books upstairs, my kids get noisier and rowdier than I’m comfortable with. Every time I shush them, however, the librarians always say, “Oh, no! They’re fine! Really, don’t worry about it.”

This is a situation in which the expectation for my children’s behavior—and as a result my behavior as their parent—is unclear. It’s also different from the expectation for grown-up behavior (at least I think it is; I’ve never actually tried tackling other patrons or throwing my construction helmet on the floor and yelling, so I might be off-base about grown-up behavior expectations, too). Since what seems to be acceptable to the librarians is different from what feels acceptable to me, I have decided to explain my stricter expectations to my kids before we enter the library. (I mentioned this technique at the end of yesterday’s post.) It works pretty well provided I remember to do it, and I’ve not taken the toddler out when he’s overly tired or hungry.

But even in situations where the expectations for children’s behavior are clear and I’ve outlined them ahead of time and made sure everyone is well-rested and well-fed and not overstimulated, sometimes my kids just act like heathens. In those situations, I welcome a little understanding from my community.

I have a friend who gave birth last month to twins. They are absolutely adorable, but they’ve been keeping her up literally all night long. She’s had mastitis, troubles finding childcare, and now her husband’s employer is requiring him to work 12-hour days to make up for the couple of weeks of paternity leave he took. She’s running on fumes and is having trouble seeing a way to make things better. The first day her husband went back to work, she attempted to mail two boxes of baby and birth items to friends who were expecting babies of their own soon. With her newborn twins and her three other small children, she trekked to the post office. Things started great, with the older kids helping each other carry one of the big boxes. Once they were all inside, though, all Hell broke loose. Her children did not act at all according to expectations. She went home consumed by tears and hopelessness, even though—as far as I know—no one complained to her about her children’s behavior.

Even with just two kids, I have experienced similar mortification and the sense that I’m in way (WAY) over my head, and in it entirely alone.

The parents in my social circle are well-educated. Most of us have participated in parent education programs and consulted child psychologists and read libraries full of books about childrearing techniques. Many of us come from larger families or have nannied or babysat other people’s kids, so we came to parenting with experience caring for children. We’re not idiots, and we’re not inconsiderate. We’re merely overwhelmed. No one needs to reprimand us for our parenting; we’re already doing that to ourselves.

Blame, shame, restrictions, and complaints don’t help. Being worried that we’re going to be kicked off a commercial flight if our toddler has a tantrum doesn’t help. An idling vehicle impatiently vulturing our parking spot while we’re trying to wrangle children and groceries doesn’t help. Getting the stinkeye at a restaurant doesn’t help. Being asked to pick up our kids and our winter coats and leave in the middle of a church service doesn’t help (this happened to me when my 6-month-old was making happy-baby noises during the pre-sermon portion of the church service—in compliance with my expectations for his behavior but apparently not in line with the minister’s expectations).

I agree that parents should take responsibility for their children’s behavior. But I also believe that the other adults in our community have a responsibility to recognize that there might be extenuating circumstances or unclear expectations that might inhibit a parent’s ability to enforce appropriate behavior.

So, what can we do when we’re faced with behavior that irritates us?

Last Sunday, I heard a guest minister speak about community and connection. She told about a time when she was on a flight that had been delayed on the tarmac. For more than an hour, she and her fellow passengers sat in the stuffy airplane, unsure if they were ever going to take off and worrying that even if they did, it might not be safe to do so. People began to get irritable, snapping at the flight attendants and worrying aloud about their connecting flights.

The minister took a breath, looked around, and thought, “These are my people.”

As soon as she thought, “These are my people,” she felt calmer. A smile relaxed her face. And even though she’d said nothing out loud, the atmosphere in the plane seemed to relax, too. The people around her seemed to grow kinder and more patient. Whether this was just a function of her shift in perception or if the people were actually responding to her shift in mood, it made the wait more tolerable for her.

If we could look at parents and their children and think, “These are my people,” could that ease some of our irritation? Children are, in fact, people. So are their parents. If we could look around and recognize that not only are children people, but they are our people, maybe we would have more tolerance for them. Maybe we would have more compassion for them. And maybe just through our compassion, we could help them feel more empowered as parents.

Parents might be making different choices than we might and their children might be acting according to a different set of expectations than our own, but they are still people. They are still our people. Treating them as such will likely ease their difficulties and our irritation as well.

What is your expectation for children’s behavior in public spaces? What is your reaction when you see a child behaving badly in public? What do you think of that child’s parents? What do you think of that child? What do you do?

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