People-watching is one of my favorite pastimes. The teacher in me especially enjoys observing parents as they interact (or fail to interact) with their children. I must admit to being brutally judgmental in that department. After all, my children are grown, and I’ve conveniently forgotten all my parenting mistakes. That qualifies me as an expert, right?
Yesterday my husband and I were eating lunch on the terrace of a local restaurant. It was a gorgeous sunshiny day, and a gentle breeze swirled through the courtyard as we waited for our food. Soon a couple entered with two young children and settled two tables away from ours. From working with children for more than forty years, I have an uncanny ability to pinpoint ages. After placing the one-year-old (I’ll call him Mikey) in a high chair and the six-year-old (Let’s call him Josh) next to him, the mom pulled out a coloring book and markers for Josh. Good job, I thought, you brought something to amuse your child while he waits. Her strategy would have worked beautifully had she not placed the siblings next to each other. As soon as Mom turned her attention to the menu, Mikey began grabbing markers from his brother who was coloring quietly, minding his own business. Of course, Josh raised his voice in frustration and tried to grab them back. Mom could have deescalated the conflict quickly by seating herself between the children and distracting the toddler with an age-appropriate activity, but that’s not what happened. Instead, she scolded Josh harshly while Dad pulled out his phone, completely ignoring the situation.
“Stop that and be quiet, Josh!” Mom shouted across the table, her face twisted into an ugly scowl. “He’s only a baby.” Then she turned to Mikey with a doting smile and sugary voice. “Right, sweetie? Let’s give the marker back to Josh. Okaaaay, sweetie?” Well, that wasn’t going to happen willingly, as you can imagine. Now, with both kids screaming, Mom was going berserk, grabbing markers, slapping hands, and creating an unnecessary scene. Dad was still staring at his phone, and now the busy server stood waiting for their order.
Unfortunately, I see similar situations play out nearly every time I eat at a restaurant or shop in a store. Often the parents ignore their children instead of interacting with them. Of course, kids are going to act out to get their parents’ attention. When they misbehave, they get scolded or worse, and an unnecessary scene erupts. Here is an opportunity to spend rare quality time communicating with children and teaching them important social skills, but either the parents are staring at a screen or correcting their children loudly and punitively.
Instead of instructing their children proactively about the behavior they expect in various settings, many parents overreact with surprise when their children behave like normal kids in public settings. It’s almost as if these clueless adults are setting up conflict intentionally so they can exhibit power and control over the smaller, weaker humans in their care. I can’t help but wonder at what age Josh stopped being “sweetie” and turned into the object of his mother’s fury and his father’s disregard.
Cindy L. Freeman (a retired musician and music teacher) is the author of two award-winning short stories and four published novels: Diary in the Attic, Unrevealed, The Dark Room, and I Want to Go Home. Website: www.cindylfreeman.com; Facebook page: Cindy Loomis Freeman. Her books are available through amazon.com or hightidepublications.com