The worst plane flight of my life was a transatlantic hop in which a baby cried pretty much uninterrupted from takeoff to landing. To make it worse, the child was really too old to be a baby anymore. He was a chunky twenty-month-0ld! His parents appeared to have no strategy able to calm him! Things got so bad, a nun offered advice at great length to the obviously hapless parents.
Yes, that was a long flight. Numerous passengers would have happily pushed the eject button on that child, even if it had landed him in the Arctic Ocean.
Did I mention the “baby” in question was my own beloved Tiger?
And short of a direct appeal to the Ceiling Cat, we tried everything to calm him. He was just pissed. To keep his ears from clogging, we’d given him a sippy cup during takeoff (one piece of advice that the well-meaning but ostentatiously helpful nun shared with us, after the fact). We’d packed a few toys. We tried walking the aisles with him. We tried rocking and singing him to sleep. Nothing worked.
At twenty months, the Tiger had no stable words. None. Not even “no”! We had no way of knowing why he was so upset. We couldn’t reason with him. Short of wrapping a gag around his mouth, we couldn’t “control” him. We were seasoned travelers with kids by then. My husband had just completed a grueling round of chemotherapy in Germany, and we weren’t traveling on a whim. We were just trying to get home after an eight-month unplanned stay in Germany that began as a brief vacation and reached its zenith months later in the ICU. We were lucky my mate survived. And now we were doing our darndest to comfort the Tiger and let everyone sleep.
So when discussions of “childfree spaces” on a feminist blog (Feministe) quickly jump to saying that sharing a plane with kids is tantamount to a “hostage situation, I’d like to know exactly who’s the hostage here? I’m fairly sure only two people suffered worse than I on that flat: the Tiger and his dad. Well, maybe the nun, too.
We’re in the midst of another shitstorm in the feminist blogosphere, this time about parents’ rights to take their kids anywhere, anytime. The post that touched if off (by guestblogger Mai’a at Feministe) framed it in absolutist terms: We parents should be able to take our kids to bars where the patrons are inebriated and watch the sun come up. Obviously, this is risible. What kid will benefit from spending the whole night out with a parent, sidestepping being trod upon by drunks? Karmithia at Alas sagely pointed out the obvious: late nights at bars are good for neither parent nor child.
It’s unfortunate that Mai’a chose such an extreme example, because I can’t recall seeing a child at a bar – ever – as opposed to a relatively family-friendly bar-restaurant. Had she chosen a less silly example, her post would have still attracted the virulently childfree, but her main argument – that excluding children also marginalizes their mothers – would have been much more defensible. The central question she raised – are children an oppressed class? – also deserved more nuanced discussion. What happened instead was the far more predictable volley of accusations against “entitled” parents. (Much of the incivility came from people who’ve raised kids themselves, so this wasn’t merely a debate between mothers and non-mothers).
Most of the gripes raised in that comment thread addressed strawmen (or strawkids?): the presence of kids in adult-only bars, the ubiquity (?) of kids in upscale restaurants, and the notion that most (maybe all) parents just let their kids run wild 24/7. I have sometimes seen the last problem in family-friendly restaurants, and I’m not here to defend the fairly small minority of parents who seem unconcerned about their child tripping up a server laden with drinks and burning-hot food. I’ve rarely seen kids in pricier places, but I’ll be honest: I prefer to stick to family-friendly restaurants for everyone’s peace of mind. (Or, rarely, go out for a nice meal while a sitter watches our kids.) And bars? Seriously, I don’t get around much anymore, but I have yet to see swarms of kids at cocktail bars or at any grow-mutt party.
There’s just one area where I’ve seen systematic parenting fail: dragging wee ones to PG-13 and R-rated movies. I first noticed this a decade ago, pre-parenthood, when my husband and I took in a matinee of the first X-Files movie. The theater was full of tots who really, really didn’t belong there. Sure, they were loud, and that was annoying, but the real failure impacted the kids. Maybe they weren’t overtly disturbed. I don’t care! I have deep qualms about desensitizing small children to violence, which is what happens when they’re fed a steady diet of violence as preteens and even preschoolers. Yeah, a babysitter costs money. So do cinema tickets. Prevail upon your friends and relatives if you must keep up with Scully and Mulder.
But even the bad judgment of a few parents at the movies is red herring. Judging from the Feministe discussion and perennial nasty Internet comments about kids, the real issue is not R-rated movies, upscale restaurants, grown-up bars, or parties where you can gleefully drop the F-bomb.
Here’s the real problem: Some folks aren’t willing to accept kids in public, period. People really hate sharing airplanes with kids. Too many resent kids in downscale restaurants. Feministe commenters complained about kids on the subway – and oh boy, you need to keep your kids close on the subway as a safety measure, but I have never seen kids run wild on any form of public transit in Berlin. Sometimes, like my Tiger, they like to twist around and kneel on the seats to peer out windows, but they are not posing a public danger. Yet, even when they perch on their seats like little Victorian dolls, they’ve still gotten the evil eye. I thought this was just a Berlin issue, but perhaps U.S. coastal cities are even worse? Feministe commenters pissed and moaned about kids making noise in Target and supermarkets. I mean, really – supermarkets? Who has the cash to hire a babysitter while we buy the food we need to survive??! And does this mean Target’s now off bounds for me, but Wal-Mart is okay?
Basically, anytime people feel they can’t quickly escape, a few of them insist that children better not make a peep. At the same time, these same folks systematically ignore the drunken passengers lurching through the subway car, or the couple on the transatlantic flight who carry on loud conversations in the aisles from Halifax to Ireland. (Actually, I suspect some of them are the drunken and chatty passengers.)
I understand their irritation. I remember feeling similarly at times before I had kids, but if I could see their parents hadn’t fully checked out, I got over myself. I recall only one time when the parents were obviously slacking: yet another transatlantic stretch with a Gameboy turned up to 11 and no headphones in sight. (The parents read and slept while the Gameboy beeped cheerfully all across the ocean.) Nowadays, when a child starts to wail in the plane or grocery store, I feel a nanosecond of irritation, followed by a massive wave of relief: Hey, that’s not my child anymore! And then I feel empathy with the parent and child. If we pass each other, I’ll flash a smile, unless the situation seems too far gone.
I do agree that there are a few places where kids categorically don’t belong: nightclubs, sex clubs, extremely upscale restaurants, and yes, bars while the sun is rising. Heck, parents need a few kid-free spaces, too, for those times when we get to escape! Kids shouldn’t stay any longer in a university library than their desperate parent needs to pick up a few books and leave again. (My little town has a great city library that’s welcoming to them.) Concerts, theater, and hospitals may be perfectly appropriate places, depending on the kids and the circumstances. (I will note that once my mate escaped the ICU but was still in the hospital, the Tiger behaved like a little angel, confined to his stroller and fed continuously with Butterkeks, the German equivalent of graham crackers.)
Parents are responsible for discerning how well their sprouts are able to behave. And yes, I do think kids need to learn to be civil, unlike a few Feministe commenters at the other extreme, who decried that as authoritarian. Civilization happens by gradually stretching the limits of what kids can gracefully handle, and by giving them clear boundaries that gradually expand.
But geez, we shouldn’t have to lock ourselves inside Chuck. E. Cheese until all our children have left for college. I’ve read extremists who say parents should just avoid all air travel until their kids are young adults. Parents remain people, too (often with family four times zones away). And kids are people. I really like how Sierra put this at Strollerderby:
I’m a mom who believes that the well-being of our children is a shared responsibility of everyone. My kids are not an exotic hobby, or a bizarre lifestyle choice. They are little people with all the rights and privileges people are entitled to. Their emotional and physical well-being is in your interest as well as mine.
One of the most important points to be made here about kids being people is that their parents, particularly their mothers, are not their puppetmasters. If my kid starts wailing and throwing boxes of cereal in Aisle 7, I can’t just apologize and turn the volume off the way I can if my cell phone goes off in a crowded theater.
I can do my best to help her behave well; keep her well-rested and fed and entertained. But if she’s losing it, she’s just like any other person with a problem. What she needs is help. You’d never go up to a 25-year-old sobbing two tables away from you at a restaurant and tell them to be quiet; you’d either stay out of it or offer help. Kids deserve to be treated the same way.
Similarly, if a kid crosses a line with you, the thing to do is to gently hold the kid accountable. Politely ask her to quiet down, return your toy or get off your foot.
Generating a culture of fear around moms in public, that they’d better get those kids to shut up and act sweet or else, only serves to make us more fearful as parents. Frightened moms are stricter, less flexible and ultimately less able to handle stressful situations that crop up with their kids. Ease up a little, and the kids will have fewer meltdowns to begin with. Everyone wins.
Also: They will pay for our Social Security someday. Now might be a propitious time to start treating them kindly. If we do that, they might actually grow up to be nicer than the commentariat at Feministe (or heaven forbid, the even nastier trainwreck on Jezebel).
In my own life, I’ve been nothing but lucky to have friends and family who’ve embraced my kids, even whey they’re stinkers, and even when said friends have chosen not to spawn. I honor their choices, and they honor mine. My boys are surrounded by love. It’s really just a few strangers who’ve made it hard at times. Hmmm … is that what they mean by “stranger danger”?
By now, the Tiger is a pretty good flyer. We had one more horrid flight (Minneapolis to Columbus, just me with the two boys) where he howled for most of it. My husband met us at the airport. He’d already heard that the Tiger had been a terror. One of his colleagues had been sitting in one row ahead of us. I didn’t spot her, though I knew her casually. She sure didn’t identify herself; it was far more fun to report on my child’s misbehavior, with great relish, after the flight. I’m sure my husband was the first to know, but certainly not the last.
I’d like to credit my parenting – or even the global village – for the fact that on every flight since, people have complemented us on our kids. But when I’m out with kids among strangers, that global village scarcely, except to meddle and gossip. As for our parenting – well, it’s been eclipsed by the invention of the portable DVD player.