Saturday, September 8, 2012

Are Parents Asking for Special Treatment?

Feministe recently had another thread about kids, parents, and public spaces. For the most part, it was just another version of the same old dichotomized fight between parents who think that their kids are the center of the universe and grumpy children-haters who hold the witch from Hansel and Gretel up as their highest role model. Of course, neither one of these is a fair way to portray people, and these online arguments over where kids belong just seem to bring out the most extreme, hyperbolized stereotypes.

I'm on record for saying that I have no problem with kid-free spaces. In fact, I wish places would be a little more up front about if they want kids there or not. I try really hard not to bring my daughter into places where she's going to be overly disruptive, and I have taken her to the car in the case of a meltdown. But I'm also on record for noting that kids are actually people. It's true! But so many of these "public spaces" debates seem to totally gloss over the fact that kids are human beings who deserve respect.

Which is why I found this quote from the original Feministe post so interesting:
But let’s be real about the “I don’t want special treatment” thing. Of course you do. I mean, if “kids are just small people” and you don’t want special treatment, then you buy your baby a seat on the plane, right? You understand why people are hostile toward a crying baby, the same way they would be with an adult who spent the entire plane ride screaming? No? Sometimes special or different treatment is ok, because babies and children are unique classes of people with unique needs. Their brains, social skill sets and communication abilities haven’t fully developed. And so any decent society should understand that they deserve a little extra leeway. That’s a good thing. But let’s not pretend that it’s not special or different treatment (of course, let’s not also pretend that society isn’t pretty shitty to parents, and to mothers in particular)
No Babies!

That statement made me realize that there might be a core disconnect between my view on the world and those who think that tolerating children in public spaces is "special treatment." See, I don't think that it's "special treatment" to tolerate an adult who spent the entire plane ride screaming if the circumstances surrounding that adult's behavior were understandable. (My husband was once on a bus ride with a woman who was traveling alone immediately after brain surgery and another woman received a phone call a few minutes into the ride alerting her that her mother had died. Neither behaved in the way we'd expect an ideal travel mate to act, but both behaved in ways that the other travelers tolerated because of their circumstances). We make allowances for behavior that we don't particularly enjoy all of the time, so much so that I don't think there's anything particularly "special" about it. 

So, there's a few things that I take into account anytime I'm in public around other people, regardless of if they are children:

With a few key exceptions, I have no right to the expectation of personal comfort in a public space. I have the right to expect that people do not intentionally invade my personal space. I have the right to not be groped or struck or cussed out in public. 

However, I don't have the right to expect no one to brush up against me in a crowded space. I don't have the right to expect that the sounds of other people's conversations won't interrupt my meal. I don't have the right to expect that people will stop talking about things I don't like. I don't have the right to expect the guy waiting for the bus to stop singing off-key. I don't have the right to expect the woman on her cell phone in the store to stop fighting with the person on the other end. I don't have the right to expect that the people next to me not order shrimp because the smell makes me sick. 

To me, recognizing that other people will behave in ways that I might not personally like is not "special treatment," it's just living. I also do not think that it is "special" treatment to alter my reactions to people who have physical or mental differences that make them interact with public spaces in ways different from me. If someone with a mental disorder is shouting out in the middle of a store or if someone with limited mobility is blocking my path, I don't think I'm treating them "special" by adapting my reactions based on those circumstances. I think I'm treating them like people. 

So, in short, if tolerating the behavior of children in public is granting them "special" privileges, so is basically every other interaction we have with human beings. People are not a monolithic group. We all have quirks and differences, and we constantly use a contextual reading of the situations we find ourselves in to judge what is tolerable in a public space. Reacting to children should be no different. 


  1. I agree. I think the idea of "special treatment" is code for "I was inconvenienced" and, as you say, people do not have to right to be in public spaces without having to tolerate the other people who are also in those spaces (within the reasonable bounds you outline).

    On a different note: intolerance of children in public space is a convenient way of discriminating against women. Prohibiting young children from being in movie theaters or restaurants, in turn prohibits the mothers whose only choices are to attend with the child, or not attend at all.

  2. The flip-side to the tolerance of other people's special circumstances, though, is that we *do* expect people to behave in a manner which they would like to observe in public, for the most part -- you don't expect to get on a bus where *everyone* is singing off-key or screaming or even just having a loud phone conversation, you expect most people, most of the time, to be quiet, polite and orderly. Some children haven't learned those rules yet, and some children haven't been *taught* them. Is it "special treatment" to allow a group of people known to be noisy and disruptive into an otherwise-quiet space? Or do they fall into your "special circumstances"? I'm not sure which, I just wanted to point out that there's an implicit contract between people in public which flows both ways, not just one.

    1. I think there are certain public spaces where there are extra levels of expectation, and those are usually governed by actual rules and policies that protect those expectations. You can't take children into most bars, for example. Theaters have a "no crying babies" policy. Some fine dining restaurants don't allow children. (On a side note, the establishments that make those policies have to deal with the reaction they get from parents. Some people are going to be offended by those decisions, and then they have the right not to patronize those places anymore--even when they don't have kids with them.)

      But outside of those spaces where we have policies in place to protect the circumstances, we don't get a right to our comfort. What if you did step on the bus and everyone was singing off-key or yelling on their cell phones? Maybe the bus company would make a "no phones" policy, but you as an individual don't get to dictate the behavior of those people. You could choose not to ride the bus, but you don't get to tell other people how to behave in public based off of your own comfort level. (Another side note: Have you seen those flash mob videos? Even when *everyone* starts behaving in a way that we would consider publicly unacceptable, most people just sit politely and quietly waiting for them to stop.)

      And I think that for the reasons you just said--children haven't learned the rules and being in public is how they learn them--that we give contextual consideration to their circumstances, just as we would anyone who doesn't fit with our "standard" expectations. Just like the woman who had brain surgery or the woman who lost her mom on my husband's bus ride, children have circumstances that change their interactions with the social world, but I don't think it's "special treatment" to recognize that. We do it all the time, for people of all ages.

    2. Unless it's Saint Patrick's Day evening in a student town. Then I expect singing and loudness. ;)

  3. I compeletely agree. I was confused by that post. It was also a repetitive post.

    I also wish more places were clear about whether children are welcome or not. I like that certain movie theatres have movie showings for moms with babies. I like that pubs with a purpose other than drinking alcohol are often clear about when minors are not allowed. I wish more events would be clear about this. You might be the only one with a baby/kid but that might just be because all other parents are assuming children aren't welcome. Or they might be right.