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Raising Babies in Adult-Land

Laura June wrote for The Awl [1]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 [2] 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 [3] from its premises, it’s the restaurant in America, barring all patrons under the age of six [4]. This policy is not only being taken up by cafes and restaurants, but by airlines, too: [5] 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 [6] 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?

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Raising Babies in Adult-Land"

#1 Comment By La Lubu On February 26, 2015 @ 7:35 am

When it comes to bad behavior in public, adults are more likely to exhibit it than children, and not just because they are making more of an informed and conscious choice to act out. Children’s sense of curiosity and wonder seems to override other impulses. All the essays about “children in public” have umpteen caveats about bad behavior, screaming, temper tantrums—but when it comes down to it, how often really do you see that, as an outside observer? I mean, in comparison to children in general? The ratio of “bad” kids to “bad” adults is smaller, I’d say. And that’s even setting aside the fact that most kids do not go from zero-to-tantrum like angry or frustrated adults; they give plenty of ‘warning’ signals beforehand that they are getting tired, hungry, overwhelmed…and they pointedly direct those signals to their parents or caretakers.

But…eh. It’s a class thing (meaning: rich kids display the same sense of insufferable entitlement they learn from their parents) and a culture thing. Kids brought up in cultures/subcultures where they’re just another part of the flow of life tend to be better behaved, because they’re learning more social cues and at an earlier age. They’re less likely to go through the “barbaric” stage, because they’ve already internalized a lot of cues from when they were pre-verbal and pre-ambulatory. Hothoused kids not so much.

#2 Comment By Gerry On February 26, 2015 @ 7:44 am

I have come to Fatherhood relatively late (40) and I also worried about how it would be brining my infant into Boston society. I have to say it’s been great. People have been so welcoming and friendly. Every comment about my ‘beautiful baby’ gives me more of a loft than it should (very proud Dad). What has been most interesting is how much more social we are now. Before, I could count on the fingers of one hand how many strangers I would talk to outside of work. Now, I can’t go outside without having at least one conversation with a complete stranger usually started by a glance and a comment about the baby. It has been a most welcome side effect of becoming a Dad.

Also, I wanted to point out that the segregation that you talk about is an inevitable consequence of the fact that we are having fewer babies and also having them later. None of my friends in college had kids and almost all only started in their 30s. This means you can get all the way through your 20s without any direct experience of children.

#3 Comment By Joan On February 26, 2015 @ 8:25 am

Some years ago, I read an essay in, of all places, Time, describing the normal course of human life, for most of human history, more or less as follows: you were born into a growing family; as you grew up, you participated in the care of your younger siblings, nieces and nephews, cousins, occasional younger aunts and uncles and even neighbor kids. By the time you married, you were thoroughly familiar with the tasks of child care, so that when the first of your own half-dozen to a dozen children arrived, you knew what to do. You spent the rest of your life caring for children, whose company you probably enjoyed, and died before your youngest had left home.

A hundred years ago, there would have been only one segment of respectable society that deviated from that pattern: the elite and those who aspired to the elite. For the last few centuries, opportunity within the elite had depended less and less on things like family connections and military prowess, more and more on performance in school. Therefore the care of younger children was turned over to servants so that the older children could study. The result was a growing population of elite adults who were unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable with children, who had to be manipulated (through carefully guarded ignorance about birth control and the constant dunning in of the notion of reproductive duty) into producing the next generation. By the silent film era, the elite individual who doesn’t like children and isn’t comfortable with them was a well established stock character.

The elite life then is almost everybody’s life now, except that the servant class is, for the most part, long gone. The way older children are relieved of any obligation to care for the younger ones is simply that the younger ones are not born. Parents are expected to create a kind of bubble around their children, supportive of educational attainments to the exclusion of almost everything else. As a result, discomfort with small children, born of lack of experience with small children, is widespread. I know two women with advanced degrees who said they wanted children, plural, but changed their minds after they had one. Describing the reason for their changed motivation, both said the same thing: “I didn’t realize how much work it would be.” Bright women, well informed about most things, they were nevertheless shocked by this basic fact of human biology. To people raised in this kind of bubble, the idea that child-rearing is a collective responsibility in which we are bound to participate, if only in public encounters with strangers’ kids, is going to be a difficult sell.

#4 Comment By Jim Wagner On February 26, 2015 @ 8:48 am

Here in Lithuania, although the birthrate is low, it seems like one still sees more babies than in the USA. This is because fewer people drive and many are out walking, pushing the stroller. In the USA it seems like many go from house to car to shop to car and back to house.

#5 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 26, 2015 @ 9:04 am

Gracy Olmstead wrote:

“Grocery stores are generally a good place to expose small children to public places, even though 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’…”

As one of the grocery stock clerks who smiles at the babies and small children, I want to agree with your friend that there are some parents who neither “attend” nor “watch” their toddlers in a grocery store. Watching three year olds inspect large glass jars of pickles or run at top speed around a blind corner and into the main aisle puts my heart in my throat over and over again.

From my years of observation, a hugely disproportionate number of the parents who don’t properly attend to their kids in grocery stores are fathers. For many fathers having their kids play with the pickles and run the aisles — risking getting mowed down by piled-high, on-coming grocery carts – is part of what I call the “grocery store as adventure playland” experience.

Maybe it’s because fathers don’t have enough practice taking their kids out in public. That’s a possibility. Or maybe it’s because fathers haven’t considered the differences between the aisles of a grocery store and the local public park. Whatever the answer is, a lot of fathers are bad at taking their kids out in public – and the fathers need to be trained and brought up to speed.

#6 Comment By Jonathan On February 26, 2015 @ 9:16 am

One thing that annoys me about young ‘uns in trains running along elevated tracks is that they clamor up onto the seat to look out the window swinging their dirty soles towards my lap. I have forgotten that I too performed the same act hungering for a window view where my fantasies could play out with the real world outside. And each trip was an adventure into the unknown but exciting and bright world. Looking into a child’s eyes do I remember this?

#7 Comment By La Lubu On February 26, 2015 @ 9:42 am

Describing the reason for their changed motivation, both said the same thing: “I didn’t realize how much work it would be.” Bright women, well informed about most things, they were nevertheless shocked by this basic fact of human biology.

I suspect that they weren’t shocked by the physical or emotional labor of child raising, but rather by the extreme difficulty of finding a work-family balance. The lack of childcare, the 24/7 workplace culture (yet another effect of union busting—folks, we union members were the ones that got you the eight-hour day!), the disconnect between school schedules and working hours, the lack of truly affordable housing (meaning housing that the average worker earning an average paycheck can afford on 30% of his or her wages), the long-distance commutes that are an inevitable result of the lack of affordable housing and/or gainful employment…it all adds up to a very family-unfriendly culture.

I think when your friends realized how much work was involved scrambling to maintain all the conflicting responsibilities they had, they decided one was enough. That’s not biology, that’s culture.

#8 Comment By La Lubu On February 26, 2015 @ 9:58 am

Before, I could count on the fingers of one hand how many strangers I would talk to outside of work. Now, I can’t go outside without having at least one conversation with a complete stranger usually started by a glance and a comment about the baby. It has been a most welcome side effect of becoming a Dad.

Gerry, I noticed this too. People who never smile or talk to strangers will smile, talk, and make googley-eyes at babies and toddlers. Surly-looking teenage boys in the neighborhood would instantly melt around my daughter when I had her out in the stroller, tough-guy poses gone in a flash. Now she’s one of those surly looking teenagers with sarcasm on speed-dial, and she ogles all the babies, trying to get them to smile!

#9 Comment By ARM On February 26, 2015 @ 10:36 am

La Lubu: Not to deny the problem of work-life balance for many, but I’ve met several stay-at-home first-time moms who say “I had no idea it would be so much work.” I found it puzzling – what in the world did they expect? – but as Joan said above, they were otherwise intelligent, educated women. They were all people who did not have experience of younger siblings in their families, which probably had something to do with it.

#10 Comment By La Lubu On February 26, 2015 @ 11:32 am

but as Joan said above, they were otherwise intelligent, educated women. They were all people who did not have experience of younger siblings in their families, which probably had something to do with it.

Huh. That’s hard for me to grasp. I was an only child, but I’ve done physical labor my whole life (including chores at home as a child, albeit without younger siblings to watch). Maybe “educated” is the key—if you’re used to delegating scutwork or unpleasant chores…well, babies are no respecters of the social hierarchy. The first surprise of parenthood to me was how much more time it took to do mundane tasks with a baby in tow, and how much stuff I had to schlep around—no more grab-and-go; I actually had to plan ahead for the day, LOL! I expected the workload, because I watched my mother do it; the time aspect didn’t register because children have a different sense of time than adults. So, as a child I grew up knowing parenting was ‘work’ (from observation), but I didn’t have a sense of how that impacted one’s sense of time, because that’s part of the ‘invisible’ work of parenting….the keeping of multiple (sometimes conflicting) schedules, the planning, the packing, the details, all the mostly-mental work that adds to the perceived load (the [7]).

#11 Comment By JN On February 26, 2015 @ 11:42 am

RE the difficulty of raising kids, I think it is both a result of culture (not having experience or clear expectations) and also work-life balance. I know that if my husband and I did not have steady jobs with good paychecks and hours of less than 45 per week, I would probably not be pregnant with baby #3 now.

I think there is a bit of a shock for first-time mothers who didn’t actively raise younger siblings or babysit a lot. It’s humbling to realize not only how hard it can be to raise kids but also that a) many, if not, most people have done this (so I’m not “special” for getting through this!) and b) in many cases it’s much easier now than in the past or in other areas of the world.

#12 Comment By JonF On February 26, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

Re: the lack of truly affordable housing (meaning housing that the average worker earning an average paycheck can afford on 30% of his or her wages), the long-distance commutes that are an inevitable result of the lack of affordable housing and/or gainful employment

Outside a small number of truly unaffordable cities (NYC, DC, SanFran…) a lot of that is the fault of people insisting that they have to live in some gated Fallutes of Mortgage Heights and send the kids to Snob High. I’m not suggesting anyone move into a slum, but there are lower middle class and working class neighborhoods that are still affordable in most places.

#13 Comment By Leslie Fain On February 26, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

This column reminds me of an article Edward Grinnan, editor-in-chief for Guideposts, wrote in which he describes an airline flight where a woman with six or eight kids sat behind him, who kicked his chair during the flight and were too loud. Maybe the kids were too loud; I don’t know. What I do know is that it is not easy for kids– particularly boys — to sit in a plane sit for hours. After writing at length about how torturous it was to sit in front of these kids on this flight, he then goes on to say that the mother made a point to tell him she was a big fan of the magazine, and she recognized him, and always made a point to read his column. So — he decides to repay her for all that by writing a column about how horrible her kids were. I am sure if she read the column (and how could not thought that was a possibility?), I am sure she was sufficiently chastened and humiliated.

#14 Comment By Jason C. On February 26, 2015 @ 3:31 pm

Joan’s comment above ought to be included as an update to your post. Really insightful and I find it matches my experiences perfectly.

It’s been our pleasure to have children born in three different cities in Texas. Austin was great for kids–we could take her to bars with outdoor areas in the daytime, any public places at all. Austin is getting less and less so, but is still somewhat diverse in terms of families at different stages of life. Houston (I’m talking about the heart of the city itself, not outlying Harris County) was mostly awful–nothing but singles “living the dream” anywhere fun you might want to go that wasn’t exclusively a “kids place,” and no one wanted to hear our precious-little-reminders-of-what-they-were-delaying making too much noise. Houston’s very segregated in terms of what stage of life you’re at and where you live. Forget the bars, forget the cool restaurants and shops, etc. if you live where the young folks live. When you’re 30 and get married, then you move away to outlying Harris or Montgomery County five years later at 35 to have your children. Now we’re in a much smaller, but still large city and it’s a perfect mix of families and people at all stages of life. We love it.

#15 Comment By DR On February 26, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

When ever I see someone pushing a baby stroller, I look to see if a baby is in side. About half the time a cat or a small dog is being taken for a ride.

#16 Comment By Ken T On February 26, 2015 @ 8:51 pm

My “evidence” is as anecdotal as everyone else’s here, but my own general impression is that, for the most part (there are always exceptions), it is the behavior of the parents that determines how most people react to the children. As long as the parents show some sign of being aware of the child and are trying to instill good behavior, most other people will give them quite a bit of latitude if the child is just being tired and cranky. It’s the ones who let the child run wild and make no attempt to control them who get the dirty looks.

#17 Comment By La Lubu On February 27, 2015 @ 10:40 am

When ever I see someone pushing a baby stroller, I look to see if a baby is in side. About half the time a cat or a small dog is being taken for a ride.

Half the time?! Where do you live? I’ve never seen this done. (caveat: in much of the United States, only service animals are allowed in public buildings, which probably has a lot to do with it)

#18 Comment By Anne On February 27, 2015 @ 10:52 am

I was a stay-at-home mom and I love children. At least, I did.

However, I was sitting in an Apple Store, patiently waiting my turn, when a toddler started to hit me and tugging at my chair. Her mother watched for a full three minutes until she decided to intervene. There was no apology to me and no correction for her toddler.

As a society, we have lost the importance of discipline. Not disciplining a child, but self discipline – knowing a child’s meltdown triggers, avoiding the tantrum and setting boundaries during an outburst.

Those children who won trophies for just for showing up, well, they are having their own children now. Parenting has changed in the last twenty years.

#19 Comment By Chris 1 On February 27, 2015 @ 11:54 am

Outside a small number of truly unaffordable cities (NYC, DC, SanFran…) … there are lower middle class and working class neighborhoods that are still affordable in most places.

Yes. They’re not as cute, but they often support family life far better than upscale neighborhoods.

#20 Comment By Leslie Fain On February 27, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

As a society, we have lost the importance of discipline. Not disciplining a child, but self discipline – knowing a child’s meltdown triggers, avoiding the tantrum and setting boundaries during an outburst.

Anne, I do think you have a point here. I really think this whole “child-led” discipline fad is a disaster. It amazes me that people have an attitude now that no one knew how to raise children until about 10 years ago when certain books came out. There is a real self-righteousness among the people into child-led discipline (their way to discipline is the best and only way), yet they seem mystified by their children’s bad behavior. I have also noticed a lot of these kids can’t wait to get away from their own children.

#21 Comment By La Lubu On February 27, 2015 @ 6:44 pm

Outside a small number of truly unaffordable cities (NYC, DC, SanFran…) … there are lower middle class and working class neighborhoods that are still affordable in most places.

[8]

I’m a working class homeowner in one of those neighborhoods you’re referring to. My daughter attends public school. But I’m at the upper-end of blue-collar income, so I can afford it. The folks stocking shelves at big-box stores or slinging fast food cannot—they’re paying over half their income for housing alone (rent), not including utilities. And that’s in a city that is known for its cheap housing. It’s still not cheap enough for the extra-low wages of flyover country. Just sayin’.

#22 Comment By DR On February 27, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

La Lubu
I live in Oakland, I work across the bay in San Francisco, sometimes I go to Berkeley, San Jose and other Bay Area cities. In Alameda, everyone pushing a baby stroller is pushing a baby.

#23 Comment By ginger On February 27, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

“Describing the reason for their changed motivation, both said the same thing: “I didn’t realize how much work it would be.” Bright women, well informed about most things, they were nevertheless shocked by this basic fact of human biology.”

And it seems that both these women decided it was simply not worth the amount of work to have another. That’s the crux of the problem. Having kids IS hard work, years and years of it. In a world in which people have the choice not to do that to themselves, plenty will choose not to. That’s just human nature.

Many of my foremothers worked themselves physically and psychologically into the ground raising their large families. Their lives were very hard, and they died young, certainly by today’s standards. I am forever grateful to them for doing it, but I understand why once people had a choice, most quit living that way.

#24 Comment By SD On March 2, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

I have four children and live in an upscale area of my city. I do not feel that raising my children is a burden, but a blessing. I also own three businesses. All of my children attend private school and it is a lot of work. However, there is also more joy and happiness than I could ever imagine. I think it’s terrible that society thinks that having a family is a burden. In the end, your house, car, and money will not be attending your funeral. However, your family will and I cringe when I think about how our society has forgotten how important family and people are.

#25 Comment By DobermanBoston On April 12, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

Those children who won trophies for just for showing up, well, they are having their own children now. Parenting has changed in the last twenty years.

And not for the better. I’m 47 and as a child my relatively permissive family made it very clear to me that at certain places I was expected too be on “red alert” regarding my behavior. Airplanes, parental workplaces, houses of worship, weddings and funerals. And sure enough every other kid was well behaved too.

This continued into my young adulthood, when only the trashiest, most dysfunctional parents would allow outbursts in such places.

You have the timeline exactly right. It was in the mid to late 90s when I remember the social restraint on having one’s children behaving badly in the wrong situation being lifted.