By Kirsteen McLay-Knopp
Well, an interesting day today. A friend and I were in a cafe with six kids… three of mine and her three. The kids were noisy, not horrendously so, I thought, given that there were six of them aged from seven down to two and a half and they were very excited because they were having a treat (and maybe a tad affected by the sugar content of what they were eating). An elderly lady (she would have been pushing 90) moved away from her table with difficulty (she staggered away without her zimmer frame walker and left her food and drink) to sit elsewhere. Feeling guilty, my friend and I sent the children to a nearby play area. I carried the zimmer frame to the offended lady and my friend carried the food and drink to her. We both apologised for the noise our children had been making. Despite her age, the offended woman had a “mouth like a trooper” and she let fly with some colourful adjectives about how children should behave in public. The whole cafe were watching this scene.
I guess all this has led me to think of the whole issue of “taking kids out in public”. We know people who rarely take their children out, because they find it stressful and feel deeply embarassed if the kids offend anyone. Many even avoid situations such as church or restaurants for the same reason. Certainly, kids in public can be hard work. But there’s also the question of how they’re ever going to learn how they should behave if we’re fearful of taking them anywhere. It’s a tricky balance. People are entitled to shop in the supermarket or eat in a cafe or restaurant without having to listen to high pitched, frenetic kid noise (whether excited, tantruming or anything else). On the other hand, some people are intolerant of anything to do with children and flash you a filthy look as soon as you enter a public place with your kids. For myself, I have to be honest and admit that the “other people” factor has a big part to play in how stressed or otherwise I feel about my children’s behaviour in public. Basically, by this I mean that if I feel someone else is getting annoyed (even if unjustly so), my levels of stress, embarassment and anger at what my “little darlings” are doing shoots up dramatically.
Ludwig Bemelmans’s beloved children’s story, Madeline, first published in 1939, tells us of the “Twelve little girls in two straight lines”.
After the cafe incident, I had to stop in at the supermarket on the way home to buy a few things. I wasn’t doing a full shop, but there were a few essentials I had to get. My five and seven year old sons still seemed to be on a “high” after the cafe trip. They tried to play tag, run and yell in the supermarket and even wrestled a little on the floor (for some reason I find wrestling particularly embarrassing). Their four year old sister, meanwhile, beheld them with adoration, proudly pointing out to people that these were her big brothers. These boys of mine were REALLY loud and at one point I lost it and said “Shut up!”. I was mindful of others watching, especially after the cafe incident. An older lady said, “it’s OK, dear, that’s what kids do,” and I immediately felt better– although some of my anger then subsided into guilt… these people had heard me tell my kids (gruffly) to shut up, what a terrible mother they must think I was… out of control as much as my sons (who, by the way, continued to wrestle).
Another friend told me a story recently of her children tipping a supermarket trolley onto themselves, the result of them standing on one side of the trolley after repeatedly being asked not to. “You can’t watch them every single second,” my friend said, “especially if you have to look on the shelves for stuff.” She also said that the embarrassment factor was high, as the falling trolley and screaming kids drew attention from everyone else who was there. “But no one tried to help me pick up the trolley, groceries or children.”
Yet another friend told me that she was shopping with her two and a half year old son (who was sitting in the kids’ seat in the trolley) when she suddenly became aware of lots of disapproving glances from other customers. “My son wasn’t doing anything wrong or making a noise, but people just kept staring at him.” She continued shopping and until quite some time later she became aware that her child had pulled of his trousers and undies and was sitting in the trolley naked from the waist down. “He, at two, wasn’t bothered, but I’m sure I went as red as a beacon. I had to take of my sweatshirt to cover him up, then walk round the whole supermarket again to find the track pants and undies he’d wriggled out of… bizarrely, he was still wearing his sneakers and socks. It might have been helpful if someone had told me what the wee monkey was doing. Someone must have seen him take the stuff off! I found it chucked in behind the margarine. Newly toilet trained, he was so proud to be wearing undies and, as I put them back on, he kept telling other passing shoppers ‘ I don’t wear nappies anymore!'”
Children can be stressful. A lot of these stories are funny to hear about, but we’d be mortified if they happened to us. I’m not entirely sure what the answer is. We can’t ban children from public places and we do have to teach them social etiquette. Perhaps we need more empathy all around– helping struggling parents (like picking up a tipped trolly or pointing out an undressing toddler) is a great start. Our local supermarket gives kids small pieces of bread left over from the bakery and slices of belgium from the deli– these things can create anticipation as well as distracting the eating child from pulling things off shelves or trying to get a parents’ attention. I know it’s a cliche, but taking a good, old-fashioned deep breath works wonders too: it certainly has done for me on more than one occasion.