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Bringing Children to Public Spaces

One of the comments about our museum day yesterday got me thinking about how children are expected to, and realistically act, in public spaces. The commenter wrote:

why do you think children running through museums is acceptable, let alone laudable, behaviour? Museums are not parks for children to run in, nor for them to tantrum in.

Before I get started on the main topic, I want to first say that I used "running around" as a figure of speech equvialent to exploring, rather than running at breakneck pace and being totally wild and crazy. Dio can't even run yet. He's still figuring out the walking part!

Another aside: I wonder what it is about the internet that lets people write things they would never say face-to-face...

Anyway, back on topic...children in public spaces. If children are ever going to be in public spaces--grocery stores, parks, museums, churches, theaters--they will need practice and regular exposure to the norms of public behavior and interaction. In other words, they learn by being and doing and observing others. Not by being kept in the house for the first several years of their life.

I'm not saying, of course, that we should let kids do whatever they want in any and all settings. For example, at church, we teach our children that we sit quietly. We bring activites and books and snacks to keep them occupied. And we take them out into the lobby if they're being exceptionally noisy. (Which happens at least once every week!) When I brought Zari to the ballet last week, I explained that we don't talk when the dancers are on the stage and that we clap after they're done dancing.

But having children of my own has given me a lot more patience and tolerance for normal kid behavior. Giggles, shrieks of laughter, bumps and falls, cries of fatigue/hunger/boredom, and even temper tantrums are inevitable when you are in public with your children.

Over at Womanist Musings, Renee wrote this in My child takes up space:

What really needs to be recognized about children is that they don’t have the capacity to act in the same way that adults do. This does not make them lesser beings and we need to find a way to accommodate them, even when they make drinking a latte a less then comfortable thing.

Renee's post was a response to the Feministe post by Jill called On hating kids. While I don't necessarily agree with Renee's characterization of the Feministe discussion as a "child hate fest," I did find Jill's original post and many of the comments disturbing at heart. The assumption that you can make your children behave a certain way, that you can anticipate temper tantrums and plan your day around accordingly...laughable and totally, entirely not at all realistic. For example, Jill wrote:

And while I don’t think that kids should be categorically barred from restaurants (and even small children from certain types of bars at reasonable hours), I do think that parents have a responsibility to evaluate their own child’s behavior and mood that day and decide whether it makes sense to go to a particular place at a particular time; and parents, ultimately — not everyone else out in public — should bear the burden of making sure that children behave according to the behavioral standard of a particular place, whatever that may be.

Even if I carefully "evaluate my child's behavior and mood," it's prone to change radically about two seconds later. My 13-month-old son, for example, has a super-sensitive trigger. He can be completely calm and happy, then a millisecond later he'll be screaming and shrieking, thrashing around on the floor, totally out of control. Then with a little creative distraction, the tantrum will disappear almost as quickly as it came. I can attempt to assuage the worst of the tantrum, to help him calm down--which is what you see happening in the pictures of our museum day. But "making sure" that he behaves? Nothing short of sedation or anesthetization could "make sure" he never has a meltdown.

I found this comment at My child takes up space particularly compelling:

Adding them to the author's original premise, a number of respondents seem to premise their rejection of children, children in public space, and "uncontrolled children" on an unstated assumption of violence or the threat of violence.

A child cannot be “made to behave,” on the spot and in public without violence or the threat of violence. It is force - actual physical force - which undermines the assumption that a parent must publicly control her children.

The immediacy of the child’s moment (especially a young child) is not translatable into an easy solution, especially just so upper middle class complainants don’t have their Sunday brunches interrupted by the intrusion of lesser beings....

The expectation, expressed at Feministe (and I'm sure, elsewhere) that children conform to adult expectations of behavior, or be excluded, really cannot be understood without understanding this as the threat of violence. The belief that parents can control an immediate moment of upset assumes that the parent must intervene to suppress the behavior, to shut the child up, in that very moment - or lose some sort of implied social sanction. It's the expectation that a parent - more often than not, a woman - punish her children so that others don't have to experience inconvenience, making the mother an agent of social repression, inculcating in her own children a fear of women as the proximate agents of suffering.

How we treat children--our own as well as other people's--speaks volumes about our core values as a society. Children are our most vulnerable group, dependent on the adults around them. They deserve to be nurtured, loved, guided, and most of all, accepted as a normal part of what it means to be human. Even if that means they make some noise at museums, at church, or at restaurants.


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