Child aversion

March 13, 2012 at 8:03 pm

I had a lovely weekend. Four friends (some of whom I’ve known for twenty years) flew in from various parts of the country to visit, and though we haven’t spoken much in the past decade+ of geographical separation, it felt just like “home” when we got back together again. We laughed, we played, we hiked, we ate, we sang, we talked. Plus they bought me a lemon tree for my backyard! Happy, happy, happy…

Despite the happy-ful-ness of the weekend, I can’t stop thinking about one very sad little incident. After several days of not-enough-nap, my almost-three-year-old toddler definitely wasn’t acting himself. I guess I should have known I was headed for disaster as we drove off  in that sleep-deprived state to see the Desert Botanical Garden with my visiting friends. To sweeten the deal, no food is allowed in the gardens, so I was not only heading for disaster, but I was eliminating one of the most effective items in my bag of tantrum tricks: snacks! But off we went anyway.

I suppose I also should have known better than to let said sleep-deprived toddler out of the stroller to walk, but I figured, with four extra adults to keep track of him, we’d manage. I was mostly worried about the many pokey cacti lining all the pathways, but he was smart enough to keep a safe distance. Unfortunately, however, his little legs have been rather accident-prone of late, and he managed to stumble, fall, and skin the very same knee he has skinned no less than four times in the last month.

Any seasoned momma knows that the strength and length of a child’s post-owie crying spell can vary considerably based on how sleep-deprived and snack-deprived they are at the moment. Well, he was very sleep-deprived and snack-deprived. So it was loud and long. And he was bleeding.  Poor kid.

My friends took over pushing my baby in the stroller, and I scooped him up in my arms and got to work consoling him, like I usually do, “Did you get an owie? I’m so sorry, buddy,” etc. In my focus on his needs and with his cries wailing in my ears, I was completely unaware of what was happening behind me as we walked quickly toward the butterfly exhibit. (I hoped the butterflies might distract him from the pain and ease his cries.)

Several other people were walking a couple of yards behind me but within ear-shot of my friends. As my toddler’s cries continued, an older man among the group said, in mockery, “Wah, wah, wah, wah… Shut up!” One of my friends, appalled, turned to him with a look of disgust and said (in “defense of my son’s honor,” as she told me later), “You shut up!”

It wasn’t until the next day that I found out about this exchange. When my friend told me, I felt like my heart suddenly broke into hundreds of pieces (at least temporarily). I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. I should mention that the rest of our visit to the Desert Botanical Garden went downhill from there. Once we got into the butterfly exhibit, both my toddler and baby were crying. I felt so badly about disturbing all the people trying to enjoy the beautiful flowers and butterflies, so we quickly escaped to a more open area with fewer people to disturb. Feeling like an irritating spectacle with my whining children, I sighed to my friend, “This is why we never go anywhere.” Soon afterward, I left my friends to enjoy the rest of the garden in peace and took my cranky little ones home. I already felt guilty for disturbing all the garden visitors, so learning about that old man’s cruel words was like adding salt into an already festering wound.

It would be one thing if my toddler was crying for no apparent reason. I could understand people getting irritated by that. I get irritated by my son’s whining myself (multiple times a day). But he was hurt! He was bleeding! I wouldn’t be too shocked by a pre-pubescent ten-year-old boy mocking him and telling him to “Shut up,” but this was a grown man who should have known better. If adult on-lookers can’t find even a small soft place in their heart for a bleeding child, if they can meet a child’s pain with cruelty rather than consolation, then what is this world coming to?

I generally avoid taking all four of my children into public, in part because I realize what a spectacle we can be. But I also feel like the world is growing more and more averse to children and normal child behavior. And if you happen to be on an airplane, in the bus, at an art museum, or (apparently) walking through a botanical garden, you best be sure that your children don’t make a peep. And if you do happen to be in one of those places when a child gets hurt or throws a tantrum, prepare yourself to receive at the very least lots of negative energy being thrust in your general direction, if not outright verbally spewed at you.

I love Kara Gebhart Uhl’s recent article, “Apologies to the Parents I Judged Four Years Ago.” She’s certainly right about this pre/post-children shift in thinking…

Pre-children: Public tantrums are unacceptable. 
Post-children: Removal of the child is only sometimes doable; predicting when a tantrum is going to strike is often impossible.

I should have known better than to take my sleep-deprived toddler into a botanical garden and let him loose. But that doesn’t excuse the cruelty we encountered there. Kids scrape their knees. Kids cry. Kids can be loud. Kids are uninhibited and free with their emotions. All of this is normal. It makes me so sad to watch our society grow more and more inhospitable to some of the most beautiful little blessings present on this earth. Yes, kids can be obnoxious. I’m not disputing that. But can’t we meet that normal child behavior with understanding, compassion, and patience? Can’t we cut a kid some slack when he’s bleeding at the knee? Can’t we remember that we were kids once too?