Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Does It Still Take a Village?

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?


  1. Having been on the other side (parent of a crying toddler in a public place), I can tell you that it's no fun for us either. Sometimes we're just at a loss on what to do, and know we're being judged by everyone around us based on the behavior of our children. I think the mother in this situation wasn't oblivious or negligent. She had probably been through many tantrums before and just felt powerless. She probably wanted to disappear.

    From an evolutionary perspective, I have yet to figure out why nature would sometimes make parenting such an ordeal. Infants and children should come equipped with training manuals for parents or at least some better way of signaling their needs to us beyond the all-purpose, nebulous tantrum.

  2. Kev, thanks for speaking up on behalf of the mother. She definitely was being judged - though I would hope that those with kids were more sympathetic as they have likely been there themselves.

    I was talking about this with a coworker who has two girls (a preteen and a first grader). She basically said, "Sometimes there is just nothing you can do. Kids are people too, and sometimes they're just going to do what they want or feel they need to do." She had her big public tantrum moment when her oldest was about 3 years old. They were on their way home from a doctor's visit on the bus, and the kid, tired, cranky, and probably a little mad at mom, pitched a fit. And nothing my coworker did would calm her. A passenger said to her, "Can' you shut her up?!" She did stand up for her kid (and herself), but she also got off the bus at the next stop (it was fairly close to home) and walked the rest of the way.

    I'm not in any way saying that this mom should have gotten off the train, but I want to draw attention to the point where others feel they need to get involved and HOW they feel they should get involved.

    As for the instruction manuals ... I think perhaps the absence of them is an evolutionary feature in and of itself. After all, if you can raise a kid without one, you can pretty much handle anything else nature can throw at you.

  3. Great post. A long time ago, I read (and can't find again) a touching story by somebody who was on a subway train when a dad got in with some kids who were acting up. They were making a lot of noise and bothering everyone. Somebody finally asked the father to get them under control, and he said something like, "I'm sorry they are acting out. They are usually better mannered. They just lost their mother." The point of the story is that it's impossible to guess what is going on in the lives of people you meet, and it's better to offer help than judgement. (But that's not what people often do; reference the fundamental attribution theory - I'm having a bad day but you're a bad person.)

    I've dealt with the "my kid is having a fit in public" issue myself. Sometimes a child of a certain age just has to cry and nothing you do can stop them. Sometimes trying to help makes it worse. It's like a storm, and it needs to pass over. The downside of making the public happy is teaching kids that feelings are problems to be suppressed, and that's dangerous for their own self-discipline. I've always left the public situation as quickly as possible, when I could. One time my son had to cry, very loudly, on a playground where I couldn't easily leave. He was just worn out during a long trip and couldn't handle what was being asked of him. It was more of my planning mistake than his misbehavior. I stood nearby and told all the other kids (and parents) that he was "having a sadness" and that I was watching over him until he felt better. But I was not having a sadness myself at that moment and could handle running interference for him. (I had my sadness later in the day when I had some time alone.) I can well understand that the mother might just not have been able to cope with what the public expected of her at the time.

    I think it definitely still takes a village. What's missing these days (in my opinion) is the realization that scenes such as this are storms that affect all of us, not just parents and kids as isolated dyads. The kid has a storm, which means the parent has a storm, and if the parent can't provide a buffer the other people in that location (train, playground) have a storm too. More acceptance that raising children (in good weather and bad) is something we as a society have to do would be a positive thing.

  4. Thanks for reminding me of that story, Cynthia! I actually heard it from someone ... I hope it's not an urban myth. Still, the essence of the story that you touch upon is important—that none of us actually really know the circumstances behind other people's behavior. We just know that it's effecting us and we're not thrilled with it.

    I can distinctly remember my own public tantrum. I wanted a Fraggle Rock lunchbox. Badly. I hadn't even started preschool yet, but these were Fraggles and I LOVED the Fraggles, and it was a super-cool lunchbox—made out of a metal-y type material, looked like a construction worker's lunchbox where the lid flips up. So my mom said no, because I wasn't in school yet, and I threw a huge fit in the store, and my dad carried me out. I asked my mom recently how she handled the other shoppers, and she said she didn't have to "handle" them. They understood: I was being a brat!

    I learned a few important things from that event, and I have not thrown a public tantrum since (progress!) but I thought my mom's words echoed your ideas about storms and buffering. And I agree that things are definitely different today.

    I've been on airplanes with toddlers who have cried the entire way. I've experienced the parents who try to shush/comfort the child and/or help others see that the child is having an uncomfortable moment. I've also experienced parents who just seem to say, "To hell with it. Nothing I can do is going to help." And the kid cries himself into hiccups. Sympathy tends to be more forthcoming in the first case.

    There are so many other factors that go into public judgment as well: Is it the mother or the father who is with the child? Does race play a role in the assessment we make?

    But there are also questions of when you can reasonably try to offer assistance. I've seen mothers get very angry and abusive at folks who may try to divert the attention of the child. Perhaps in other countries where there is a greater communal sense surrounding the family and neighborhood this is different. I see this among certain immigrant group—but I'm hesitant to categorize in this way.

    By the way, when I started preschool, I had a Huey, Dewey, and Louie lunchbox. It was not nearly as cool as Fraggle Rock lunchbox, which I have clearly never forgotten.

  5. It is indeed a righteous lunchbox--no wonder you never got over it! I found one on ebay ($50 plus shipping), but for some reason I'm not able to link to it here. Here's the item number: 350292416581.

  6. Wendy, wow! It's very cool - thankfully, I can resist the impulse because it's not the one from my early years (that one opened on top) and it's missing the thermos. Still an incredible find though!

  7. I got here from your other post on the crying child where the public transit folks were more understanding. I'm with kevishere: I have been in the position, many times, where absolutely nothing works and I feel so stuck and frustrated and embarrassed that I don't know what to do. Parents get to that point a LOT. Also, your comment about your coworker saying "kids are people too" really resonated with me. They get to a certain point where they are so frustrated -- because the world is frankly not set up for them, because they are constantly told by adults that their behavior is inappropriate (it certainly isn't inappropriate to them!), because they still can't totally do what they want, or communicate their needs. Being a parent is hard. Being a kid, in certain ways, is probably even harder.

    I also wonder why we are so intolerant of crying. Crying is physiologically useful -- it helps us regulate body temperature, clear stress hormones, etc. Adults know this, and people admit that they feel better "after a good cry." So why don't we let kids have a good cry? My suspicion is that it reminds us of our childhood, when we too were chastised for making noise, making demands, trying to get our needs met the only way we could figure out. We are uncomfortable because we were made uncomfortable as babies and children.

    Anyway, thus ends my rant of the day ;).