I’m very strapped for time right now, which might prevent me from overcomplicating this issue. Really, it all came from this post over at Student Activism, a great blog by a historian of student activism (as you may have gathered). It’s based around the idea of transparency in syllabi on a policy of whether people should be able to bring their children into college classrooms. I generally agree with what he writes (here, that though having kids in the classroom isn’t ideal,professors should minimally be transparent not only in what policies they have but the rationale behind them), but the discussion was the interesting part, and in the discussion of a society intolerant of children, this post came up – a discussion of the similarities between the way people complain of children in public spaces and the way people complain of adults with developmental disabilities.
What this reminded me of was a post by a smart, informed friend that exploded on her facebook feed after she said there should be coffee shops that disallow children. This, in turn, garnered criticism from several people (including my friend’s mother, now an English professor, who had worked her way through graduate school by working at coffee shops and bringing her toddler daughter to work when she couldn’t find a babysitter).
What was emphasized on my friend’s wall – and what was brought sharply to my attention by two very close friends from college who are raising a really wonderful son – was the implications that go into a statement like that. When I offhandedly complained to my friend Kinley some years ago about children in movie theaters, she pointed out that there really are few things for a family with little money to do along those lines: the implication she raised, while being kind enough not to state it, was who the fuck made me God’s dean of admissions into public spaces?
I appreciated her tact, and retrospectively, do so even more. As others have pointed out, when I or someone like me complains about children in a public space, we’re largely complaining about non-advantaged women. If my friend (like me, around 25; like me, childless; like me, not economically privileged exactly but not desperate either) wants to go to the coffee shop, she does, as do I. We do not have to think about childcare, simply put, which isn’t cheap.
There are two more things I’d like to bring in. First, as a teenager, I worked for a swimming pool near an unthinkably poor reservation in South Dakota: the kind of poverty people don’t think exists in the United States, where life expectancy is the same as a third world country and so is quality of life. Many people hated it when parents from the reservation would bring their children in (including, I’m ashamed to admit, me). We were quick to tell each other it wasn’t racist: the kids often misbehaved or were dirty. At the same time, however, whatever we told ourselves doesn’t matter: it was racist, and tremendously so.
Secondly, there was that incident which I will not link to where a man shot his daughter’s laptop, videotaped it, and posted it to the internet as punishment for complaining about her chores on facebook. Many, many people have applauded him. Many others, like me, can’t not see that as a horrifically violent act of shaming.
Rather than going through this on a detailed level, I’m going to offer a few general thoughts that exist somewhere at this intersection.
1. First, we’re going to play a language game: take the phrase “I hate children.” Substitute for “children” any other term for a group of people. Some seem almost okay: “I hate lawyers,” “I hate professors,” “I hate Democrats” – and are often beneficial in identifying people not to listen to. Now, start going for broader sweeps. Try something that is still largely a choice, like religion: “I hate Catholics.” “I hate Muslims.” Now, let’s do it for things that no one would assume someone has had the ability to choose, regardless of how much of their identity it comes to form. (as a side note, I have one friend who advocates for child rights who tells me she’s often tempted to do this: when one of her friends declares, “I hate children,” she has to fight the urge to say the same thing about a racial group or income status.)
My point is, of course, that there’s something fundamentally and ineluctably wrong about a statement like this. Any time it becomes culturally acceptable to “hate” a group of people as a group, bad things result. I thought about including “gays” in my list above, because it works really well: without getting in to whether people choose or do not to be gay, the real question should be “Who cares?” Why would you hate a group of people?
2. Factual game: Think up groups of people it is morally permissible to commit violence upon. You can spank a child. Think about that: many parents take it for granted that a child can and should be hit by an adult in order to turn them into better people. I’m not getting in to the degrees of corporal punishment that I think are okay or not: my point is that we’re dealing with a group of people with virtually no legal or social rights who can actually be beaten for disagreeing. That illustrates, to me, a profound power difference, one that should be foregrounded at the beginning of every discussion of children.
Again, it’s not just that kids can be legally hit (you should think about it until the weirdness becomes apparent) or whether that’s okay. The point is why. It seems to me that the only reason people can justify doing that is a utilitarian argument: we might swat a hand to be sure a child doesn’t reach for a burner or an outlet. Anything beyond that seems to prove that Nietzsche was right: parents disciple comes from a desire for revenge. I had a close friend whose parents routinely physically beat him with boards, forced him to watch as they destroyed his and his siblings things in the fireplace as punishment when they were small, didn’t let them eat if they misbehaved – that’s pretty obviously abuse, but at which point? The dad in that video isn’t preparing his daughter to be a stronger person, or to respect boundaries (side note: any time a child is punished for revealing family secrets, there’s generally something deeply wrong): he’s victimizing his adolescent daughter, showing her how powerless she is through a synedochic violence on her possessions. I’ve seen that before in people, and it’s awful.
I won’t take it too far with some of the comparisons, though it occurs to me to question how different the line “they can’t reason as well and have less impulse control and we should thus keep them out of sight and harm them in spectacularly disproportional ways if they reject our authority” would sound when applied to different groups from the 1930s to the 2012. (and no- the scale is different, but the results often aren’t- on average five kids die PER DAY in the U.S. from abuse and neglect). What I think, and what Student Activism so wonderfully points out in one of his pieces, is that “public areas” are just that – “public.” That doesn’t just mean we get to use them – it means we have to let others use them. I’m not friendly in the coffee shop in the morning – but I also know that the people who irritate me by virtue of having arrived to the line before I did are just as entitled, and so I try to not be a jerk. Similarly, while I’m deeply sorry if a child prevents the enjoyment of a soy latte or is annoying in a restaurant (and oh god they can be), as a sort of general-purpose disliker of other, I promise someone is equally annoyed by your texting in the grocery store, talking on your phone, listening to music, having a ringer, walking too quickly or too slowly on the escalator, etc.
Last, and especially true: I think people need to consider, when they say “I hate kids” or “I don’t like seeing kids,” what it is they’re saying, about whom, and what the actionable effects of that are. There are plenty of people who hate children – at least five per day can even be statistically verified.