Last summer I was travelling with a good friend who does not like children or animals. Or people. But mostly children. She is quite happy being single and in charge of her own kingdom. That kingdom just happens to be the one from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the Child Catcher lures them out with lollipops and throws them into the paddy wagon. Our club-style hotel hosted a mixer for the guests and for a minute I thought a young family was going to join our table. Under my breath I threatened that under no circumstances was she to make a scene and move to another table. She confirmed with equal ferocity that that was exactly what she was going to do if they did not keep moving. We agreed she would be eating dinner alone. Thankfully her withering stare scared them away and I was spared the embarrassment. We were instead joined by three elderly ladies who spoke Italian with my friend and they thought she was a delight.
After I had lectured her on the joy that is strange children in public places, we spent the next morning on a crowded train with no air conditioning in 100-degree heat. A little boy and his mother sat next to me and for an hour the child kicked, screamed, threw food and generally irritated everyone within earshot. My friend watched in smug satisfaction from the seat she had managed to escape to a few rows back. I passed the time in seething judgment of the mother who clearly had no control over her Tasmanian devil of a child. I would like to think that I was able to keep a straight face and therefore my feelings to myself, but I’ll bet the poor woman felt every bit of my disdain as I picked cookie crumbs out of my hair. I’ve thought a lot since then about how we treat people whose children are misbehaving in public. The truth is that we know nothing about the strangers that we encounter in restaurants and airplanes and there is every chance that a situation like my train ride calls for compassion rather than criticism.
Rob Rummel-Hudson is an author and parent to a child with a rare neurological disorder caused by a malformation of the brain. He wrote a memoir about his daughter’s inability to speak and the family’s tireless efforts to find ways for her to communicate. It’s titled Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with his Wordless Daughter. I read it in one sitting, mesmerized by this man’s honest and touching story about his struggle with feeling inadequate as a parent and fighting for a place in this world for his child. He tells a story of the first time he was confronted with a lack of compassion and patience while grocery shopping.
As I pondered the choices, Schuyler played a game that might be called “Sugar-crazed Howler Monkey Runs in Circles,” Since we were standing in the freezer section of a mostly unoccupied store, I was inclined to let her be rowdy for a while longer. A short older woman walked down the aisle in front of us, eyeing Schuyler with a pinched expression on her face. As she moved past us, the woman rolled her eyes and said loudly, “Wow, I hope you are not planning to have another one . . . “
”’I beg your pardon?” I said. She gave a short sarcastic chuckle and kept walking. “Wow,” I said, feeling my irritation growing. “I can’t believe you’ve never seen a rambunctious kid before.” The woman snorted and said, “Not like her . . . ” “Not like her.” This time, I’d heard something new from someone confronted with Schuyler’s uniqueness. I’d heard disgust. And rejection. Of Schuyler. I’d wondered for years if I would ever experience it, and suddenly there it was. This woman faced Schuyler’s jabbering and hooting and didn’t hear Schuylerese. She heard a feral child.
After confronting the woman and explaining the situation with his daughter’s brain disorder, he was expecting an apology. But what he got was, “I don’t care what’s wrong with her. If she can’t behave like a normal kid then she shouldn’t be out in public. Maybe you should have her institutionalized if she can’t do any better than that.”
It sounds like an extreme story. Really, who could be that cruel to a perfect stranger? Several of my friends have autistic children and in talking to them about their experiences in public, I have realized that it is a very common occurrence. In a time when our every thought is Twitter-worthy and we are free to spew our opinions, informed or otherwise, all over the Internet, we seem to have become a society of people who are emboldened and entitled to share our disapproval. And certainly anyone who dares to inconvenience us in any way is asking for a piece of our mind.
Just because a child looks like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, I don’t think it gives us the right to jump to conclusions and chastise the parents. The mother struggling to keep her screaming child quiet might be an incompetent mother who has no idea how to train a child. Or she could be a wonderful mother trying to deal with a disability that she is bravely battling every day. She might be doing her best to make a normal life for her family and could use an offer of assistance rather than a look of disapproval. And even if she is just a clueless mother, who are we that we feel compelled to make a stranger feel bad? Do we really need to look down our noses and make it clear we don’t approve of their child’s behavior just because we don’t appreciate being showered with their kid’s soggy cookie? Of course, there are obviously times to speak up when we witness what might be abuse or neglect. But I’m talking about those times when a child is making a mess in a restaurant or disturbing your meal, and you feel compelled to make a snide remark to the parents about keeping their animals in the zoo. I’m pretty sure you know what I mean. We’ve all been tempted.
Even the best-behaved children in the world have their moments and there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Embarrassing situations are inevitable. I know some children who will remain nameless who saw a horse urinating and running across a field at the same time and thought that would be an interesting experiment. Talk about a case for institutionalization. Maybe next time I find myself irritated when my comfort is being interrupted by a loud and seemingly out-of-control child, I should be a little less quick to judge and a little more compassionate.