One of the commenters on That Other Blog has problems with other people’s over-indulged kids acting up in public, and their parents standing ineffectually by. I guess I’ve seen that once or twice in my life. It may reflect the kinds of neighborhood I frequent that I see abusive parents and their kids in public places a lot more often. It annoys me just as much, and in addition sometimes puts me in a moral quandary.
I was brought up in Florida, which was still pretty Southern at the time. That may account for the fact that it wasn’t until I moved up North for college that I first heard a parent tell her child, “I’m going to kill you.” I heard it fairly often after that. These were white, more or less blue-collar parents in New England. When I moved out to Chicago, I saw a somewhat different pattern: African-American parents telling their kids, “Sit down and shut up, stop crying, sit still!!” And sometimes reinforcing words with slaps. The kids, in all the instances I saw, were doing nothing worse than crying. Most of them weren’t even doing that. They were just squirming or waving their arms or trying to get up and walk around. The thing that bothered me most was that most of these parents (in fairness, some of them were undoubtedly grandparents) seemed to take absolutely no joy from their children. No, this is not a function of poverty, as nearly as I can tell. Hispanic and Asian parents in what appears to be the same income bracket generally look really happy with their kids, even when the kids are acting up.
The more middle-class parents I see usually don’t pick on their kids by yelling at them and slapping them. They are more subtle and more annoying about it. The ones who tell their kids, “If you don’t stop [whatever], I’m going to call the policeman and he’ll put you in jail” (how on earth are the kids supposed to know that the policeman is who you go to for help?) The ones who tell the kid to stop [whatever] because “you’re bothering that lady”, meaning me. (I am not the least bit bothered, except by being used as a club to beat up on a helpless child.)
Obviously I’m not the only person who sees this kind of thing. People write to advice columnists all the time about it. The columnists, who are probably nicer people than I am, generally say that the way to respond to these situations is to offer sympathy or even help to the abusive parent, who is probably just really overwhelmed. Maybe so, but on the rare occasions when I have tried to talk to a mother in this situation, I generally get told to mind my own business.
Which I can sort of understand, from the other side. From the first instant a woman starts to look pregnant, until the last day she appears in public with anybody too young to vote, her parenting skills and the conduct of the said young person are fair game for the entire world of total strangers to comment on and advise. It may or may not take a village to raise a child, but the village certainly feels entitled to kibitz on the process whenever they get the chance. Unless I see abuse rising to a level that would interest the official child welfare establishment (which so far I haven’t, and having worked in the Juvenile Court system for many years I’m quite familiar with the standards), I figure everybody is better off if I keep my mouth shut. I do give occasional “know-your-law” talks in the community, which gives me the chance to talk about the official standards for child abuse and neglect to people who are actually interested in listening or they wouldn’t be there.
But these issues seem to make a lot of parents feel that their children simply don’t belong in the public realm at all until they’re old enough to go to the mall by themselves. Of course, keeping kids at home in front of the television until they are teenagers who can be dropped off at the mall means that they will probably behave really obnoxiously at the mall, since they have so far had no chance to practice proper public behavior. This is not a solution.
The solution, I think, lies in all of us—parents, non-parents, ex-parents, future parents—accepting our obligation toward the next generation, who will after all be paying the Social Security and maintaining the economy of childless people in this generation. They need us, and ultimately we will need them. So in the meantime, parents need to be willing to bring their children out in public without feeling either embarrassed or belligerent about how the kids behave, and willing to accept kibitzing from strangers, and non-parents need to be willing to tolerate and even encourage small people who are not yet very good at sitting still and shutting up. Any society that is not willing to share in accommodating the next generation doesn’t deserve to have one.