Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Where Do You Take Your Children?

There's a fetish for hating children afoot.

That's not an exaggeration. If you want an opinion about children in restaurants, on airplanes, in movie theaters, pretty much any public place, scout the internet, and bring smelling salts. And don't bring more than one child, or you'll be reminded it's a not a clown car, lady.

The problem- and there is one- is not the children. It's the adults. I meant to type: "adults," with the quotation fingers going. There aren't any real adults involved.

There are two kinds of "adults" involved. One is the parents of children who do not know how to behave themselves in public, and the other is anyone that doesn't want to see a kid anywhere they go.

The second group is easy to place on the couch and figure out. They're jealous that they have to act adult -a little- and a kid gets a pass. They are like little children themselves, just bigger and pushier and equipped with credit cards. They have no better interpersonal skills than the hellion in the back seat on a long car ride, and can't stand to see anybody doing anything that they can't do. Real adults who see children misbehave in public places feel sorry for the children, not themselves.

The first group is just the second group, only they have their own children. And they have never bothered to teach their children how to behave in public, because they don't know how themselves. They're afraid to teach or enforce any standards of decorum for their children, as they know that means they'll be expected to adhere to them as well. We're all just big children living together in a house, undifferentiated, now, aren't we? I'm not foregoing R rated entertainment just because my kid's in the room. It's much easier to call anybody who calls for any standard of decorum a Nazi and do whatever I want.

When I was small, my parents brought me places. Serious places. We didn't all go to Disneyland in flip-flops and tatty t-shirts. We went to museums. We went to Mount Vernon. We went to the library three times a week. We went to Plimouth Plantation. Serious places like that. Many of them had a profound and life-long effect on me.

Don't get me wrong. We went to the ball game and threw peanut shells on the deck like everybody else, too, and things of that nature. And I'm not dumb enough not to understand that part of the allure of those serious places was undoubtedly that many of them were cheap -or free. But the very first things we learned were how to behave in public. And we were taught how to be polite and deferential towards others, especially adults. We didn't go to the Newport Mansions and jump on the beds. The idea of being polite and deferential to your parents is quaint now, apparently. Paying any attention to or displaying manners of any kind whatsoever to adult strangers is now a bizarro-world concept.

I brought my four-year-old to the Marble House in Newport once. The docent took one look at him and grabbed me by the arm and whispered: "Are you sure this is appropriate for him?" What they really meant was that it was assumed he wouldn't know how to behave himself, and so, well, beat it.

Why don't you ask him yourself? I said.

Do you want to go in the nice museum? You must be very quiet and not touch anything, okay?

His clothes were clean and not spangled with semi-scatological slogans or cartoon mice, and his finger was not in his nose. He stood up straight, looked her full in the face and politely said: "I'd like to see your museum and I know how to behave." In faultless diction. That was the end of the questions.

I found a pamphlet I had saved from the 1960s from a visit to Mount Vernon. I leafed through it, and I remember everything about that place. We were not wealthy people, and I can only imagine what it cost my parents to manage that excursion. As I said, we were poor, and I was young, but I can't imagine my parents were ashamed of me. I know I wasn't ashamed of them.

(The picture is Athena protecting the muses of Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture by John Singer Sargent in the magnificent Museum of Fine Arts in Boston Mass. My parents brought me there when Johnson was president.)

Update: Pat at Stubborn Facts has some additional thoughts on the matter, with many interesting comments here.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Do kids today even know what the phrase "this is a hands-in-pockets" place means? If I heard that from my mother once, I heard it a million times. Oh, I hated going into the china shop. The whole time we were in there, I had to keep my hands in my pockets, walk in a straight line, not lean against anything. Sheer torture. Yet somehow, even at the age of 7 or 8, I managed to do it, because mom told me I had to. (Thanks, mom!)

P.S. We're talking about this post over at Stubborn Facts, too. I did some research and found a story of a coffee shop which hung up a sign: "Unattended children will be given espresso and a free puppy."