Children in Public Places

I got varied reactions from others to my baby’s presence; it seemed there was always some irritated person wherever we went who objected to having him around. Because Dale was so active, curious, and verbally expressive I felt forced to pick my battles with bystanders.
“Hearing your baby crying, even though you brought him outside, brings up traumatic memories for me and I don’t think you should bring him to meetings,” an upset woman told me at a self-help meeting.
“Could you please take your baby outside?” a woman asked politely during a speech at a church function. I was standing with Dale in the back of the room while he held on to a chair, smiling, bouncing his peach fuzzy head up and down and cooing softly with delight. “He’s distracting us.”
The same thing happened during another speaker event, only this time the room was much larger and I stood against the back wall hoping that no one could hear Dale’s soft “a-a-a-u-u-”s and his “mama-a-a”s from where they sat. One woman did, however and she turned around and gave me the evil eye. After the talk was over she confronted me.
“Don’t bring your baby to church events again. Can’t you find someone to babysit?” She pinched her lips together as and her eyes pierced me like lasers.
“No, “ I said. I was a single parent, subsisting on public assistance because I took maternity leave and was not given back my job. My parents only babysat grudgingly. If I asked them, I’d better have a darn good reason.
“Did Susan tell you not to bring your baby?” another equally angry woman, who was also a single mom asked after Susan walked away. Oh god, I thought, not her too. By now I was so intimidated that all I could utter was a weak, breathy “yes.”
“Oh, she makes me so MAD,” she said, turning around and striding off toward Susan. Relief flooded through me. At last, a kindred spirit. “People think we single moms can just DROP our kids off somewhere whenever we want to go out and do anything,” she said, looking at me over her shoulder. She whipped her hair back around and disappeared around the corner of the chapel, no doubt to tell Susan off.
Another time I went to a church service but the childcare person couldn’t take Dale because she had too many kids to watch. I took Dale into the service, where he made his soft, happy noises and played with my car keys. Perhaps I was used to tuning out Dale’s noises better than others, for a few days later I received a letter from one of the church’s reverends telling me never to bring Dale to a service again.
People glared at me in restaurants and coffee shops. The only public places where I felt welcome with Dale were local parks and grocery stores, but even they presented problems. One day Dale and I played at a park and he attempted to pet a German shepherd lying on the grass next to a play structure. “Don’t let your child come near my dog,” the dog’s owner, a woman, said. “He doesn’t like children and might bite.” I asked the woman if she could take her dog away since the park was teeming with children. Surely she didn’t want any of them to get bitten.
“This is a public park, we were here before you and we have every right to be here,” the woman hissed at me.
“Oh lordy, lordy,” an old woman said when Dale had a howling tantrum in a grocery store. She looked at us in disgust as she rolled her shopping cart past.
Those incidents didn’t happen everywhere we went, and for every person who complained there are a greater number who delighted in his irresistible smile, responsive laughter and bright, gleaming eyes. But the negative incidents happened with enough regularity that I realized our society was divided into two camps: Those who either had children or liked them, and those who didn’t.
Being one of the former, I’m biased. Whenever someone gave me an annoyed look or asked me to leave because Dale uttered any sound, however quietly, I thought that they had learned to tolerate adult’s occasional cough, throat clearing, shifting in seats, and laughter. Why then couldn’t they tolerate the same subtle noises from a contented baby?
To get more perspective on that, I looked at websites about people who are “childfree”, or who hate children. The childfree people wrote about being okay with children in general but just not wanting any of their own, but the child-haters—my god. They wrote about kids as if they should be wiped off the face of the Earth. They called mothers “breeders” or “sows”, fathers “sperm donors” and kids “sprigs”. They seemed to believe that kids shouldn’t be allowed anywhere accept home or school, or maybe park playgrounds, where anyone with a child-biting dog had priority.
One day years later when Dale was six and I was pregnant with my daughter, I waited in a restaurant for my husband to meet me with Dale. A middle-aged couple came in, and the man said to the hostess, “could you please sit us at a table that’s not near children? We don’t DO children.” The hostess led them to a table right next to mine. I told them that my six-year-old was arriving soon, so they were seated elsewhere.
People seem to have the mindset that parents need to keep their kids away from everywhere to respect everyone else, rather than the mindset that kids are part of society. They are people who have the right to be out and about just like everyone else. Perhaps we should learn to not be so sensitive to everything or stay inside ourselves.
I’ve heard from acquaintances that Mexican society is far more accepting of children. “You Americans are anti-children,” a Mexican man I worked with told me.
“This is my daughter,” a Mexican woman announced to our class in college. “In Mexico people take their children everywhere and they are welcome, and I will be bringing my daughter to class with me often.”
Remembering how boldly this woman stood up for herself, I often asserted myself with others. “I cannot agree to never bring my baby to self-help meetings/church functions/church services again. There are no rules against this and I can’t help how you feel toward children.”
I really didn’t want to bother people. I always brought Dale outside when he cried, except for that time in the grocery store (hey, everyone’s gotta eat) and once when I was right in the middle of a bank transaction, but every time we went anywhere and he got grabby, restless, shook his rattle, started to fret or coo or laugh or make ANY sound at all, my blood pressure rose and I thought, o-o-o-oh, please don’t let anyone get mad. Some days, badly shaken by the latest person’s protestations, I hid in my house. Then, my courage renewed I ventured forth again with my beloved fledgling monster, ready to handle the next onslaught of reactions from bystanders.
Etiquette for Planning Kid’s Birthday Parties

I glided along on the ice with my third-grade son, Dale before his skating lesson. There were many more kids in his grade at school than usual frolicking on the ice, along with their parents watching and socializing beside the rink. As I turned the corner near the picnic tables and saw why, it was like a blow to my gut. Another third grader, a girl we’d recently had at Dale’s birthday party was having a birthday herself and hadn’t invited him. The girl’s mother, who had seen us there before when our kids had been taking lessons stood to one side taking pictures. The fact that Dale had a hard time being accepted by his peers and was rarely invited to other kids’ parties made it even more painful.
On my next pass around the rink as I wondered how I would endure the next hour and forty-five minutes, I probably looking as horrified as I felt. I looked at the girl’s mother just as she turned and caught my eye. Embarrassed, I looked away and decided that no human should ever have to endure such social humiliation.
Dale was having better luck with the situation than I was. “Margie invited me to join her birthday party,” he said, smiling eagerly as he skated toward me. I felt even better when, a moment later a boy we knew who was an invitee also asked if we’d like to join them. Leave it to eight-year-olds to try to fix an awkward social situation, I thought.
Dale stepped off the ice and headed toward the festivities; I hung back, unsure of my welcome. “Come,” said Margie’s mom, waving me over as she walked toward me. “Please come join us. I’m so sorry that we forgot to invite Dale. We invited Margie’s whole class and a few other kids but Dale isn’t in her class this year and so somehow got overlooked...” She looked flustered. “We always try to reciprocate,” she finished. I wasn’t sure I believed her.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said with a smile. “Thank you for letting us join you.”
Another time we had one of Dale’s best friends, Stephan over for Dale’s birthday celebration. Two months later I happened to run into the boy’s father. “We sure had a crazy time at Stephan’s birthday party last week,” he said with a laugh. “All these kids running around wild . . .” He looked at me as if thinking that surely I could relate, while all I could do was wonder why he was telling me about it when they hadn’t invited Dale. Not wanting to embarrass him, however I kept my disappointment to myself.
On yet a third occasion my two-year-old daughter, Rowan was the uninvited one. I found out about the party when the birthday child’s mom e-mailed a list we were all on, mentioning her toddler’s party and how fun it had been. Then another mom in our social network told me about it as well. I felt the same hurt and rejection as the other times, especially since she was the person in our social group with whom I felt I had gotten to know the best. Are we the only people in the group she didn’t invite? I wondered.
When the birthday child’s mom later told me in person about her toddler’s party, I finally spoke up. “You might consider,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “not talking about your party with people you didn’t invite.”
“I know, it’s impolite—I didn’t invite you,” the woman said with a frown, looking away. “We know a lot of people-—we couldn’t invite everyone,” she said in her defense.
“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty,” I said, even though I was, “but you might want to keep what I said in mind in the future to avoid hurting people’s feelings.”
That type of experience, especially occurring threefold brought home for me the importance of parents practicing proper birthday party etiquette. The following are tips to follow when planning your child’s next big bash.
* If you don’t plan to invite your child’s entire class, preschool section, playgroup, or other social crowd always mail the birthday invitations. Never hand them out in front of others or place them in kid’s cubbyholes where other children and parents will see them. My kid’s nursery and elementary schools both forbade it. The same goes, obviously for e-mail. Don’t mention your child’s party on an e-mail list unless you invite everyone else on that list. Be discreet.
* Invite any other kids who had your child at their party. If this means planning for a larger group than you originally had in mind, consider keeping it simple and less expensive. Instead of having the party at a public place like a bowling alley, ice rink or other location where they charge by the head and probably have a maximum number allowed, have it at your house, apartment or a nearby park. If you’re into keeping up with the Joneses hire a clown or magician or have a piñata. Once the kids have smashed it open with a baseball bat, pass out bags for the kid’s goodies.
* If your child doesn’t want to invite someone who’s party she or he attended because your child says they’re “weird”, don’t give in. Even though kids often play musical friends, take advantage of an opportunity to teach your child the importance of reciprocation and resolving conflicts with their peers. Many kid’s groups have one youngster who, because they are physically or learning challenged doesn’t learn social skills as well as the other kids. The easy thing to do, of coarse is ostracize them. The other kids and their parents probably do just that, but you don’t need that on your conscience. Be compassionate and include them. If you’re worried about a certain child’s behavior, enlist the help at the party of that child’s parents, if possible so the child can attend. If the child is shy or a target for teasing, never let the other kids name-call, bully or reject them from a group activity.
* Never, ever invite your child’s entire class or other social group except for one child because their family is in any way different. Their parents may have a different sexual orientation, religion, culture, be green space aliens or (gasp) {insert your least favorite political party here}, but don’t succumb to bigotry. Always include them.
* Never mention your child’s birthday party to children or parents whom you didn’t invite. You may not think you know each other well enough for them to be offended, but don’t risk hurting their feelings. The same goes for another child’s party that your child attended. Again, be discreet.
* To avoid other awkward situations, don’t plan a party in a public place where it is likely there will be other kids and parents present within your child’s social group(s) that you didn’t include.
In summary be discreet, reciprocate, help resolve peer conflicts and differences and be inclusive. With a little forethought and planning, you can create meaningful memories for your kids, their friends and their parents that last a lifetime. Have a fun party!

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2. She is on the Board of Contributors to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper and her articles have been published in both local and national publications. She lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband, two children, two hyperactive dogs and a neurotic cat and can be reached at liz@funghi.com, or visit her at http://elizabethjohnsonlee.com.

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January 2015

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