Tuesday, November 12, 2019

And a little child shall lead them

One of the things that I love the most about living in France is its proximity to other countries, which makes international travel a breeze. Thus, we do a lot of it. Our latest trip took us to Bavaria, a very reasonable 6-hour drive from Paris. Le Mot Juste is not an adventure blog, so I won’t delve into the delights of the region (which are many). Instead, I’d like to focus on one particular aspect of travel that has been part of our experience since 2013 and will continue to be part of our experience until we lose our minds and give up altogether: travelling with small children.

Now, I will admit that I once used to be somewhat child-intolerant, but a) that was pretty much limited to screaming babies on public transportation, and even then they had to REALLY be screamy, and b) as the French say, il n’y a que les cons qui ne changent pas d’avis (only idiots never change their minds). I am not an idiot, generally speaking; therefore, I am not averse to changing my mind. With regard to children, I have definitely changed—for now I am on the other side of the aisle, as it were, and find myself frequently confronted with varying degrees of child intolerance.

But this most recent trip took it to a whole other level.

I was not prepared for the amount of blatant anti-child nastiness we encountered on our journey. Blank stares, outright glaring, impromptu lecturing, knocking on our hotel room door to tell us to pipe down…. At one point, we had just arrived in a crowded restaurant whose decibel level was off the charts, and yet we STILL managed to piss off a couple seated at a table next to ours, simply by our encroachment on “their” sphere of existence.

Are we unnaturally obnoxious? We make more noise than a couple, that’s for sure. But we are not insane, shrieking, out-of-control freaks, either. We’re what one might call a “family,” with these things called “children,” which, contrary to what many folks apparently believe, are not in fact miniature adults whose primary goal in life is to conform to other people’s unrealistic expectations. They make noise, and cannot understand why everyone keeps telling them to shut up—or better yet, go away—in a more or less aggressive fashion. 

My little girl, who is three, was “shhh’d” at with irritation in a church in Munich, simply because she was running. Not racing around screeching and knocking statues over, mind you. Just pitter-pattering her little feet as three-year-olds are wont to do. You know, because she was feeling joyful. Did Jesus not say, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”? I should have said as much to the shhh-er, except my German is limited to dankeschön—and this was not a dankeschön kind of moment.

But lest anyone think that I am singling out Germans, don’t worry; our ability to aggravate is truly without borders.

We have been scolded and scoffed at on the TGV in France on many occasions, simply because our kids were existing too loudly in the library-like silence of the “family” coach.

We travelled to Scotland two summers ago and were dismayed at the number of cozy, welcoming-looking bed and breakfasts that formally refused families. 

Italy is the exception that proves the rule: our kids are treated to a chorus of Che bello! Che bellaat every corner and so UNUSED are we to warm smiles and spontaneous displays of affection from perfect strangers that it often takes us a few days to acclimate. Do Italians have bigger hearts than everyone else? I think they just might!

Contrast that attitude with all the “anti-stroller” restaurants (I’m looking at you, NYC), kid-free zones on trains, and the very real demand for childless flights. Never mind how demonstrably loud modern living is; apparently the sound of a disgruntled baby is so disturbing to some that they would happily pay a premium, just to shield their delicate senses from the nuisance. 

What does it say about our civilization as a whole that we are ready to go to such lengths to exclude entire swaths of it, simply because we find something about “them” insufferable? If we had any sense left in us, we would recognize and cherish the very old and the very young for what they are—our greatest treasure and our greatest hope. Instead, we have turned them into pariahs. The elderly, the sick, the weak: we don’t want to see them. The young, the high-spirited, the willful: we might be okay with seeing them, but we sure as hell don’t want to hear them. We’d rather embrace the insanity of imagining that it was never and will never be our turn—that “they” are nothing like “us.”

How many so-called woke people who pride themselves on their open-mindedness and inclusive attitude toward other cultures, ethnicities, and religions see no hypocrisy what-so-ever in turning up their noses at children? Today, being blatantly intolerant is uncool—unless your intolerance is directed at a child, that is. Then it’s justifiable, for how dare that child not comply with your idea of what she should be? 

You do realize that hating someone because he has ancestry that you don’t like is EVERY BIT AS LUDICROUS as hating someone because she’s a child acting how normal children act, right? Saying “I don’t like children” is NO BETTER than saying “I don’t like short people” or “I don’t like foreigners” or “I don’t like redheads.” All of it is intolerance, and all of it is unacceptable.

How does this even need to be said? And yet clearly it does.

Meanwhile, look around you the next time you’re out. How many couples and even entire families sit together in absolute silence, eyes glued to their telephone screens? The art of human interaction is rapidly fading away; we appear to be more at ease with Siri than we are with one another. And yet we find that normal.

We invite dogs into our restaurants and no one bats an eye. Quite the contrary! Oh, how sweet. Can I pet him? But a child—or worse, a baby? Immediate wariness. Nine times out of ten, when my husband and I enter any restaurant other than a fast food joint with our kids and are shuffling around getting ourselves situated, there are multiple pairs of eyes staring disapprovingly at us. I swear I can feel the judgement like hot coals on my skin. C’est in-sup-por-ta-ble.

How bad is it for you really, childless person? Is someone else’s kid (mine, for example) doing a tap dance in the middle of your dinner plate? Knocking over your cocktail? Setting your hair on fire? Probably not. His PARENTS, on the other hand, are undoubtedly exhausted in every sense of the term. Why? Because nothing—NOTHING—is harder than parenting. It is, to quote Jerry Maguire, “an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will NEVER fully tell you about.” 

On behalf of all parents, try to have some empathy. We are fully aware of the disturbance that our kid(s) can cause, and are trying our best to keep things as calm as possible. We do not need your dark looks, your audible sighs, your eye-rolling, or any of your other insensitive, self-superior, and frankly childish theatrics. You don’t like kids? By all means feel free not to have any. But leave your reverse ageism at home. Better yet, stay at home yourself: it is guaranteed to be quiet and totally free of those small creatures you seem to loathe so much—who, incidentally, also represent the survival of your own foolhardy species.

I was on a plane not that long ago from New York to Paris. A baby cried intermittently throughout the 7-hour flight. It wasn’t fun for anybody—but do you know who it really wasn’t fun for? The mother. She spent the entire time rocking her clearly suffering child, singing to him, and trying to soothe him as best she could while also caring for his sibling seated next to her. When the plane finally began to descend toward the runway, and the ill child’s whimpering intensified, one woman seated two rows up distinctly said, without a shred of irony, “Decapitate him.” 

Decapitate him.

That’s where we are today. And we should be absolutely ASHAMED to have let our “enlightened” values sink so low as to justify pointing our finger at a beleaguered single mother and her sick baby instead of pulling our heads out of our own cold, disdainful asses and going over to ask her what we can do to be helpful.

Naturally, no one took the mother’s defense. So I did. And my husband did. And together we told that passenger and her bloated ego to STFU or go buy herself a spot in first class instead of on a low-cost red-eye that only the heavily drugged would ever have managed to sleep through in the first place.

Tell me this: is it the child whose behavior is truly destructive? Or is it yours, the so-called adult who refuses to accept the nature of children and would rather condemn them for somehow offending your over-privileged sense of decorum?

As we head into the Christmas season, a season that still smiles fondly on children, let us remember why we celebrate it in the first place: because God so loved the world that He took the form of a tiny child in order to save us from ourselves.

But we’d rather smirk at such a notion and write it off as myth, all the better to justify our refusal to love one another in return, whether adult or child—even when deep down, we know better.

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