You Can’t Know What It’s Like Unless You Don’t Have Kids

The other day, I was having lunch with my dear friend Mean Asian Girl, and the Mean Asian Baby, age 2 months. We’ve all gone out together a few times since the day we went for a walk around the neighborhood about a month ago and Mean Asian Girl had the cutest epiphany ever: “She’s asleep! That means we could… SIT IN STARBUCKS!” I’ve been hearing forever that having a baby brings moments of pure joy you can’t even begin to imagine before you’ve done it; I kinda figured those would be related to, you know, the kid herself. But I’m pretty sure I have never known the sort of joy Mean Asian Girl felt upon realizing she had the option of going somewhere other than her own apartment or the pediatrician’s office.

So, we’re having lunch in a neighborhood coffee shop, chatting and eating and mostly ignoring the Mean Asian Baby. It’s never too early for kids to learn to entertain themselves so the grown-ups can be grown-ups, if you ask me! (All right, fine, she was asleep.) And I start telling Mean Asian Girl about this post Bluemilk wrote about the hellish daily routine of getting her daughter to day care and herself to work. And I remark that I’ve vowed to myself I will try to remember that post every time I get irritated by parents who seem to have a colossal sense of entitlement–I’ll remind myself that simply getting a kid out the door is more work than I have to do in the morning, and maybe they’re having a really bad day, etc.

Mean Asian Girl: But some parents really do have a colossal sense of entitlement, and they’re obnoxious!

Me: I could kiss you for saying that.

Can I just tell you how fucking refreshing it was to hear that from a parent, however freshly minted?

As more of my friends and relations have children, I find myself holding my tongue (if you can believe that) more and more, because talking shit about parents around other parents is simply not done–not if you don’t have children yourself. If you do have children, then you’ve got carte blanche to criticize other people’s decisions about breastfeeding, diapers, sleeping arrangements, day care, sunscreen, food, toys, education, et fucking cetera. But if you don’t have children? YOU DON’T KNOW, SO SHUT UP.

The irony is, I have much less interest in slagging off people’s parenting than many actual parents do. Because no decision of mine is called into question by someone else’s sleeping or feeding decisions, I really don’t give a rat’s ass about how other people tackle those issues. Like most people, I pretty much only give a rat’s ass about things that affect me, and that means kids’ behavior in public–or, more accurately, what parents do about the kids’ behavior in public.

Friday night, Al and I were having dinner in a casual Thai place, and a girl about five started moving progressively farther away from her own table until finally, she was–I swear to god, I’m not even exaggerating–spinning in circles around the dining room, with her arms out in the Laura Ingalls airplane position. She ran into a table. She ran into a server. And her parents? DID NOTHING.

I really don’t give a crap who you are, what you’ve sacrificed, or how hard your day was; you still don’t get to let your kid act like that. You just don’t. Your kid is a member of society, and as such, the general guidelines for social behavior apply. We’ve moved well beyond “children should be seen and not heard,” and that’s swell, but dancing in the middle of a restaurant other than Chuck E. Cheese is still not okay. Because people don’t do that. People don’t get up from their tables in restaurants except to go to the restroom or maybe track down a server who hasn’t been by in ages. People don’t stand up in their booths, turn around, and stare at the strangers in the next booth for five straight minutes. People don’t throw food, or scream, “CHICKEN NUGGETS! CHICKEN NUGGETS! CHICKEN NUGGETS!” or lie down on the floor, or make the server stand there waiting patiently while they consider and reject every single item on the menu. They just don’t.

And guess what? Children are people. As such, they need to understand that people don’t do these things. If you truly believe your child has a right to act like an asshole in a restaurant, then teach her how to order everything on the side, and send everything back, and lord it over the staff, and ask for things that aren’t on the menu, and tip for shit; people do those things in civilized society, at least. The rest of it? No.

Guess what else? People without children are also people. As such, we have a stake and a say in what the culture we live in will tolerate. Some things I believe our culture should find intolerable are too far-reaching and entrenched to be addressed with a mere dirty look; that’s why I blog. But when I give you a dirty look because your kid’s six feet away from your table, spinning in circles, knocking things over? That’s not me failing to consider how hard the life of a parent is; it’s basic social behavior. It’s one animal sending another a very clear message about how the animals around here roll. You’re free to ignore it, of course, but here’s the thing: just as your kid is “only doing what kids do” (which is why I’m pissed at you for choosing to ignore it, not her for doing it in the first place), me rolling my eyes is only doing what adults do. What do you want me to do about it? I’m just a well-socialized grown-up! That’s how we act! You couldn’t possibly understand if you aren’t around well-socialized grown-ups all the time! And I can tell by the way you’re looking at me that you’re not, so you have no right to criticize me!

Here’s the other thing: I may not be “around children all the time,” but I encounter dozens of children on any given day, just by living in a city. Most don’t even register with me. Some register as quite adorable and charming. The ones who register as obnoxious little turds with smug, selfish parents are rare, in fact–which suggests that I don’t actually hate children, or parents, as a rule. It suggests that the problem might actually be smug, selfish parents raising obnoxious little turds.

But often enough, when I try to discuss smug, selfish parents raising obnoxious little turds with humble, thoughtful parents raising adorable and charming children, I get the lecture on how I just don’t know. And it’s incredibly frustrating, because thinking about human behavior is A) one of my favorite hobbies, and B) … human behavior. I don’t have such a strong reaction to obnoxious kids because I’m a smug, selfish childless person–it’s because like everyone, I have cherished ideas about the kind of world I’d like to live in (not to mention the kind of kids I’d like to raise, if I ever do).

The world I’d like to live in has way fewer assholes; that’s really all it comes down to.

And if I’m hanging out with you, hanging out with your kids, chances are good that I don’t think you’re an asshole or your kids are obnoxious. To be fair, I probably don’t say that enough to my friends with children. I really do appreciate how much draining, confusing, difficult work goes into being a parent, and how–especially for women–so much of it is invisible and unacknowledged.

A while back, well before the Mean Asian Baby existed, I went out for dim sum with Mean Asian Girl, a friend of hers I don’t know well, and that friend’s two little boys. The boys acted very much like little boys, which is to say, not especially civilized. But their mom was right on top of it the whole time, reinforcing what was unacceptable behavior without wrecking all their fun. It was an extraordinarily graceful balancing act, and frankly, it consumed most of her time–certainly a lot more time than she got to spend eating or talking to the other adults. That element of parenting, having way less fun than the people who aren’t performing that balancing act, completely sucks, to be sure. But she–like the rest of my friends with kids, like I hope to do if I ever have my own, like most parents do–accepted it as part of the job.

After brunch, I told her how much I admire her parenting and enjoy hanging out with her boys. And her gratitude for that remark was on a par with Mean Asian Girl’s delight at realizing she could spend 20 minutes in Starbucks–an overwhelming emotion that I, as a childless person, cannot even fathom.

So, childless people, listen up: acknowledge your parent-type friends’ hard work more often.

Friends of mine with children, listen up: I love you and your kids, and I truly admire the way you’re working tirelessly to contribute to the non-asshole population of the future.

Most parents, period, listen up: you’re doing a good job.

But with that out of the way, everybody else, listen up: TEACH YOUR KIDS SOME GODDAMNED MANNERS. And quit telling yourself I can only say that because I don’t have kids, and I don’t know. It’s not me, it’s you and your sense of entitlement. You actually are an asshole. Love, Kate.

6 thoughts on “You Can’t Know What It’s Like Unless You Don’t Have Kids

  1. Here is my two cents worth. Yeah some children are painful and some parents are painful.. But ultimately I think the key to this debate comes down to the fact that both women who choose to have children (ie. these children are your responsibility and don’t expect to be welcome at work or in restaurants, you’re supposed to keep away with your children) and women who choose not to have children (ie. all women want children, you can’t be a real woman if you’re not having children, what’s wrong with you) feel under attack about their decisions around reproduction. Why? Why don’t men feel this to the same extent? The anti-children brigade and the anti-childfree-women brigade have a common hatred of women.

    Your post was pretty fair and respectful so I don’t want to sound like I am being too negative in response… anyway I can’t improve upon the points raised by this mother..

    http://bitchphd.blogspot.com/2004/09/professor-mama.html

  2. Bluemilk, I absolutely agree with your point about both sides feeling attacked and men not getting the same kind of criticism.

    With this particular post, though, I wasn’t really approaching it as a feminist issue. It’s more about everyone having respect for other people in public spaces. (And about me turning into a grumpy old woman.)

    I love the Bitch, Ph.D. post. And I think she and I agree on this issue. Maybe I should have noted here (as I did in an older post) that I don’t have a problem with seeing the tit come out, hearing the yelling while a parent’s trying to get the situation under control, etc. I usually don’t have a problem with crying infants. When I hear an older child screaming in a way that seems unusual for his age, I remind myself he might have special needs… I really do try to be patient and sympathetic before I judge. But there are some parents, men and women, who do not react when their children are behaving terribly, and although they (thankfully) aren’t that common, they’re common enough to make me ranty.

    And btw, I absolutely support more workplace accomodations and resources for parents and children. I absolutely believe children belong in most public spaces–it’s just that I also believe public behavior should be different from living room behavior, no matter how old you are.

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