Laura June wrote for The Awl Wednesday about the hesitation and fear she often feels when she brings her child out in public:
I once hated other people’s babies, and, truth be told, I can still get a little judgy at the sight of a particularly awful baby specimen. But, now that I’m a parent of an actual, tiny, barbaric human, I see that it’s my duty to take her out, daily, into society, in order to cull her of her worst impulses. To teach her that sometimes the people sitting just one airplane seat over don’t want to talk, or that the lady reading her New Yorker five feet away isn’t her best friend. This is the social contract: we must raise our young to be human people with manners and dignity. And you, the adult humans of the world, must tolerate us while we embark on our excursion.
Many of us have felt exasperated when sitting next to a screaming baby on an airplane, or encountering a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. It’s difficult to be gracious when you feel that your eardrums are about to explode. And it’s true that some parents don’t discipline their children appropriately. As one friend put it, an increasing amount of toddlers “are not closely attended or watched in public places, which creates a nuisance for those trying to shop for groceries or read quietly in a Starbucks. In some cases, it’s a cry (sometimes quite literally) for attention, and other times it’s just spoiled behavior that isn’t kept in check.”
But sometimes, babies are just tired, or hungry, or upset—and we have no right to be frustrated with the parent or the child over what’s an inevitable part of growing up. In these situations, we seem to have grown unaccustomed to the very frank, untidy, often loud realities of childhood. We’ve created for ourselves, within our commutes and careers, clubs and churches, a plethora of kid-free zones. And when a child enters that zone, we often are clueless as to how to cope with their presence.
This reminded me of an older article by Saman Sad for The Telegraph, describing ways in which London is turning into a kid-free city:
Most big cities seem to be gearing themselves towards being kid-free zones, or at least heavily segregated zones. As the old adage goes, children should be seen and not heard. These days, it seems we not only want children to not be heard, but also to remain unseen. If it’s not the café in Berlin barring strollers from its premises, it’s the restaurant in America, barring all patrons under the age of six. This policy is not only being taken up by cafes and restaurants, but by airlines, too: they are now setting up kid-free zones.
Do we as a society really hate kids so much that we want them erased from public life altogether?
Sad compares this attitude with the kid-inclusion common in Dubai:
Kids are very much a part of public life in Dubai – everywhere and at all hours. I was shocked to see children in restaurants well past 10pm. They were loud and noisy, and probably a bit tired, but they were there because in Dubai, especially for Arab families, there is no exclusion of children from social situations. If you’re going to dinner, so are they. If you’re going to the mall at 11pm, so are they. … When my friends turned up with their baby and toddler at a posh new restaurant, rather than being turned away, the staff offered them the chef’s table, so the children would be entertained.
… I wouldn’t necessarily encourage bringing babies to bars, but I am all for keeping an open mind to including all members of society – no matter how small – in social situations. Children bring life to a place like no adult can. Yes, they whinge and cry and can be a pain. But they have a verve for life, a curiosity about things, a knack for finding humour in the ordinary, all of which provide a breath of fresh air in the adult world.
It’s that latter dynamic that some Americans seem to have forgotten: in the midst of our annoyance over the bouts of crying, the short attention spans, and the extra baggage that comes with having babies, we’ve also forgotten the joy, sweetness, enthusiasm, and curiosity that they bring to life. We’ve forgotten that, as June puts it, “we were all babies once. I didn’t spring into life, fully grown, an Athena in our midst. I once was an awful member of society.”
Some places are worse/better than others in their baby tolerance levels: as a mother of four noted to me on Facebook, suburbs and cities are much more likely to abound in dirty looks than rural areas and small towns, while she’s found adults in the South to be much nicer than those in the mid- or north-Atlantic region. This all makes sense, when you consider the increasing lack of children in urban areas: Governing notes in an article on gentrification that, due to the change in apartment costs and urban amenities, “Americans, already used to segregation by income and race, are seeing another type of geographic separation, with people living apart according to their stages of life.”
However, many moms I talked to on Facebook—moms from various regions of the country, with babies of different ages—said they’ve also been surprised at how much nicer adults have been than they expected them to be. “I was afraid to go out too much when my kiddo was born because I was afraid I’d get those annoyed looks, and I didn’t want to be a public nuisance,” one mother told me. “I was surprised to find that people still smiled at me and treated me well. Old ladies hold doors for me when I’m carrying the car seat, men stocking groceries comment on how sweet the baby is, and in general everyone loves to peek in the car seat or stroller to talk to the baby.” Other moms noted that they take their babies to grocery stores, post offices, coffee shops, bookstores, airports, and restaurants without much difficulty. Indeed, people are much more likely to say hello, to share stories or advice.
Perhaps these anecdotes will encourage parents to take their young children out in public more. There’s a need for this sort of integration—and it may even afford young parents the exact sort of community rapport they may be lacking.
There are certain virtues that kids seem especially gifted to grow in us: patience and longsuffering are perhaps the first two that spring to mind (and they’re two virtues our society often sorely lacks), but there’s also generosity, gentleness, compassion, creativity, and many others. Of course we can learn many of these in the workplace, amongst family and friends—but children challenge and foster these virtues through their specific strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the reason parents seem so timid around non-parents is because they know their child will be demanding these strangers to display their hidden, perhaps rusty virtues.
One mom told me, “I think I get more looks now that [my daughter] is three than I ever have. She’s loud and blunt and colorful… but how else will she learn?” And, indeed, one could add: how else will we?