For 2011… Releasing Children Into the Wild

Now that my children are a little older, my wife and I have taken to letting them out of the house once in a while and exposing them to the cruel, harsh world in which we live. It is a true joy to witness their exhilaration upon being released from captivity as they blink their eyes against the glare of this mysterious ball of fire in the sky. But with freedom comes responsibility, and as their parents, it falls to us to educate them in the basics of society’s social mores.

We take this responsibility very seriously, and it pains us to no end when we encounter other children whose parents have obviously not taken equal care to ensure that their brood is similarly inoffensive.

At The Theater

When my wife and I recently spent a precious date night at the opening of the latest Harry Potter movie, we had no idea that we were actually there for two shows. One show was the film on the screen in front of us, and the other show was the running commentary from the gaggle of pre-teens in the row behind us. Adding insult to injury, the pre-teens were being chaperoned by two adults who remained oblivious to their charge’s constant interruptions.

My wife and I, as well as others in the rows around us, tried to nip it in the bud early – a frosty glare, a clearing of the throat, a resounding shush, then a full-on turn-around and a “please be quiet!” Nothing worked. So we spent the evening hearing how Daniel Radcliff was dreamy (agreed), that this movie was kind of a downer (an understandable assessment), and that Christy is considering going to second base with Jesse on their next date (bad idea).

Where are the parents to teach their kids that during a movie, you JUST DON’T TALK? Possible exceptions to this otherwise hard and fast rule include personal emergency (“Gahrg! There’s a gummy worm stuck in my throat and I’m about to asphyxiate!”), group emergency (“Look out! My 96 oz. diet coke just tipped over and it’s running downhill towards the first row!”), or national or international emergency (“Stop the movie! We’ve declared war on Luxembourg!”).

Anything else can wait for the closing credits.

Shockingly, this phenomenon of rude audience members is not limited to celluloid entertainment, but has been known to migrate to live performances. We recently attended an afternoon of musical theater at the Tarrytown Music Hall. As soon as the lights dimmed and the overture began, our children turned off my wife’s iPhone, faced forward, and eagerly awaited the show – behaving exactly as we have relentlessly trained them to behave. Sadly, they were nearly unable to hear the overture due to all the other kids in the audience gabbing, complaining, or pestering their parents – many of whom were, themselves, still chatting on their cell phones. This behavior is not limited to local theatre. When we fork over a fortnight’s worth of grocery money for my wife to take our daughter to her yearly Broadway show, I get reports of the same behavior. We are incredulous. People, when the lights go down, that’s the cue to shut your trap, plain and simple.

At A Restaurant

For some reason, my children like to eat in restaurants. I really don’t know why my son likes to eat out, because the four french fries and half of a chicken nugget/finger/tender that he will consume at The Horseman or the Friendly’s on Central Avenue can be just as easily consumed at home at a fraction of the cost. My daughter I can better understand, because she has developed an addiction to Capri pizza and can be counted on to eat two full slices. Still, eating anywhere public creates its own set of behavioral rules and regulations in need of imparting.

The biggest stumbling block for my son has proven to be the idea that you really shouldn’t burp a lot in public. Oh sure, he happily says “Excuse me!” whenever he lets one rip, but the idea has yet to sink in that this, as well as other bodily noises, are best kept within the family, where they are thoroughly accepted, if not encouraged. But in public, we admonish, we cajole, we plead, we ignore, we pretend he’s not ours. But nothing we say or do can so far compete with the sheer pride he feels at creating such rich baritone reverberations all on his own. Double standard? Perhaps. But show me a person who had to hold back his burps in his own house, and I’ll show you a guy who still calls his mother “Mother” and wears a bow-tie.

Beyond the unwelcome utterances, the next issue we have in training our children to survive in the wilds of a public restaurant is getting over their preconceived notions that their fingers are, in fact, the only eating utensils they will ever need. French fries I can understand. Even a chicken nugget/finger/tender is excusable. But pancakes? I’m even wary when my daughter handles a full slice of pizza, knowing that a big enough piece is just as likely to end up in her lap than her mouth if it is not first cut into smaller bites.

So we have introduced mandatory knife and fork use at home at every meal. There was initial opposition, especially when it came time to eat waffles, but by and large, I’m pleased with the results. Yes, occasionally a piece of food will accidentally be launched across the kitchen during the cutting process, but syrup on the window is acceptable collateral damage. We are teaching a discipline that will serve our children for the rest of their lives. I have high hopes that within a few months of constant drilling, my children will be ready to appear in public to expertly slice up a melon, carve up lasagna or twist spaghetti onto a spoon. Or at least they will once they consent to eat any of those things.

At the end of the day, a child who understands what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior in public is a happy, confident, connected child. He or she will enjoy life more, because fewer grown-ups will glare at them, tell them to be quiet, or mentally judge them or their parents as barbarians. He will call his mother “Mom” even when he’s 45. Parents who have done their part for their child will be able to relax in public, knowing that the child currently babbling his or her head off to the annoyance of all is not their child, and that they are not being judged by people like me.

Look, I see that no child is perfect. My children have meltdowns. My children do things periodically that come out of nowhere and make me want to hide my head in the sand. And when they can’t calm down, we lift them up by the armpits and remove them from the movie/ theater/restaurant so that they don’t bother other patrons. All I’m suggesting is that we try to teach our kids a semblance of decency. Respect other people. Be aware of your surroundings.

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About the Author: David Neilsen