Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Parents' Responsibilities to Others Versus Others' Responsibility to Parents

I was musing about this while I "supervise" my house being packed up, and I thought it might make a good quick little blog post.

I took the kids out for breakfast this morning to Coco's, a family restaurant similar to Denny's or IHOP in terms of ambiance and food. It was quite empty, given that it was after 9:00 on a weekday morning, except for a few older couples enjoying some coffee and a mature woman with a calendar and iPhone doing...something. The hostess showed us to a section and told us to sit anywhere and that she would be right back with a high chair for the toddler.

My two older kids immediately sat down in the first booth, on a bench back-to-back with the lone woman tapping away on her iPhone. I monitored G while we waited for the hostess to bring a high chair for him, keeping him from either running off or climbing into another booth. iPhone lady shot me a look and I realized that N was kicking the bench, which had to be annoying to her. I told N to stop kicking, figuring that would be that. N did stop kicking, and then woman said, "Actually, could you sit somewhere else? Or should I move?" not in the politest of tones. I hesitated, then asked my kids to move to a booth farther back (two tables away), which they did, cheerfully (and noisily). I felt like the woman's eyes were drilling into my back. I didn't glance back to see if they actually were. I then spent the first half of breakfast diligently trying to keep my kids to "indoor voices." They were behaving very well, and if there had been any other families there at that moment, I would have been happy to let my kids keep on how they were, but I felt like I didn't dare disturb iPhone lady. It really put me on edge, and I found myself fighting tears for no good reason. I'm very stressed right now, preparing to move 500 miles north and waiting for my house to get packed up and taking care of my kids by myself. And being pregnant.

I calmed down as my coffee arrived, and the kids set to their food very nicely, and I turned around to see that iPhone lady was gone. The rest of breakfast was very pleasant and relaxed, and we left happy.

The incident made me think about the balance of "give me a break here; I'm alone with three kids" to "I'm sorry my kids are annoying you; I'll do my best to keep them quiet."

As parents, we have a job to do: We have to prepare our kids to function in society. That means teaching them manners, how to act in different arenas (home versus store versus restaurant, for example), and to be sensitive to how their actions affect others (i.e., empathy). As a result, we parents spend a lot of time trying to be tuned in to how are kids are acting and to how others around us are reacting to us. It can be exhausting. I find myself watching the faces of those around me, trying to judge whether they are charmed or irritated by my kids. I find in large part that people don't mind when my kids are just being kids, as long as they're not being destructive or unreasonably loud or exuberant. If I see an amused or nostalgic smile on the face of a grandmotherly woman, I don't try to rein my kids in as much as if I see the pursed lips and pointed looks of someone less open to "kids being kids." I try not to be too entitled. Just because I have kids and am stressed and sometimes they're hard to control doesn't mean my kids have the right to run rampant around a quiet restaurant and disturb other diners (which they weren't doing, but just for arguments' sake). I don't think I deserve special treatment because I decided to have kids, like I'm somehow unique among the women of the world.

As members of society, though, isn't it right for us to be aware that parents with kids sometimes need a little leeway? I know that for people who don't have kids, or haven't been around kids in a long time, or aren't usually around kids at all, it can be hard to understand or be forgiving of even normal kid behavior, and every noise or accidental shout of excitement can be irritating. But if you're in a family restaurant, one that regularly serves, and even caters to, parents and children, it shouldn't be overly surprising if a family comes in for a meal. And if that family is a mom alone with three young boys, it shouldn't come as too much of a shock if those boys are a little excited or hyper, and the mom looks a little exhausted. Where does that balance point fall? How much is it my responsibility to keep my kids from annoying you (yes, kicking the bench was not okay, and I stopped him as soon as I saw it), and how much is it your responsibility to realize that I also have a right to sit there and eat (my kids weren't doing anything unreasonable or unpleasant), and just because you had until then been in a quiet restaurant working quietly on whatever-it-was you were doing, doesn't mean you could expect it to remain quiet. It's a restaurant, not a library.

Frankly, if I had gotten there first (instead of having to corral the toddler), I probably would have chosen a table farther from her anyway, as, just like anywhere else, if there's room to sit farther away from people, I generally choose to do so (movie theaters, restrooms, the DMV). It wasn't that I minded moving to a farther table, it was more the sour look and the obvious annoyance at the audacity I had to bring my family to a family diner for a family breakfast. And that's all it was. There was no confrontation, no complaint, and no further incident with her. I didn't otherwise feel unwelcome, and a couple that came in after us did watch my kids with the welcome amused smile and eye twinkle that I usually associate with older people. I didn't worry that we had disturbed their meal at all.

So what balance do we need to strike? It's obviously different depending on where you are and what the demographic there is like. Behavioral expectations vary with venue for adults as much as for kids. I sometimes struggle with my need to please everyone. I don't want to annoy people or disturb their meals or interrupt their work or reading. At the same time, kids are kids and I can't always control every noise or every action. I can tell them when they're being inappropriate and work with them on it so that next time they'll know better. That's my job, and I take it seriously. I want to raise responsible, empathetic, and pleasant human beings. But can I enlist the rest of society to help me with that a little bit, and maybe give me a little bit of empathy and patience themselves when they see I'm doing the best I can?

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