Friday, March 25, 2011

It takes a village (unless the villagers are selfish and loud-mouthed, in which case I'd rather go it alone) (part two)

Just landed here? Go read this for context first.

There has never in my life been a more delicious white Lifesaver than the one I ate in Alan's shadow (after discarding the yucky green one from the top of the roll into my younger brother's grubby fist first, of course; he wasn't the connoisseur then that I surely was). I felt reprieved.

USA Today just ran an article that's getting a lot of attention about the increased call for child-free airplanes. It's making me angry, not because of the concept but because the concept is serving as an umbrella for so much child-bashing.

If there is a sustainable economic model for child-free air travel, I'm all for it. You pay for it, and have your space and your peace. Build child-free airports and fill the planes with child-free-premium-paying customers, and peace be unto you. I wish you well.

But I suspect there is no such sustainable economic model, and that means we're all going to have to share. To play nicely with each other. You probably first learned about these concepts as a child.

Flying, as the article says, isn't really easy for anyone these days. Think of the discomforts you endure: your pants are falling down because you decided not to wear a belt because of the metal detectors. You're not wearing your favorite shoes, again because of the metal detectors. You're too hot or too cold or alternating between the two. You're cramped and stuck and you might have a stomachache because the food is awful or maybe you're starving, because the food is so awful. You're probably dehydrated. Your back hurts from hauling luggage and you're exhausted because you got up so early to catch your flight.

Of course you don't want a cranky kid behind you right then. But if you're so miserable, how do you think the kid feels? He's suffering all the things you suffer, and he's probably missed his nap, and his mom can't warm his milk or the batteries died on his quiet hand-held game or he lost a piece of his Lego set in the terminal and now can't build anything. He's overtired and overstimulated and under-excercised. If he's really little, his still-developing ears probably hurt from the elevation and cabin pressure. He's likely been fed either french fries or sugar (because just like for you, his options are limited) and his body is reacting poorly.

You have ways of coping. He is just a child. And he probably didn't ask to be there, and you probably did.

When my mom's friend came to my rescue in synagogue services when I was on the verge of a meltdown, was the meltdown my fault? Was it my mom's - should we blame her? Maybe she didn't raise me right. Maybe she didn't teach me to sit quietly and keep my feet off the pew. Maybe she didn't bother to parent me.

Or maybe she'd been whispering to me for hours now to sit nicely. Maybe she herself was exhausted: from the service, from caring for me and simultaneously for my younger brother, from her own perceived scrutiny of the congregation.

So does that mean it really was me - I was a bad kid? I don't think that's the explanation, either. I think the explanation is that those services are a tough scene for a small child. And that's it.

Substitute synagogue sanctuary for crowded airplane now, please.

Alan, the hero of my synagogue story, chose to be gracious toward me when he could have scorned me. And that he did so is something I remembered forever, because children notice your reactions to them.

And children internalize those reactions. Don't you remember when you were scorned or belittled or treated dismissively as a child? Often those memories stick the strongest. They can shape a person.

Alan also accepted me on my terms, and didn't expect me to rise to a standard for adult behavior. He offered me shelter when I couldn't ask for it. And this is where I get really angry: you can pick on irresponsible adult behavior as much as you want. But children need to be shown more grace, more compassion, and far less vitriol, far less scorn. In that moment, they can't always do better.

My kids are like any other kids, which is to say they are not perfect. Sometimes they will charm strangers; occasionally they will kick them. It goes with the territory of childhood.

But they're the children and we're the adults, and this is why the village matters. I can whisper in their ears a thousand times a day how much I value them, how much they are loved, how much they are worthwhile human beings who will grow up to be contributing members of society. You can undo that work and their self-esteem in a minute with your careless talk, or the eye-rolls you think they (and their mothers) don't notice, the condescending tone you seem not even to realize you use.

Or you can act like Alan, and maybe touch a person's life with a tiny gesture.

(And I can buy you a glass of wine, when you're not being a jerk about my kids' struggles with propriety.)

The behavior that you exhibit in front of them, and not just I, is their teaching model for how to be a good citizen of the congregation the plane the world.

(And they can't learn anything good by being isolated from you in a "child zone." All they'll learn is how easy it is to marginalize the group of people society finds distasteful.)

Children can't look out for themselves and that's why we need to look out for them. We need to teach them that we value even the marginalized members of society, because we won't be children again, but we each probably will be marginalized again.

You might have a stroke and end your days in a nursing home. Or your spouse might no longer find favor in you, and you find yourself divorced and alone. Or maybe it's something smaller, like running out of gas just as your phone battery dies, or stalling out in a busy turn lane at the beginning of rush hour.

Like it or not, you're a villager. Or, as you've heard it said before: you're either part of the solution or part of the problem.

But the kids - they aren't the problem, though they will some day be the health care aides who decide whether the stroke patient should be cared for well, or cared for...enough. It's so easy, after all, to marginalize those who can't ask for the grace they need.

And here's a tip to the commenters of the world: if you need to declaim your ideas with "no offense" or "just sayin'…" then what you are just sayin' is offensive. Even my small children, the ones you dismiss so readily, can discern that.

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