Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Person's a Person, No Matter How Small

“There is no justification in human nature for treating children, from birth, with any less respect or equality than that accorded to older people. Children are people, fully and without qualification.” –Daniel Greenburg, author

I remember one of the first times I realized that my son was more than just an extension of myself. He had started pre-K and his teacher described to me an incident where he was holding on to a little boy’s arm and wouldn’t let go, despite the other child’s tearful protests.

I was a helicopter parent for much of my son’s first few years (sorry, kiddo!) so I knew that I certainly didn’t teach him to grab other kids. I was both amazed and somewhat embarrassed that my child clearly had a mind of his own and did what he wanted, completely separate from me and beyond my control. It took time and lots of practice to not become irate every time I got a report from a teacher that deviated from what I thought I had drilled into my child’s head and what I assumed he would do—because, after all, I told him to do it!

Now that he’s older, the things that come out of my son’s mouth are sometimes brilliant, other times side-splitting funny, and occasionally, because he is a human being, and a small one at that, can be inappropriate, and even hurtful. As stunning and jarring as that can be, I’ve come to terms with it. He lives in his own world and I feel lucky to be able to be a part of it, alternately conversing with him, laughing with him, and correcting him. My husband and I are enjoying my daughter’s emerging commentary and sense of humor immensely, and know that she’s well on her way to letting us in on her own world as well.

If there is one aspect of my parenting that I can say has most definitely evolved, it’s realizing that children are their own people. From the time they were very small, my children have had their own feelings and thoughts, and as they’ve gotten older, those have turned into very real ideas, opinions, and even values—and there is a good chance that many of them are, or will be, different from my own. Even though my kids are only seven and three, they have made their likes and dislikes very clear. Their interests vary and they have mood swings and many different emotions, just as adults do. Even my newborn is able to communicate her likes and dislikes quite clearly.

Well, duh, you may be saying. Obviously children are their own people. Obviously their needs have to be met and respected, just as any adult’s needs would. But you know what I’ve noticed lately? The rest of society doesn’t seem to agree. From families being kicked out of airplanes, to kids being banned from restaurants, to shaming of breastfeeding mothers, to stores and eateries having “no stroller” policies—I’m starting to get the feeling that many people are anti-kid.

First of all, I’d like to say that obviously, not every moment spent with our kids, or around other people’s kids, is a joy. They cry, they scream, they poop, they puke—and often at the worst times. I know what it’s like to be in front of a toddler kicking my seat at the movies, I understand wanting to eat a meal without a screaming child next to you, and I definitely would not choose to be seated in an airplane with an unhappy child for an extended period of time.

My problem is the fact that children are discriminated against. They are treated like second-class citizens, and people seem to be completely comfortable with that. For example, which of the following criteria would make it okay to ban a human being from a restaurant? Could it be someone’s race, religion, gender, weight, sexual orientation?

None of those would be acceptable. Yet children are increasingly being treated this way, simply because they are small and helpless. And often the parents are blamed, for not being able to “control” their children. Oh, how I despise that word! Parenting is not about control. It is about teaching and guidance. Any time I try to control my children, I regret it, and I fail miserably.

It’s especially difficult when the only reason I am trying to exert control over my kids is because I fear someone else’s judgment. I resent society’s judgment of my children and how I parent them because in the past, it’s caused me to react more strongly and more angrily than I would have if I didn’t feel like all eyes were on me—whether it be at the checkout line, or at an eatery, or at a coffee shop. I have to make a concerted effort to ignore those people and stay calm, because ultimately, this is about myself and my children, and the relationship and communication I’m trying to establish and nurture with them. Worse yet, my children always pick up on my anxiety and it causes them grief, as well.

What amuses me (and alternately puzzles me) is people’s seeming intolerance for children while simultaneously, adults are allowed to behave in ways that I find rude and unacceptable. No one seems to bat an eye when adults engage in excessively loud conversations, both in person and on cell phones, while sitting at a casual restaurant. Or when the constant chime of texting or game playing or whatever makes it difficult for me to hear what my eating companion is saying. Yet, my three year old daughter makes one loud (and happy!) exclamation, and a dozen heads snap back to look at us as if we are disturbing everyone’s peace. I have to be subjected to strangers’ musical tastes on their ridiculously loud headphones while sitting on the train, yet my fidgety son is looked upon with disdain, as if he is dirtying the environment simply by being there. I’ve seen people clip their nails—clip their nails—on the subway, yet I still get various dirty looks when I get on the train with my active kids or nurse my baby in public.

We were at a restaurant recently where I confronted someone who was very anti-child. Let me be clear—it was Friday, at 6 p.m., at a family restaurant that we frequent, with a kids’ menu, and my kids were perfectly well-behaved. This patron and his friends not only chose to sit at the table right next to ours instead of choosing one of the dozen or so other empty tables in the place, the man then proceeded to make a comment about not wanting to sit by my daughter because children make “weird noises in restaurants.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, later in their meal, the two other people he was with used our family as an example to discuss what their parents did with them as kids when they went to restaurants. They were inches away from us. Not only was this conversation audible to myself and my husband, but my children, as well.

If we had a child that was disabled, or one of us had some other type of unusual physical trait or ailment, would it have been acceptable for those patrons to discuss that, even if it wasn’t directed at our family? Would it have been acceptable for them to have a discussion based on our race, weight, hair color, what we were eating?

No. No, it would not have been acceptable. Yet these folks decided it was fine for them to discuss children, loudly enough so that those children could hear them, because, well, children don’t matter.

I don’t think so.

I kept my calm and confronted the rude patrons, made sure my children heard me, and then explained to my son on the way home why what that man and his friends did was unacceptable.

I wonder if people forget that they were once kids, too. If we expect kids to learn proper public behavior and become successful adults, then we have to allow some margin for error. There is no magical age that children come to when they suddenly sit up, sit still, and stop playing with their food. There’s no certificate that comes with turning 18 that says, “Congratulations! You’re now a contributing member of society!”

Sure, kids go through phases, and as parents, we are responsible for recognizing what situations have the potential to be disastrous and avoid them—but for ourselves and our children first and foremost! When my daughter is throwing a tantrum, I’m not concerned with the comfort level of the person behind me. I’m stressed out and concerned about my child, why she’s screaming, and trying to find a way to get through it. When my son drops his fork repeatedly while eating, my first thought is not about how disturbed the person next to him is. I’m thinking that we’ve run out of clean forks and he’s starving and where is that darn waiter? I lament about the fact that my meal is stone cold because I have spent the last 10 minutes rescuing my son’s utensils. When my newborn is crying, I’m not going to worry about offending the person next to me if I flash a nipple as I nurse her.

And we’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes we’ll go to a place that’s not entirely appropriate for families, and maybe our kids will be overtired and cranky and maybe they will act out as a result. We may get on a plane after waiting three hours for a delayed flight, where we’ve run out of snacks and activities and one of our kids may need to fuss for 15 minutes until she falls asleep. Sometimes, my child may have a coughing fit while sitting next to you, and you may be inconvenienced or even grossed out. Society has to allow for those types of situations.

We talk so much about tolerance and acceptance, but when it comes down to it, we don’t practice what we preach. Children are human beings—little, un-evolved, clean slates. I take joy in showing my children the world and teaching them about all it has to offer. I don’t want them to be looked down upon, disrespected, or undervalued simply because they are little.

“Because, after all,
 A person’s a person, no matter how small.” –Dr. Seuss


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