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A Child-Friendly World is Possible
By Kelly Hogaboom

A Child-Friendly World is PossibleThis evening, I had good cause to be proud of my fellow residents here in little Hoquiam, Washington. At about eight o’clock in the evening, in a local favorite Italian establishment, a young tourist couple and their walking-age toddler – the latter clad only in diapers, legwarmers, and a smile – entered the busy restaurant for their dinner. I was surprised, even with the summer heat, to see such scanty baby-clothing in a public eatery – and instantly felt glad that these parents honored their child’s need for comfort rather than a dress code!

Even more surprisingly, the parents, smiling and at ease, settled into their seats and set their child down. I watched as they let their little one first explore the booth, then wiggle down to the public floor of the restaurant. The child (a boy, as I was to discover after talking to his parents) was a very friendly chap, running about and smiling and “talking” and having the time of his life.

At first, watching his antics, I felt that familiar knot in my stomach: What would everyone else think? Too often I have seen (and felt) the disapproval of adults who think kids should sit still, stay put, and shut up.

But to my joy, the clientele, waitstaff, and cooks in the restaurant were unreservedly engaged with the little boy. My friend Amber, a waitress, let him help her take orders. Many customers smiled and waved and spoke with the little guy. I (with permission of the parents) took a picture or two. The entire restaurant treated the little guy with deference and sweetness. When he wandered too near unsafe places – the kitchen, a heavy swinging door – his mother would jump up and retrieve him in the most matter-of-fact manner.

A man outside striding toward the door, take-out on his mind, stopped short as he looked through the glass door to see this little being accosting him; the man’s look of intense concentration melted, and he broke into a smile.

The whole experience was, as you can imagine, a most lovely addition to our family dinner.

Interestingly – in what could only be described as an elegant empirical social experiment – another family at my left was having a different experience. They wedged their child, who looked about a year older than the first, into the corner and commanded she stay there.

Of course, this didn’t go well. Even over the din of the restaurant I could hear the stern, harsh voices of the grownups telling this little girl to sit down, and be quiet. Inevitably, of course, her slight fussing turned into angry, harsh cries and the adult voices grew more cross.

Observing this family, I felt sad. It is so terribly silly what our culture demands from kids and, thus, their carers. While it seems obvious enough to me, it is clear many do not realize that it is not developmentally appropriate for infants to comply with adult standards of behavior – including sitting down and being quiet. Alternatively, our society often demands something even worse: that those with small children keep them out of sight, at home if need be. As you can imagine, the cries of the suppressed toddler were louder, and more frequent, than the occasional happy shrieks of the free-range one. And of course, while the volume of the two children’s noises were comparable, the suffering within the girl-child’s cries was apparent, and unpleasant, and the tension within her family palpable – while the laughs of the boy-child elicited a relaxed sensation within the whole restaurant.

"It is so terribly silly what our culture demands from kids and, thus, their carers. While it seems obvious enough to me, it is clear many do not realize that it is not developmentally appropriate for infants to comply with adult standards of behavior – including sitting down and being quiet."

I have been the mother in both these examples. Time after time I’ve sat, nervous stomach, trying to force my child to do something she couldn’t possibly comply with, while I myself felt overcome with dismay and frustration since I believed (usually correctly) I would receive public censure if I did anything else. My husband and I have ended several such unpleasant dinners out by removing a child to the car while the other adult bolted down food in hurried angst, and paid the bill. At times we felt we were some kind of bother that we even brought our young children out in public at all.

But other times – in settings where the other adults in attendance made it plain they welcomed children as a part of the human race – I have sighed in relief. To know my child would be smiled at and helped, and no glares would be sent my way. To know that “village” actually would step in and help me so I could have a fifteen minute coffee break not worried for our safety – and not worried we’d be made into social pariahs.

Too few times, sadly!

I know that a world friendlier to small children, and therefore their (usually female) attendants, is possible. I’ve seen it. I’ve been there. I’ve not only heard of countries that are more realistic about children in public spaces, I’ve been in those communities myself. In a few wonderful cases, I’ve spent time in microcosms that really embrace these principles. (For instance, see my article “Understanding, Intimacy, and Mutual Valuing”: reasons to attend an Unschooling conference in the July/Aug 2012 issue of Life Learning Magazine.) I know such a world is possible because tonight, I saw it in a little restaurant in my small, rather conservative community.

I know such a world is possible because wherever I go, I plan to bring that world with me.

And what a wonderful experience for a child – that while he is young and needs to know this, he learns the world is a friendly, open place, that grownups will keep you safe, and give you a smile, and whoosh you away from danger with a laugh, and be glad you are alive!

See, when you grow up you’re going to learn the world can be such a hard place. That’s the right thing to learn – when you’re ready. But most adults who advocate disciplinary measures for astonishingly small children, and who adhere to “seen and not heard” with regards to all children (because while few will openly admit it, that is what many still believe), are simply passing on the cultural hazing they too tragically had to bear when they were small.

I have learned it takes tremendous bravery for many of us to do something different than how we were taught. But we are the grownups now. It’s up to us to foster freedom, a sense of safety, and loving nurture so our children have enough space to develop appropriately and in their own time.

And just for tonight, my family and I had a wonderful evening in this environment.

Kelly Hogaboom is a tailor, writer, partner, unschooling parent, pet rescue agent, and B-movie fanatic living in Hoquiam, Washington, USA. In her free time – just kidding – it’s all free time, because life is pretty peachy-keen, you can find her blogging at http://kelly.hogaboom.org or http://underbellie.com. Or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

 

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