Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On liking and/or not liking children

Okay, so one of the most impassioned and heated discussions I've witnessed is in progress right now at Feministe, and it's on the topic of hating children.

It does seem to be trendy right now to not like kids. Perhaps because the country is so damn natalist, because "family values" is such a watchword, the natural backlash involves a disillusioned and cynical view of reproduction. I, myself, have referred to friends "gestating" and referred to their children as "spawn" from either a sincere or affected (I haven't decided yet) unromantic view of childrearing, but then, many of my friends who actually have kids do the same thing. It's also trendy to like kids, to coo over kids, to buy overpriced designer baby clothes and SUV-looking strollers and dress your kids like Angelina Jolie does hers. Commenters on the Feministe post seem to be divided pretty evenly into two camps: folks who have kids and don't understand why others aren't more understanding, and folks who don't have kids and don't understand why they should have to endure others' children.

They're both pretty much right.

I don't know that I've ever said that I hate kids, but I know I've said I don't like them. And even that's not entirely true. There are plenty of kids that I like. I can't say that I "like kids" in the way that a lot of people like kids; some people (my brother, for instance) genuinely like being around children and are able to interact with them and have a great time, whereas I'm usually hard-pressed to find a child to whom I can really relate. I'm fairly sure I want to have kids of my own someday, but I'm not yet at the point where I can hang out with babies for more than about twenty minutes without getting bored or with kids for more than twenty minutes without getting annoyed. But I don't dislike all kids, even most kids, to the point that I'll make a blanket statement like "I don't like kids" and really mean it.

I don't like parents.

Oh, that's not true, either. I don't like negligent parents. Is it okay to say that? I don't like parents who don't bother to parent. Or to be even more precise, I don't like certain sensory experiences:

- The sound of high-pitched shrieking and/or banging
- The sensations of stickiness, clamminess, and/or sliminess
- The smell of bubblegum, Goofy Grape Kool-Aid, old French fries, and/or poop

And the problem with kids is that they're frequently accompanied by or responsible for those sensory experiences. But it's not their fault. Kids aren't really people yet; they're people in training, and it's the responsibility of their parents to teach them how to be people so that they can interact with adult people (and each other) in society. A kid doesn't know not to scream in a store, bang on the table in a restaurant, or not soil himself in church until his parents impart this wisdom on him. Thus, if my peaceful Saturday afternoon is disturbed by those things, it's not the kid I'm blaming.

Don't think I don't do my part. Recognizing that the aforementioned sensory experiences are ones that I don't enjoy, I do my best to avoid locations and activities where I'm likely to encounter them. I don't go to Chuck E. Cheese. I don't eat in at Wendy's. I generally go to movies rated PG-13 or higher, and when I see movies like A Bug's Life in theatres, I tend to do it in the evenings when most kids are in bed - and if a kid happens to be in attendance and happens to be noisy, I cut him some slack. And if I'm at the park, and a bunch of kids are going apeshit and running around and shrieking and rolling in the dirt, I'm not going to say a word; I might even smile. Because that's where kids are supposed to be doing that.

Not so much when I'm in the grocery store and somebody's mom is doing her weekly shopping while I enjoy the Doppler effect of a screaming child rolling slowly up and down the aisles.

I do, however, take issue with this comment from magickitty:
I think hater-people are jealous of children, because they’re living lives without the “filters” that adults have. They are completely impulse-driven, until we hammer that out of them. My three-year old pitching a fit because the science centre’s closing and we have to go home? Well fuck, I’d pitch a fit too, if I didn’t have the behavioural training not to. I envy him his total, uninhibited expression of emotions.

When people complain about children’s behaviour, I think they’re just resenting the fact that they themselves can’t run around like idiots/be themselves/etc. When I think of the free child I used to be, and all the restrictions and changes made to my personality as I had to become an adult, I’m pretty damned resentful too. But I don’t blame kids for it.

Um, no, magickitty, no. I don't hate your kid's hysterical shrieking because I'm jealous that he gets to shriek and I don't - I hate his hysterical shrieking because it makes my back teeth vibrate painfully in my jaw and my left eardrum do this spasm-y thing that sounds like a helicopter in a Vietnam War movie. Your job as a parent isn't to kill your kid's spirit by "hammer"ing that "impulse-driven" nature out of him; it's to teach him to behave in public so that he doesn't annoy the crap out of everyone else. When I'm frustrated and want to throw a temper tantrum, I have no inhibitions about doing it - I just do it alone in my car or in my office with the door closed, because no one else should have to hear that crap.

So there you go, parents. Raise your kids to be themselves. Let them enjoy their impulses. But also realize that society has certain basic rules of behavior, and that your biggest and most important role as a parent is to raise your child to perform as a member of society. And that means that sometimes, you have to put that job, which includes not letting your kid impose on other people, ahead of your own pleasure.

You're sitting in a restaurant and your kid starts banging on the plate with a spoon? Kids will do that, but you've got to teach your kid that you don't bang on the plate with a spoon in a restaurant, and if the kid won't understand that, you've got to remove the child, because the other diners didn't come to the restaurant for your kid's plate-banging. You're sitting in church and your kid starts wailing? Kids will do that, but you've got to make that kid not wail, and if he won't stop, you've got to remove the child, because other worshipers didn't come to church to hear your kid's wailing. You're walking placidly through Target and your kid loses his shit because you won't buy him a toy? Kids will do that, but you've got to teach your kid that you don't throw a tantrum when you're disappointed, and if the kid won't understand that, you've got to remove the child, because the other shoppers didn't come to Target to enjoy your kid's tantrum.

Now, a couple of commenters in the above discussion mentioned the challenges of raising a disabled child, and I completely sympathize. I've volunteered with autistic, mentally retarded, Downs syndrome, traumatically injured, and otherwise disabled children for several years now, and I appreciate that sometimes the most random things can set a kid off, and that it's not the kid's fault. Hell, I'm fairly functional myself, and there are times when I want to break down at the sheer overstimulus of a crowded shopping mall at Christmas. But as understanding as I am of those children and their parents, I also didn't come to the mall to be a witness to your child's breakdown. I will be as sympathetic as anything, and if there's anything I can do to help calm your child, I will, but if it's going to take longer than a minute, you have to remove that child from that situation. Because whether a child's tantrum results from crankiness, spoiledness, or a genuine physiological problem, it's still unpleasant for your fellow shoppers to endure.

This, then, is my contract with the childbearing world:
I, a single, childless, not-terribly-good-with-children individual, do solemnly swear
- to, in those cases when I wish not to be around children, only go those places where children will not normally be found, such as bars, clubs, coffee shops, nicer restaurants, non-children's sections of the library, movies rated PG-13 and up, museums (children's exhibits excepted), art galleries, and concerts;
- to, in those cases when children are not unavoidable, be as patient as is humanly possible as children learn to behave in polite society through trial and error;
- to appreciate and savor wild, awesome, childlike behavior in those locations where wild, childlike behavior is appropriate;
- to comment sincerely and approvingly when a child is behaving well, particularly in those situations where most children would not be so appropriately behaved;
- and to accept the sincere apologies of a mother or father as s/he tries to quiet a squalling munchkin, and moreover to accept with abundant praise the apologies of a child following his/her tantrum, because apologies should always be met with positive reinforcement.

In return, you, a parent of a child, will promise:
- to only take your children to those spots where they are mature/conditioned enough to behave appropriately;
- to engage some manner of home child care when you have plans within which your child is not mature/conditioned enough to behave appropriately;
- to understand that what you find cute in your child may not be the slightest bit cute to those with whom s/he does not share genetic material;
- to forego said plans if said child care is not available (sorry, but them's the breaks);
- to act promptly to deter any tantrumlike behavior as soon as it occurs;
- and to remove your child promptly if said tantrumlike behavior cannot be stopped within a reasonable amount of time.

I think it's only fair. We all live together, and we all have to be considerate of others to participate in society. Parents, realize that the world is not your child's playground, that you have a responsibility to your child to teach him/her how to be a good citizen, and that you have a responsibility to everyone around you to spare them from the noises and smells produced by your child. Non-parents, realize that kids have to learn good behavior somewhere, that sometimes a sitter can't be found but groceries need to be purchased anyway, and that sometimes a kid can't help but be overwhelmed.

If we can all just be a little more patient and understanding, we can all, the young and the old, the short and the not-so-short, somehow coexist. It's been going on for centuries now. We can all get along, even if, like me, you don't really like kids.
oslyn, my coworker Holly's adorable little girl, is two feet tall, has light brown hair in a little Dorothy Hamill cut, and is four days shy of one year old. Her only word so far is "Uh-oh," which she finds applicable to all circumstances. Any music at all, be it a commercial jingle or a children's song or a cell phone ringtone, makes her drop it like it's hot. And today, she threw one of those little squishy stress balls to me, and I rolled it back to her, and it hit the bottom of her foot, and she lost her shit. She laughed and laughed like I was Dave Chappelle and she was the drunk chick in the front row. And then she said, "Uh-oh!" and threw the ball back to me, and I rolled it, and it hit her foot, and for whatever reason it was even funnier than the first time.

I am convinced that nothing in my life will ever be as satisfying or fulfilling as making that baby laugh. It's a new and interesting development in my life.

Oops. Busted.

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