Monday, September 28, 2009

Attention all non-Feminists and/or non-Mothers

When I go off on a rant about how society doesn't support mothers? Shit like this is exactly what I'm talking about. I am incensed by this, not only by the original incident, but by the wholly predictable outrage it is causing. Outrage like "How dare this spoiled woman allow her child to act out and then expect the rest of us to tolerate it?"

I apologize to Jenny Manzer and to the rest of the parents I know for not being detached enough and/or well-rested enough to give this topic the articulate and well-written treatment it deserves, but I chose timeliness over excellence in this case.

First of all - a child who is sitting in her seat on the bus, not touching the driver or any other passengers, is not acting out. Secondly - the mother was doing everything in her power to get the child to calm down: a far cry from sitting idly by and expecting her fellow passengers to tolerate the misbehaviour. Thirdly - the bus is a public place. The downside to going out in public is, of course, that there are other people there. Drunks yelling, teenagers making out, would-be gangsters swearing at people, hipsters listening to loud music, old people snoring, fat people taking up more than their share of seats, smelly people with their odours all up in your face, crazy people who want to tell you about the messages the aliens send them through their cat food, barely-dressed people whose skin is all too visible. You know ... THE PUBLIC! Guess who else is part of the public? Children. Mothers. Fathers. You. Me. Jenny and Briar.

In the interest of fair disclosure, here's where I come down in this whole debate, which is becoming more and more common lately. I wholeheartedly believe that when parents take their kids into public spaces, particularly spaces that are not oriented towards children (for example, church as opposed to Chuck E. Cheese) those parents need to take responsibility for ensuring that their children meet certain standards of behaviour. "Parent", in my vocabulary, is not only a noun: it's a verb. Part of parenting is teaching your child what behaviours are expected as they move through different situations and contexts. Here's the catch: you can't teach them how to behave in those situations and contexts if you don't expose them to those situations and contexts. You can't teach your kid how to behave at church if you don't take him or her there. So yes, Great Unwashed Public, we The Family will occasionally join you, uninvited, in public places.

Now, does the public have the right to expect certain behaviours - and, notably, the absence of many other behaviours - while in public places and using public services? Yes. (Are those expectations always met? Please see above listing of The Fascinating Personalities of Public Transit.) But guess what - children learn differently from adults. An adult knows, when s/he boards a bus, what behaviour is expected. (Probably because, when s/he was young, someone took the time to teach him/her.) If s/he forgets, a polite reminder from an authority figure is usually all that's needed. Children often need a little more persuasion. It can take a good long while to get a toddler calmed down when s/he is worked up.

Parents and children have a bad reputation because for some time, the trend was away from discipline and towards permissive behaviour. As a result, any time a child in public is acting like anything other than a miniature adult, we hear accusations that the parent is "letting the kid act out" and "expecting us to tolerate it". I can't speak for all parents, but I can speak for myself; I can speak for those I know; and I don't have to speak for Jenny Manzer, because it's written right there in the Times-Colonist: "I was doing everything I could to calm her down." Here's a message for every non-parent out there: if you have ever witnessed a loud, annoying, or anti-social behaviour from a child, and wondered about the parent's response, the fact is that for us, that sound is ONE THOUSAND TIMES LOUDER than it is for you. Yes, we hear it. Yes, we see it. Yes, we are doing everything we can to make it stop, and we have been doing that since way before it was loud enough for anyone else to notice. When it comes to our own child's misbehaviour, we are WAY more vigilant and sensitive than you will ever, ever be.

It wasn't good enough for Mr. Busdriver, though, and he demanded that Jenny and her daughter leave the bus - some considerable distance from their home. Jenny and her daughter were now stranded on the side of a road, with no stroller or baby carrier, and to make matters worse, there were groceries to carry, meaning Jenny didn't have enough hands to manage her bags and keep her daughter safe. It's a good thing Jenny's daughter is old enough to walk. Come to think of it, it's a good thing Jenny's daughter can walk, instead of using a wheelchair.

I think what enrages me the most about this whole thing is that Jenny and her husband are working hard to do things right. In these frightening times of climate change and peak oil, they have made the lifestyle choice of not owning a vehicle, and using public transit for all their travel. That's a challenge even without kids - with two of them, those parents deserve a medal. Not to be kicked off the damn bus.

By going public with this story, Jenny has opened herself and her family up to immense criticism. I know, I know, it's not a surprise: guess what, people say things on the Internet that they wouldn't say in real life! Because they are HIDING BEHIND THEIR ANONYMITY! The cost of comments like that is real, though, and not just to Jenny: to other mothers and fathers who see what that family went through, and decide not to risk taking their child out in public. If we want a generation of kids with no social skills, keeping them all at home and well out of the public eye (and ear) is a good way to get there. But if we want them to learn how to behave in public, we have to take them there. And then we have to teach them how to behave.

Lesson Number One: don't act like an asshole busdriver.


Erin said...

Brilliant and honest. You rock.

As a parent who has had to calm an angry, hurt, scared, tired or just grumpy child down in public more than once, I know how devestating the response from others can be.

Thank you. This is a good reminder that the choices I made were generally the best ones available. And if necessary, I'd do it all again.

Jenn said...

You would think people such as the bus driver had never been children themselves, hmm?. I couldn't agree more - the era of 'be seen and not heard' is long over, and exposure is so incredibly important for children to develop those needed social skills. Thanks for such a well-written and passionate post today.

Amberism said...

oh, the comments on the article... I had to stop reading them.

and also? Children are not our little robots. They're independant beings, we don't get to 'control' them and sometimes, even with the best planning for every possible need they may have, it all falls apart. I can't tell you how comments like "I would never let my children behave like that" infuriate me. Unless you're beating them into submission with a stick, it isn't a matter of 'letting' them.

and yeah, I'll leave a restaurant when my kids are being little brats because I do know how annoying that is. I hightail it out of a grocery store, too, but not first without paying for my groceries (because, dammit, I went through all the hassle of getting them there, getting the groceries and then I'm just going to leave without finishing? Can't do it :) (anyway, that was a total tangent).

I could go on, excellent post and I commend Jenny for opening herself up and taking it to the media.

Kat said...

You are so smrt.


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