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Amy Choate-Nielsen: When others' kids are noisy in public, think twice before reacting

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 16 2013 6:30 p.m. MDT

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I try not to pay too much attention to other people when I am out in public with my children.

It started when my kids were babies.

I was afraid if I made eye contact with someone in the grocery store she might take it as an open invitation to wake up my sleeping infant or spread nasty germs into my baby’s mouth by touching my baby’s hands. (Full disclosure, I am a bit of a germaphobe, and I generally feel more comfortable in public when everyone minds their own business, with a few exceptions.)

As my children have grown older and had their occasional tantrums in the pasta aisle, I have continued my custom of obliviousness. I know it’s unpleasant when my kids scream, and I know it must irritate some of my fellow shoppers, but when I am trying to keep my daughter from cracking her head on the linoleum because she’s dramatically expressing her dismay or I’m pushing the cart with one finger because my son — who is strapped in the front — is angrily trying to bite whatever comes near, I have more pressing things on my mind.

That is to say, between trying to grab whatever I need at the store as fast as I can, maintaining discipline and entertaining my kids to stave off a meltdown, I am occupied. And I use my preoccupation to shield myself from encounters with people like the rude man one blogger came across.

It works pretty well for me.

Last week, I ventured to allow both of my children to push two minicarts around the store while I pushed the baby. And as I led them around, clucking at them like a mother hen not to run into things, stop here, go there, etc., I occasionally caught glimpses out of the corner of my eye of people staring at us. Maybe they were annoyed. Maybe they thought it was cute. I don’t know. Either way, I was proud of my kids for behaving so well.

There is a story from my family history about the time my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born, left a church meeting early because my uncle, her son, was too noisy. In the most sacred and hushed part of the meeting, known as the sacrament, my uncle stood on a pew and called, “Hey, boy, get me a drink,” across the room to a young man holding a sacramental tray.

In response, one of the men leading the meeting immediately stood up to the pulpit and, speaking to the entire congregation but addressing my grandmother specifically, said, “I hate to offend you good people, but you’ll have to keep that little boy quiet so we can worship the Lord.”

She stood up and walked out the door.

It was 1942. She had joined the church in 1939, but from that time on, she never really went to those meetings again, except for special occasions.

“If my children aren’t welcome, I’m not welcome, either,” she said.

My uncle tells me she was quite a committed person, and she quoted scripture and sang hymns all the rest of her life, even if she didn’t go to church every Sunday. But her experience, which has now become family lore, is a tough one. I don’t fault my uncle for acting as all 3-year-olds do. I don’t fault the man for asking for quiet in the church meeting, nor do I fault my grandmother’s response. But maybe there was a better way.

Last week, as I was busy avoiding eye contact with strangers at the store (pushing my cart with one hand, carrying a screaming, kicking 2-year-old with the other), a woman approached me and put her arm around my shoulders.

“Can I help you?” she asked me. “You look like you could use some help.”

And before I could respond, she started pushing my cart for me. As we walked, she told me how 20 years ago, on a particularly bad day when her small children were misbehaving in public, a man said to her, “Why do you have all of those children?” He was so mean she never forgot it, and as she told me the story her eyes welled up with tears all over again at the memory.

We only went a small way before we reached the door, where she put her arm around me again, and I thanked her for her help. I pushed my cart alone the rest of the way to my car, but her gesture has stayed with me since.

Perhaps because of what she did, a new story will be added to my family’s lore, and it will be a story my grandchildren know by heart. Perhaps in 20 years, I will share that story with a young mom with my arm around her shoulder, and when my eyes well up with tears at the memory, it will be because she was so kind.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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