27. November 2005 · Comments Off on Small Children/Public Spaces · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Memoir

So there is a kerfuffle (expounded on here, with links) about small children behaving badly in public places, and how on earth two different sets of people can peacefully co-exist; those people who would like to enjoy a cup of coffee or a fine meal, or an excursion to someplace of interest in peace and quiet… and those people who would like to do so, accompanied by children. And there is the third set of people, those owners and proprietors of such places, who want very much to cater to both sets, and somehow avoid the incoming fire from both parties as well as lawsuits, should misbehaving little monsters somehow manage to injure themselves or others.

Honestly, it’s not really about children, actually – it’s more about parents who can’t or won’t insist on a certain degree of decorum from their offspring, little caring that while they will put up with a lot from their offspring, other people are not so obliged. I speak of one who has been there, in all three capacities; as the parent of a willful child of a particularly tempestuous nature, as a horrified witness to parental malpractice in public spaces, and as a contract employee in a department store, observing children who were charming, well-behaved and polite, and others who were clearly running amuck.

I worked once with another single-parent female NCO whose kindergarten age son was a horror— she would never, ever, follow through on a warning or a threat when he disobeyed. Every other experienced parent within earshot would cringe, whenever she said, in that uncertain, pleading voice “Sugar, don’t do (whatever he was heading straight for doing) – you don’t want to be in time-out, do you?” Whereas it was perfectly clear he didn’t give a shit for time-out or any other of her pathetic threats, and I would think, despairingly, ‘If he doesn’t have any respect for you now, what in the hell are you going to do when he is a hulking teenager and a foot taller than you?’ She never, ever, delivered on any threat made in public hearing, and of course, her son was a willful little monster – and one with plenty of company, as I saw in that brief season when I worked retail, and observed the horror of snotty-nosed, sticky-handed small children heading straight for the designer clothing racks. I had a special technique for those children, though; I would appear noiselessly among the racks, and murmur confidently; “Darling, you had best go back to your mommy – do you know what we do with unattached children at closing time? Security takes them away, and those who aren’t adopted by store staff are raised to be sales associates; where do you think we get new store staff?” This would usually reattach them to their parental unit as if they had been velcroed there, although there were a small percentage of children and parental units who upon hearing this, looked hopeful and said “Really??!!” (Working at the same department section, Blondie was much less subtle— she would tell the same sticky-handed small children that the fur coats were only sleeping, that they were chained to the racks to prevent them from waking up and leaping down to fall upon and eat small, disobedient children.)

At the end of the day, my sympathies are split, but with a large chunk of it being with those parents who have children to do behave well in public (or mostly behave well) but catch it in the neck, anyway. There’s nothing quite as agonizing as going into an upscale San Francisco restaurant with a toddler — who for a change is behaving rather well — and being treated like some sort of leper by the waiter. Whom I left with a 25 cent tip, by the way. Unlike the waiter in a similar restaurant the night before, who fussed over my daughter, and brought her some crackers and finger food along with my menu, to while away the minutes until my order was ready. I have always counted myself lucky that Blondie’s terrible twos coincided with our PCS to Greece, where it seemed that children were admired, and petted and indulged universally – but usually managed to behave themselves in public.

The occasional horrific temper-tantrum— like the time she threw a glass on the floor in a pizza restaurant in Glyphada, screamed her head off, and bit me on the forearm so hard I had a lump there for months — were passed over with equanimity by the waiter and everyone else present. ‘Children— eh, they will be children,’ seemed to be the waiter’s attitude, as he swept up the glass, and no one turned a hair when I spanked her just outside the front door. I couldn’t help noticing how differently children, and their parents were treated in Greece, how much less nerve-racking going out into public spaces in Greece with her actually was, even though I still couldn’t count on much beyond fifteen or twenty minutes of good behavior from her in any one venue. I couldn’t help noticing how everyone noticed children, paid attention to them, petted them, indulged them with treats and admiration, gave extravagant notice of how important they were, how special and cherished – valued not just by their parents, but everyone, from the granny in the hardware store where I bought propane bottles giving her a bit of penny candy, to the priest in the square by the Metropolitan Cathedral, giving her a blessing and a little icon the size of a baseball trading card. I also couldn’t help noticing that children in Greece were confident and secure – sometimes a little brash – but almost always quite well behaved and out and about with their parents everywhere.

It was such a contrast to what it had been in the States, before we transferred. It just seemed like they liked children a whole lot more, and were a lot more indulgent about bad behavior – but there was a lot less bad behavior around. Were children liked and indulged because they were fairly well-mannered. Or were they well-mannered because they were liked and indulged? I’ll leave the sociologists to figure out that one.

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