Anyone who has taken mass transit knows how intense the experience can be with an unhappy child in close proximity. Loud iPods, sprawling seatmates, dripping umbrellas, body odor, and large packages are minor concerns compared with a wailing child. When confined in a subway car with a child in mid-tantrum, there comes a point when the proverbial village seems to come to life.
I boarded the No. 2 train to Penn Station on Tuesday evening and snagged a seat by the door on one end of car. I pulled out my traveling book, glanced around to see who my fellow passengers were, and began to read with some intensity—meaning, I was making a conscious effort to focus my attention on my book and not on the tourist whose stuffed J&R shopping bag kept bumping my knee. We had barely pulled out of the station when a piercing wail interrupted me mid-sentence. Through the crowd, I could make out a young girl (under the age of 5) sobbing and demanding something of her mother who sat impassively next to her.
A sigh rippled through the car and we all sort of waited to see what the mother would do. Would she comfort the child? Chastise her? Cajole her? She did nothing. Two stops later, with the girl still sobbing, making intermittent keening-like noises, and still demanding something, the expression on the face of the gentleman sitting next to her could only be described as acute pain. The woman sitting next to me said to her traveling companion, "Isn't it something when the mother is oblivious?" And then she and her friend began to trade stories about they handled their children when they threw public tantrums.
Eyes began to roll, people began to shuffle, and stare. Some turned up the volume on their iPods. At 14th-Street (about four stops from where the crying began), the man sitting next to the girl got off. I watched as he exited the car, jogged quickly down the platform and reboarded. A large crowded boarded in his place, and I could no longer see the girl. But I could hear her. We all could. Muttered commentary began to take place and commuters offered their opinions. "She's tired," said one. "She has to learn somehow," said another. "What's she [presumably the mother] going to do?" added a third. A woman asked, "Is she alright?" The mother ignored the question. "Stop it," she said to the girl. "Stop crying. We're not going there." The girl wailed louder. The mother said nothing more. The girl was still crying while I exited the train at Penn Station and a fresh group boarded. I stood on the platform for a moment and saw a number of the new passengers exit the car immediately and follow in the footsteps of the man who changed cars. The remaining people wore expressions of curiosity and annoyance. I don't know if anyone else tried to intervene or offer advice. I wouldn't be surprised—the No. 2 line goes all the way to the Bronx, so it would have been a long ride for some.
I've encountered my fair share of crying children during my daily commute. Children are going to cry sometimes, that's just the way it is. But this was the first that was just simply allowed to cry. When infants cry on the subway, the parent or caregiver is often the recipient of sympathetic glances and polite inquiries (e.g., "Oh no! He's being fussy, huh? Time for a nap?") People seem more lenient because, well, it's what infants do. (I've also seen happy, engaged babies capture the attention of the whole car.) With older children, however, leniency quickly wanes. There is an expectation for behavior, both on the part of the parent and the child: that the parent will intervene and make the child stop the tantrum, and that the child will respond. If either fails to respond in the prescribed way, the judgment of the public is clearly one of displeasure. It's as though the parent has failed to raise a competent individual and the child is regarded as unprepared to participate in society. Parents who are obviously trying to calm their child are also granted leniency, and are sometimes the benefit of external assistance. Someone will often address the child directly asking, "Why are you crying?" or make statements like, "Big boys don't cry!" The group appears to mobilize to help the parent.
I'm curious if any of you have seen travelers on mass transit intervene if a child is allowed to simply cry. Has anyone ever tried to offer advice? Did the parent(s) respond? What are your coping strategies?