a few thoughts about "children-are-people" conversations

It seems I can't help myself.

maia @ Feministe wrote a post yesterday about the freedom people in American culture feel to act on their prejudices against young people.

there is this weird thing in western culture, especially n american culture, where people/adults seem to believe that they have a right to discriminate against children.

recently, i was hanging out at a bar, when a friend called and invited me to come hang out for a few drinks and chill time as the sun came up. cool. then, i heard a bit of whispers in the background and the question posed to me: is aza with you?
ummm…what? why? does that matter? ...

im not a feminist ( yeah, i said it...shrug). but i dont understand people who claim to be feminist on one hand, and on the other hand think that children should be designated to certain public and private spaces, not mixing in ‘normal’ public areas, such as restaurants, stores, airplanes, etc. cause in us culture, when you create little reservations for children, you are really creating little reservations for mothers. it is the mother who will be sent away to take care of the child. and how is that supporting all women and girls?

The post, as has become predictable in these situations, attracted the good, the bad, and the ugly as far as commenting goes, weighing in with a comment thread that (as of this writing) clocks in at just under 550 separate posts. As Brandann Hill-Mann @ Women's Rights Blog points out,

There is a conversation that needs to happen, where we discuss how children are part of our society, how they have a right to exist, to take up space. How we are here to protect them and teach them to exist in the adult world because they don't yet understand how to navigate our world alone. But we can't really have that conversation, because every time we do, someone has to assert that children just should not be in certain places because children infringe on their rights, ignoring the rights children should have, but don't.

To demonstrate this, take a look at the wonderful post written by maia at Feministe about how to support parents in public spaces, and the 400+ (at the time of this writing) comments in it that have burst forth with numerous remarks about how children are unholy terrors in restaurants and ruining things for everyone else.

I've written about these issues on this blog repeatedly and at first I thought I would just pass this one by -- I tried to ignore the comment threads and forget all the crap people were yelling at each other about children (notice how children themselves rarely get to participate in conversations about what would improve their lives or the lives of those around them??). But riding home on the T this afternoon I couldn't get the hate out of my head, so I'm going to blog a few observations. Maybe that'll help.

1) The specter of the "entitled" parent needs serious unpacking. I'll admit right upfront that I've used this specter myself. "Oh no," I'll reassure someone, "Of course I'm not talking about those parents when I'm talking about children's rights. I'm talking about the considerate ones. The ones who never get in your way and whose children are always quiet and polite. The ones who never inconvenience us." The thing is, just like feminism is for bitches, children's rights are for kids. All kids. Not just for kids whom we think are "acceptable" (as defined by us). As a feminist, I see how people who don't follow the expected rules for their class of person are considered to be acting "entitled." Women who expect to be taken seriously -- or just take up the same amount of space on a bus. Black men who refuse to back down about something and get handcuffed. A trans woman who requests bathroom privileges and is labeled a troublemaker. "Entitled" behavior is often in the eyes of the beholder -- and people who assert their basic human rights in the face of discrimination are often judged by others as acting entitled.

I'm not saying people don't behave like assholes -- we all do, sooner or later. I'm just saying that to fall back on the "entitled yuppie mothers" stereotype to defend your distaste for families in public places is too easy. "Entitlement" needs to be problematized, dissected, looked at with a critical gaze. Next time you think someone is acting out of a sense of "entitlement" think about why, exactly, their behavior seems out of line. My bet is that at least seven times out of ten it's going to be behavior you'd tolerate (or at least not let color your feelings about a whole class of people) if it was done by someone whom you weren't pre-disposed to suspect of ruining your day.

2) Where do we get off judging the parenting decisions of others? A few weeks ago, Jessica Valenti blogged about how as a pregnant woman she is suddenly subjected to a much more intense level of scrutiny and intervention than as a non-pregnant person. This scrunity follows parents (especially mothers) into parenthood. Parents and non-parents alike in our culture feel free to offer their own expert opinions on every aspect of parents' interactions with their children and the way that parents and children interact with the wider world. While, obviously, everyone is entitled to think what they want in their own head (I've totally been there -- I get as pissed at what I think of as "bad" parenting as the next person), but I'm continually amazed at how presumptuous folks are about airing that critique in public forums. Two things alarm me about this

a) What makes you think you, personally, are in a position to act as judge? I'll admit upfront that I'm particularly sensitive to the policing of other peoples' parenting because I come from a family in which my parents made some pretty non-conventional parenting decisions -- decisions that, according to a great many people, were seen as borderline abusive. When I was a child, kids were taken away from parents who tried to home-educate them, particularly if those parents were not simply replicating school-at-home lessons. All through my childhood, I experienced the suspicion and policing of adults who did not trust me, my siblings, or my parents, simply because we didn't follow the conventional rules. When my mother tried to act as a liaison to facilitate our interaction with suspicious adults, she was branded a trouble-maker, a controlling mother. Things were written in our medical records, warning future medical staff to watch out for my mom.

This is all to say, I've known first-hand how the judging process works. It makes the judgers feel powerful and the judged feel small. And it has nothing to do with the actual well-being of actual children, since most judgments are made by people who have firm convictions about what is "right" and "wrong" when it comes to raising children -- all children -- with little or no flexibility of thought when it comes to individual families and individual children.

Next time you see a parenting decision you disagree with, I'd encourage you to imagine at least for a moment (even if you later reject the notion) that this decision was the right decision for this parent with this child.

Which leads me to the second half of this "judge not lest ye be judged" observation: the trump card of the judgers. The "what about the children who are being mistreated!" argument. See, I think a lot of the time this is

b) Self-interest disguised as concern for children. Judging parents in public spaces does not help truly vulnerable children. When parents sense they are being critiqued by others around them, they're likely -- especially if they are already abusing their children -- to take the shame they feel out on their children. So by shaming the parent you're making it worse. Do not intervene in situations where you feel a child is actually being maltreated unless you have the ability to follow up and ensure that that child is actually going to be protected going into the future. I'm assuming most feminists (who are well-versed in issues of domestic violence) understand this principle. Which is why I also sense that a lot of the concern expressed about children ("but what about the bad parents! should they get away with it?") is actually, again, about our own subjective irritation at people who are different than us.

While I sympathize -- who doesn't feel irritable on occasion? -- it's just not the fucking responsibility of all people at all times to cater to our own individual desires for how the world should be regulated.

3) Feminism is for children as well as for bitches. It was, in part, my experience being policed as a child that facilitated my openness to feminist activism and feminist theory, especially the notion that oppression is intersectional and systemic. That the only way to true change is radical change -- change that dismantles the system predicated on power that is power-over (the kyriarchy) and replaces it with with power-with. Power-with being the sort of power that recognizes the authority of experience and skill without creating a world divided between the haves and the have-nots. As Hanna so often reminds me, to depose one privileged group and replace it with another, to critique one set of cultural norms that advantage group A and advocate replacing them with a set of cultural values that advantage group B or C does not change the basic pattern: we're still stuck in a world with winners and losers. With people who are scrabbling desperately to acquire and hold onto resources and acknowledgement that is (so the kyriarchy tells us) in limited supply. I'm not buying it. I'm not buying that there's not enough love and care and resources in the world to take care of all people, no matter how broken, no matter how small. But in order to make sure that everyone's needs are being met, we need to quit playing the winner-loser game. We need to quit turning around once we've established our right to exist and shove the next person waiting in line. Instead, as self-proclaimed feminists we should be welcoming them in.

Which is why it's so hard for me to defend certain parts of the feminist movement (like, say the feminists who claim that ageist prejudice against children doesn't exist ... echoing the those who laugh off feminist concerns about sexism as so second wave already!) Sadie Stein @ Jezebel mocks maia's post and suggests, in a parting shot, that "ageism" only counts if its legal discrimination, not just social prejudice. If you replaced "ageism" with "sexism" do you honestly think that many feminists would agree with her? Yet her scoffing resistance to understanding children as a vulnerable, disenfranchised group in our society is all too common in the feminist blogosphere.

My advice on how to change all this? (Since I know you're dying to have unsolicited advice from your friendly future-feminist librarian ...)

4) Don't demand perfection, but do challenge yourself to think twice. We all make snap judgments based on our prejudices and stereotypes about types of people. We all feel intense reactionary hate at the person who takes the last seat on the subway when we want to rest our aching feet, or the parent whose child is fretful and screaming in the checkout line on that afternoon when a migraine is building behind your right eye. I'm not a fan of self-judging, self-guilting, self-blaming, and relentless self-policing. Punishing yourself for being human isn't going to make the world a better place to live in; it's just going to make you unhappy, your loved ones miserable, and probably not make those parents and young people you've been critiquing a helluva lot happier (unless they're the nasty sort of people who get off on revenge -- in which case perhaps I should exempt them from my 'all humans deserve respect mantra'?!)

Instead of punishing yourself, acknowledge the feeling. Acknowledge the thought. Let it know it's been recognized and heard, and that it represents some portion of your self that is trying to care for you in the best way it knows how -- however flawed that attempt might be. Accept the feeling into yourself, but don't let it consume you.

And then move on. Let the feeling go.

Or, if you're feeling so inclined, consider where it's coming from, and why you feel so desperately like your own sanity is in the hands of all these other people in the world who, like you, might just be having a rough day.

The best way to dismantle the kyriarcy is by recognizing and taking pleasure in the uniqueness of all beings, one being at a time. Including yourself.

So go forth. Care for yourself. And think twice before judging those around you. Perhaps particularly those who are further out on the margins that you yourself are. Perhaps, if you stopped pushing them away quite so hard, you'd discover that you actually had a lot more in common than you thought at first glance.

Peace, and good night.


  1. If it makes you feel any better, all of the real live feminists I actually know (the ones I know personally online as well as offline) have been wonderful with regard to A) my child's presence in public spaces, from the breastfeeding years straight through today (incidentally, what's so unimaginably horrible about having a child at a bar? my goodness!) and B) my partner's and my often-offbeat parenting choices/practices. They've treated me and my child far more as individuals than mainstream parenting culture even pretends to do. Even the ones who aren't engaged in children's issues/rights, and even the ones who aren't all I-love-kids-so-much! Across generations, both men and women, and everything.

    Strangers have pretty much left us alone, too. If they're thinking nasty thoughts about us, well, they can just feel nasty all they like.

    HOWEVER, we get off easy because Noah's an only child so far, he's healthy and developmentally 'normal' (ugh gross word), we're privileged in about a million ways, I seem to be immune to 'mommy guilt' and am therefore not easily cowed, and Noah is shy enough to be pretty quiet in busy places but social enough to be easily engaged and charmed in 'public.' And he has two caregivers who are both typically able to be around, which is a wonderful luxury, not somehow our moral victory. One thing angry child-bashing commenters on feminist blogs often seem to forget is that we have no idea who's disabled in some way, who's just experienced a tragedy, who's having any other experience or feeling that would make it seem 'okay' for them to be louder or move in a different way or whatever. And, unsurprisingly, if you and your child have it pretty easy, you're less likely to have to take crap from strangers.

  2. @Molly

    Thanks for the comment! I don't have time for a lengthy response, but did want to say thanks for the personal perspective. I certainly didn't mean to imply that all self-identified feminists were not inclusive of children. Only that I have, to my surprise, encountered virulent anti-child sentiment (which to me signals a pretty pernicious sort of misanthropy) in the feminist blogosphere -- as well as out in the world among feminist-identified folks. It's not something I ever anticipated growing up in the way I did, and with the feminists I learned from.