A plea for parental courtesy, for everyone’s sake.
A few weeks ago, an elderly man lurched out of our church service in a hurry. The effects of stroke encumber his body, but he moved quickly and was clearly distressed. Four ushers rushed to his side to see what was the matter. Agitated, he repeated himself four or five times before they understood- “The children, yelling in church!” It was true. This gentleman had been seated near a small child who had been yelling (not crying or fussing, just yelling) for quite awhile. I had trouble hearing the sermon and I was 20 feet away. This gentleman ended up sitting near the nursery and listening to the remainder of the service over the speakers. The yeller stayed in her pew.
When did it become okay for people to inflict their disruptive children on large gatherings of the public? When did parents stop minding their children’s behavior
and removing disorderly youngsters from church services, movies, restaurants, waiting rooms, weddings, etc? I may suffer from early onset curmudgeonry, but I am not the only one to notice this trend. Fed up restaurateurs ban children from their establishments. I’ve seen waiters with trays of food trip over Lilliputian diners who are allowed to frolic about the dining room. Hostesses provide crayons, coloring pages, games, and pizza dough to play with, in an effort to keep children in their seats and reasonably quiet. Clerks in shops full of breakable baubles bristle like porcupines when I walk in with three small people. On airplanes, childless travelers tighten their jaws when seated next to my 6 and 4-year-olds and then compliment them and me on their good behavior at the end of the flight, their words sighing with relief.
I like children. From experience (three kids worth of experience) I know how little control I have over any family situation. I can’t always predict what kids will say, when they will need the toilet, or puke on an airplane. (Dear sir next to me in the last row of that Delta flight, you were so gracious when my daughter threw up all over us… twice. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I would have bought you a drink. You are a gem.)
Most people are pretty patient with normal childlike behavior, and just want to know that parents are sensitive to the impact their young have on others. Babies make noise. Toddlers get tired of sitting still. Pre-schoolers are not always capable of controlling their behavior. This is why we hold parents responsible.
As the adult, I am responsible for extending courtesies to the people with whom my children come in contact. Young children are not yet capable or skilled enough to do it themselves. If my child pours milk into your handbag, I will be horrified, apologize and try to make amends. Because he is my child, I take on the consequences of his actions as though they are my own. Common decency does not allow me to dismiss the act with, “Kids will be kids. What are you going to do?”
Direct destruction of property may be an extreme example, but what if my kid ruins your romantic dinner by banging her fork on her plate repeatedly, talks through an entire movie, stunt drives his die cast car across the hood of your new car, or cries loudly throughout your daughter’s wedding? And what if I do nothing?
I frequently see parents laugh at or ignore a child who is impinging on another’s experience. You may find your child’s behavior charming and excusable. But here’s the truth- No one thinks your kid is as darling as you do, not even her grandparents. Ask yourself how you would feel if the loud, obnoxious, boorish gal stumbling around, throwing peas and yelling was a full-grown adult. Not as tolerable, is it?
That isn’t to say that people should not give a little grace to children and their parents. (Actually, we could stand to give a little grace to everyone.) Children will melt down despite a parent’s best efforts, and it is important to remain calm and give the parent a chance to handle the situation before becoming incensed and offended. For me, as long as the parent is addressing the behavior, and is sensitive to the people around them, I have no problem. We were all children once and our parents taught us how to behave. These children are the people who will be our caregivers when we are in the nursing home, so- be nice.
We parents owe it to our fellows to minimize the impact of our children’s negative behavior. It is common respect. We owe it to our children to teach them good manners and to protect their young reputations. When parents allow bad behavior to go unchecked, they make all children guilty by association, thus- bans on children in restaurants. Worse, they make pariahs out of their innocent children. Adults don’t want to be around them and other parents don’t want their children around them either. They won’t say it to the parent’s face, but hey say it to everyone else.
So, what? Do we keep our kids at home until they can use choose the right fork at a fancy dinner? No, they need chances to practice and learn. Parents should take them out in public, but only if they are willing to do the work of teaching and guiding. Talk about the expectations for behavior ahead of time, and how different events demand different kinds of behavior. Don’t take them somewhere where you are unwilling or unable to skedaddle if it all goes south. Remove children when they are disruptive; it is less awful than staying. Don’t take them places where you know they have no chance of behaving reasonably (courtrooms, late night dinners, screenings of Ingmar Bergman films come to mind.) Yes, there have been times when I’ve spent entire church services cajoling toddlers to be quiet, or standing in the narthex with a fussy baby. I have been known to employ gum and orange Tic Tacs liberally. I’ve spent hours on a plane with a hand on small legs, reminding them not to kick the seat in front of them. It’s all part of making small savages civil.
Human society is complicated and nuanced. It takes years to learn its rules and absorb its conventions. This is why human childhood is so long and why we have parents for the duration- to guide us through the social jungle and soften the discord between our inexperience and the adult world. When their behavior is good, children are an absolute joy to be around. They infuse life and beauty into any gathering. The best part of any wedding reception are the diminutive guests- shoes off, shirt half-untucked, getting down on the dance floor.
Have you had experiences with unruly children and their parents? Am I off base? Please tell me if this is a personal quirk and I need to lighten up. I will listen. I’d especially like to hear how other parents handle their children’s less than ideal public behavior and how you handle OTHER people’s unruly kids. (There’s a thorny one.) I take all tips and suggestions.