“Can I ask you a question? With your child, are you more patient than you would be with the average person?”

The question for this was coming from an unexpected source, namely, the lady who stands behind the counter at one of the gas station convenience stores in town. But it was an interesting question, and I didn’t think it was overly personal, so I answered it.

And the answer was: Well, yes. My daughter is six years old. I don’t expect her to know what appropriate behavior is at all times, and it’s my job as a parent to teach her. I don’t believe extra patience means letting your kid act like a jerk, and on the thankfully rare occasions Athena is acting like a jerk in public, I’ll remove her whenever feasible so she doesn’t bother others. And if I have to do that — and I suspected that was coming to the heart of the questions — I’ll do it without going nuclear on my child in front of the entire world (I also avoid doing that in private, too, but that’s another matter). It does actually matter how you behave with your child in public, because among other things people are watching — and your child is paying attention, too.

And so I said (with rather more economy) to the lady behind the counter. The answer met with her general approval, and the additional comment that when one works in retail, one sees many things, including how people treat their kids. She hinted, but did not say specifically say, that sometime just before I get there some parent when a little nuts on their kid, and that it was all she could do not to say something about it. I think when I came through the door she wanted to vent at what she’d seen, and possibly also get reassurance that not every parent was a jerk.

And she said something else after I said my part, which was “I thought that’s what you’d say. I’ve seen you in here with your daughter before, and I’ve seen how you treat your child.” This goes back to what I mentioned earlier: how you respond, react and treat to your child gets noted, even by the people you’re not aware of. I was obviously aware this woman had seen me with Athena, because we go into the convenience store on a frequent basis. What I was not particularly aware of is that she was noting how I interacted with my kid while I was in her store. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised — I note how people interact with their kids, after all — but there you are. It’s the difference between saying that people are watching how you treat your child, and knowing they are watching how you treat your child.

I found it an interesting moment in my morning, and reminder that I’m part of the world in unexpected ways, and so is my child, and so is our relationship with each other.

8 Comments on “Child-Spotting”

  1. The thing I always try to do with my children is to treat them with respect, even when they’re being jerks, which three-year-old boys do on a suprisingly frequent basis.

    You can discipline your child respectfully. I hold that it is seldom necessary to yell at your child, and it is never necessary to be insulting.

    People do notice how you treat your children. In fact, that’s one of the most important (to me) indicators of character: if you’re a dink to your kids, you’ll probably be a dink to other people over whom you hold power.

  2. Wow, those are really insightful ideas. Admittedly, I’ve never thought much about having children (and I hope that, at 21, I’m quite a few years from having them), but your (both John’s and Dean’s) comments make a lot of sense to me. I’ll try to keep them in mind many years down the road when I finally reproduce.

  3. Dean: You can discipline your child respectfully

    And “discipline” doesn’t mean “punish,” either, which too many people get wrong. One of the nicest examples of this I ever saw happened a few years ago. A father was in a store with his two young daughters. There was an ornamental fountain there, and the younger, who was about three, kept putting her hands in it. When he noticed this, he told her, very gently, not to do that, and explained that if she did, they would leave the store. The elder daughter said, “She did it before!” and the father said, “But she didn’t know the rule before. Now she does.” The younger looked him straight in the eye and stuck her hand in the fountain. He said–cheerfully–“Okay!” and took her hand and led her to the hall outside the store, where he played with her until his wife finished her business and came out.

    I fell totally in love with that man. Totally, totally, totally.

  4. My husband and I have chosen not to have children, for many reasons, one of which is that both of us tend to be lacking in patience. Plus, we’ve never really wanted kids, which, I think is pretty important. It’s a big job. You shouldn’t do it if you don’t really want to do it.

    Because we don’t have kids, I try not to judge people when I see them in public with their children. Sometimes, though, it’s pretty obvious when a parent isn’t doing a very good job and doesn’t really care to make that effort. I always feel badly for those kids, because I know they’re likely to end up being the same kind of parents to their kids one day.

    I think people have a real tendency to underestimate kids. They can learn how to behave properly in certain situations at a pretty young age. And if they’re too young to do so, they shouldn’t be put in those situations; it’s unfair to people around them. It seems like some parents think that the point of behaving properly in public is to minimize hassles for them, when it’s really to be respectful of everybody around you and to keep your child safe.

  5. The idea of being part of the world and affecting it even when we’re unaware of it (call it the “It’s a Wonderful Life” effect) is one that I find incredibly compelling. It is how we live our lives, and what that behavior demonstrates to those around us, that speaks most powerfully to the strength of the values we hold.

    It’s pretty simple: living our ideals is infinitely more effective than pontificating about them. If only more people could make that distinction.

  6. Profound question. You’re lucky to have such interesting people in your local gas station.

    Anyway, I think you need to be more patient with the average *adult* – simply because their (um, how can I say this politely) “divergent” viewpoints will have had longer to bed down. Kids are easier: You can reason with them for a start.

  7. I’ve raised three kids — the eldest is around your age (he’s 36, will be 37 in Sept. so I guess that makes him just a bit your senior) and the youngest will be 20 in a couple of weeks. I think I’ve done okay as a parent (no claims of perfection, I’m aware of ways I’ve fallen short) and I really like all three of my kids (yes, of course I love them, but I also like them — they are good people).

    I always been amazed at the way people will treat strangers with forebearance and politeness and yet will treat their children (and their spouses) with distain and distaste and rudeness.

  8. A couple times strangers have commented on how well behaved my kids are. I can’t take all the credit, but one of my guidelines has been to tell the kids what to do instead of what not to do.

    For example, we had a neighborhood kid who had behavior problems and his parents were also pretty bad. My kids frequently got in fights with “Johnny” and I started out telling them not to get in fights with Johnny, but the fights continued.

    The problem was that it was really hard to avoid those fights, and why did I think a six year old could know how to do that? I had to think long and hard about what I really wanted my kids to do, and it involved me getting involved with Johnny and his parents, which was not something I really wanted to do. It was a lot easier to simply tell my kids not to fight, but that never worked.

    Anyway, to this day I try to make it a point to tell people what do do instead of what not to do.

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