A reader writes me an email, May 2010.
Somehow I got off on a tangent when replying to your post and typed out what you see below. I felt like I was hijacking your post, so I pulled it and decided to email it to you instead:
This is merely an observation about kids and parenting in general, so please don’t take it the wrong way (I know you won’t). I’m trying to point out the thought process that many parents must go through when they witness things outside of their comfort zone.
When I see these pictures[1. These.], I put [my child] K. in Nels’ place. I see my daughter sitting precariously on the edge of a table with some large scissors that are most likely hella sharp. Because I know K., my fear is that she may leap (or fall) from the table with these sharp blades or might cut herself while using them. This is because she is almost always in motion and isn’t very good with scissors yet.
Now, some parents take the next step and assume (subconsciously or not) that Nels may meet similar consequences by projecting their own child’s abilities onto him. In my case, I am aware that Nels is most likely around hella sharp scissors all the time and probably uses them relatively skillfully as well, so I can let go of my anxiety. If I had witnessed this in person and didn’t know anything about Kelly and Nels I might ask a question that would direct Kelly’s attention to Nels. If Kelly shows no indication of danger, I would assume that Nels is capable of handling the scissors safely, again letting go of my anxiety.
Time and again I see this from the other side when we visit “the Walmart”. We typically walk down the sidewalk between parked cars toward the store. As we approach the crosswalk that crosses the main drag of the parking lot in front of the store, K. breaks into a sprint. Here’s the problem, I know that she will stop before reaching the crosswalk because we have gone over it many times and she always stops, but the people driving by don’t know this. Often, they freak out and slam on their brakes, then direct their anger toward K. and me. At no time was she in danger, but because they assumed she would run into the street, they respond with their own anxiety about the situation. In fact, I think they are actually angrier because she stopped. They feel stupid for overreacting, but somehow it’s still my fault.
Here is how I handle this differently. If I am driving and I see a kid running toward the street (even if it’s at the last moment and I slam on my brakes), I don’t get angry or think the kid is dumb or the parent is neglectful. I just stop and wait for the road to be clear. I don’t see the point in getting all worked up over something that ended well. How is me honking or yelling going to make the situation better? I’m not saying that I’m always Mr. Cool. If I’m having a bad day I may overreact, but that’s my own deal, not theirs.
I guess what I am trying to say is that I wish people could calm down and consider situations before reacting. Whether it’s in traffic, or while witnessing a child being disciplined in public, or whatever, consider the fact that you don’t know the whole story and leave room for the possibility that although it may not be “ideal” behavior, there may be a reason for it that you don’t understand.
I can’t remember what book it’s from (probably a Malcolm Gladwell book), but I can try to paraphrase the story.
The writer described a scene on a subway train where a father was letting his kids run wild. They were climbing on the seats, bumping into people, making a lot of noise…being kids. The writer could see the other passengers getting more and more irritated, so he decided to say something to the father. I can’t remember what he said, but the father responded with, “Yes, you’re right. I suppose I should be doing something. They lost their mother this morning and we’re still in shock about the whole thing.” The writer of course felt like crap and offered to help if he could.
Obviously, this extreme example isn’t always the case. But whether the person is dealing with a crisis or is simply being a jerk, how does getting angry about it help anyone?
Ok…that was kinda convoluted and irrelevant. Sorry about that. I’ve just been getting fed up with people passing judgement and getting angry for no reason lately.
I’m sorry it took a while for me to email back. I have been swamped with correspondance and writing and emails!
I think your assessment is spot-on. Some people live with these assumptions (usually to the lowest common denominator of “You can’t/shouldn’t trust kids to do anything, because they can’t/shouldn’t”) and this becomes a toxic element. Instead of opening their minds or asking questions or taking a lighter touch in these situations, they assume the worst (about kids and parents) and operate from there.
Your experience with K. in parking lots is a precise experience I’ve had myself with my children. I recently had another parent write who’d had an identical issue in a parking lot in DC. Here’s the funny thing. Parking lots are a place where cars, pedestrians, people in wheelchairs and scooters, those with carts, and bicycles all negotiate space. In these stories with children, space was successfully negotiated. Why then the hate?[2. Because in America, cars are blameless, holy creatures and the rest shall scurry and scatter like chaff from golden wheat.]
I read the most wonderful articles referring to “adult privilege” today. I share them here and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
“Mothers to BHG Author â€“ Thou Shalt Not Tell Us You Hate Our Kids” at lactivistleanings.com
“My Child Takes Up Space at womanist-musings.com
Thank you again for writing, as always!