The world is biased toward adults and understandably so. One is a child briefly at the beginning and then an adult for most of one’s life. (Also, adults have more money and all the votes.) The spaces we occupy, the services offered in those spaces, and pretty much every written and unwritten rule designed to keep humans from each others’ throats and out of each others’ beds is adultist. This means that, by dint of being children, the kids adults produce willy nilly tend to spend, at minimum, their first eighteen years failing to live up to social expectations and annoying people. This phenomenon can be observed anywhere — notably planes, funeral parlors, and restaurants — but is perhaps best understood in the context of a coffee shop.
When a child, your basic jangly kinetic cluster of nerves, enters a coffee shop, the pale-skinned grinders of the gig economy look up. Their annoyance is released into the atmosphere like a long, silent, and collective fart. The kid clambers onto an empty seat, asks for a hot chocolate in a normal voice and accidentally brushes against the briefcase of a neighbor. Given the reaction, gauged in length of sigh and number of eye rolls, the kid might as well have drawn a dick on the side of a church. The guy in the 12 o’clock shadow performatively skooches the bag away. People brace themselves.
The boy’s father, waiting in line nearby for his drink of choice, is presented with three discreet options. He could ignore the interaction altogether. He could call the adult out for his unspoken but clearly communicated opprobrium (“Dude, he barely touched it. Calm the fuck down”). He could theatrically castigate the child then cast an apologetic gaze in an effort to comfort the afflicted patron.
In most cases, parents default to the first option. Why? Because adults aren’t great about noticing the sort of sotto voce chastisements that children tend to pick up like burrs. Parents get distracted. They think about the next thing. They think about work. They think about themselves. They don’t pay attention to affronts to their kids so they are surprised when, on occasion, they can’t help but notice. They tend to be so surprised that they quickly apologize. If the looks and sighs and grimaces contribute to a child feeling atmospheric disapproval, their parents’ reflexive apologies are sarin for a child’s self -esteem.
The second option is rarely chosen. If we started calling each other out for all the unspoken bullshit, the veiled aggressions, the covert crumminess, the subways would be shut down from constant brawling, the grocery store would be mayhem, and the sidewalks would run with spilt coffee and blood. Daily life would be — at least for a while — too eventful. Or so we assume.
More often than I’d like to admit, I go with number three and find myself saying, “Try to be quiet!” or “Put that salt shaker down.” And that’s some low shit. The problem isn’t the words themselves, but the performative intention. For whose benefit am I speaking? I find it’s rarely for my kids’ and often for the disapproving adults around them. Worse, I am using my own child as a prop, an object, in order to build an unspoken bond with a bunch of clucking fuckwads for whom any physical contact is an assault and any extra noise is a profound inconvenience. I’m putting my allegiance to Team Adult before my allegiance to my children. And that’s some dumbassery. Family should come first and, at the very least, before the interests of a bunch of people who are, at best, kind of working.
There is a difference between a kid being a kid and a kid being annoying or inappropriate. A child talking at a normal child level, which is somewhere higher in decibel and pitch than an adult’s voice, is a child being a child. A child who rubs against a neighbor accidentally or whose foot touches the shin of a cross-legged freelancer is a child being a child. Yes, even a child crying is still a child being a child. Generally speaking, if it isn’t something I’d correct at home, I think it’s likely just my kids being kids. They don’t get to throw sugar packets at each other or talk to strangers about their genitalia (as much as they’d like that), but otherwise I think it’s fine for them to do kid shit. I’m not going to apologize or correct them publicly.
I might not linger either, but that’s the sole concession and, even there, I think I’m being a wimp.
Generally, I’m not one of those dads who foists his children on the world. I think they are cute but I don’t think everybody thinks they are cute. I don’t think everyone should. They are present for conversations, but they don’t need to always be the focus. Sometimes, I tell them to be quiet. Sometimes I tell them to wait. Sometimes I even tell them to stop it. Still, they are my children and they have as much of a space in this adult-centric world as anyone. So, no, I will not apologize if my son sits next to you. I will not apologize if he talks loudly or if he walks slowly. I will order him his hot chocolate and, if you subtly protest, I’ll have him sit next to you then ask him about his day.