It would be easier for everyone involved if children sprang from their mother's womb coiffed and sweet-smelling, pinkies out, ready for tea in polite society. But they don't. Instead, they arrive irate and sticky, loud little bundles of need shaking tiny clenched fists. Over the next 18 years, we parents devote untold energy and time to cleaning and civilizing them. That's our job. And who's complaining? I'm not. After all, most kids do, through trial, error, and the judicious administration of M&M's, learn to use the toilet and express their needs at lower decibels. Even my twins, who are only 3, are working their pleases and thank-yous and saying "'scuze me" when they fart. Not all the time and not without prodding, mind you. But that's fine. After all, remember, they're only 3, and it's a process.
The problem is, it seems as if some people don't see it that way. A small but vocal minority has a very low threshold for children acting their age, at least in public. It was probably always that way, but lately it seems to have become newly acceptable -- a trend, even -- to express this view, loudly and proudly. A cafe owner in Chicago became a media celebrity when he posted a sign that said: "Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices" -- implying that customers who couldn't "control" their children would be asked to leave. A blogger in San Francisco likened taking a baby to a movie -- even a kid-friendly one -- to carrying a cell phone that couldn't be turned off. A bartender in a kid-rich New York City neighborhood posted what he called the "Stroller Manifesto," demanding that parents "stop imposing your lifestyle on the rest of us" and pick up a bottle of wine to take home if you want to get your drink on.
Never mind that you may agree (as I do) that children shouldn't be underfoot in a crowd of drunk grown-ups, that parents would do well to encourage kids to use their "indoor voices" indoors, and that any noise during a $10 movie (be it crying, heckling, or inane Oscar predictions) is a drag. You'd have to be a saint not to mind a crabby toddler (your own or anyone else's) blowing snot rockets all over your tray table on a cross-country flight. Let's face it: Kids, even model children with exemplary parents who carry board books, snacks, and age-appropriate bribes everywhere they go, can't be counted upon to behave like small adults for any length of time. That's because they're not (nor should that be the standard to which they are held).
I take no issue with folks who would prefer to have their coffee and bagel in relative peace; I relate. Nor do I mind when I'm seated in the back of a restaurant, so my girls will disturb the fewest number of diners and we can park our double-wide Maclaren where the wait staff won't trip; it's only practical. What pisses me off is the people who react to children (sorry: "crotch droppings," as they are referred to by the very mean) or their parents with an undercurrent of distaste and anger usually reserved for muggers of the elderly, kitten kickers, Enron executives, and other drains on society.
Recently my friend Francesca and her husband committed the apparent faux pas of asking to be fed at a Mexican restaurant in New York City. Let's just say the maitre d' failed to exhibit the legendary Mexican love of children toward their 3-year-old son. "We could tell that he didn't want to deal with us," she said. "He kept sighing. He sighed when he saw the stroller, and he sighed when we offered to close it, and he rolled his eyes when we did. He told us they didn't have high chairs and if we wanted one we would have to leave. So we did." Another friend, Camilla, took her first flight with her two kids a few months ago. The younger one, Layla, 15 months, was screaming, but Camilla knew that if she strapped her into her car seat, it would get worse for a couple of minutes but then she would conk out. Which is exactly what happened. "But not before the woman in front of us said, intentionally audibly, that we should be sent to parenting school. Thankfully, the stewardess glowered back at the angry woman and said, 'Well, clearly you've never had kids!'"
Okay, before I get carried away, I must admit that the vast majority of the world, including those who are child-free by choice, truly likes children or at least has nothing against them. Most people I meet while I'm with my girls -- if they don't say something to indicate that Sasha and Vivian are profoundly brilliant and adorable -- will nod in recognition of their essential humanity. But I encounter at least one person a weekend who looks at me as if I'm pushing a stroller containing two decomposing, maggot-ridden animal carcasses, rather than two beautiful, laughing girls.
I don't know exactly where the minority of people who hate -- truly hate -- children pick it up. My best explanation is that the world is so chaotic, messy, unpredictable, and sometimes unpleasant that some people can't bear to see the human embodiment of this chaos. Picture a child with sticky hands and a cowlick, wearing a macaroni necklace and holding a tired, torn collage with sparkles and feathers that was so pretty when it was new. He's whining or crying or otherwise outwardly expressing what you may be feeling deep down inside -- that you need a nap and that life is hard and you have to pee and that you just want to be home with your blankie (or its adult equivalent) and maybe have a grilled-cheese sandwich and feel insulated for awhile. Most people see that kid and smile, because it's a reminder that we all need a little love and comfort, and that this too shall pass. But I think for others, it's a reminder of how they're trying really hard not to feel. They strive to build lives that are peaceful and orderly, and nothing is going to ruin that.
To those folks I say, I get it, and I'm sorry my kids ruined your day. But they're simply trying to figure it all out, just like you and me and everyone else. You don't expect someone with Tourette's or Alzheimer's to behave 100 percent appropriately at all times, because she's not capable and no one can "control" her. Still, she's got a right to exist the way she is, as do my children, who are likewise unable, by dint of the fact that they're children, to be adults. If it helps you to have understanding for them or for me, think of them as having been stricken with uncontrollable youth. Then deal with it, or stay home, because we're not going to.
Copyright © 2006. Reprinted with permission from the September 2006 issue of Parents magazine.