I have a confession to make.
There once was a time when noisy children in public irritated me.
I noticed it when I was in my mid-twenties, newly married, with no children of my own. I was traveling across Virginia on a family vacation that included my sister and her newborn baby, and as we went, we ate in a lot of restaurants. These weren’t fancy restaurants, mind you. They were family establishments, with old carpet and all-you-can-eat salad bars.
Every place we went, the hostess immediately seated us at the back of the restaurant — a designated area for all of the families with children, where the noise and chaos of each table reverberated into mild pandemonium.
The baby was quiet, compared to everyone else, and I thought, why is everyone so noisy? Why are those kids so messy? Why can’t we sit with the rest of the civilized people out there, in the rest of the restaurant, like regular human beings?
We went to a nicer restaurant later in the trip, that, since we were from out of town, we didn’t realize wasn’t exactly family friendly. As we talked softly and waited for our food, it was quiet — too quiet. I noticed there wasn’t a single child in the whole place. Then the baby, about 4 months old at the time, started to cry. And we got some looks.
He was hungry, so my sister started to nurse him at the table, underneath a shawl, and we got some red-hot glares. I was so uncomfortable, I longed for the noisy diners we’d visited. Being surrounded by children and their parents may have been chaotic, but it was less hostile.
As I started having kids, I was in for a steep learning curve about child behavior.
For example, there was a time in my life when I was a plane snob.
I cringed when kids came down the aisle after me, or sat within earshot. And after enduring flights with the sounds of crying in my ears, I griped about how annoying it was.
“Worst four hours ever,” I’d say, or something like that.
After flying with my own kids, I learned that strapping an almost-electrically charged energetic child to a chair for hours in a tiny space with strangers all around is close to torture. And traveling kids are tired kids. Even in the best of circumstances, with the most prepared parents, it’s hard.
These are things I’m learning. Bad behavior isn’t always someone’s fault, not even the child’s. Sometimes kids have bad days. And bad days don’t make bad kids.
Sometimes, when my 2-year-old is having a bad day (or month) my parental-guilt-addled brain wonders, is this normal? And if it’s normal for today, was it normal 50 years ago? Or are my kids worse?
That’s when turning to my grandmother’s stories helps. In my last column, I mentioned my uncle’s behavior in church — calling out in a quiet meeting, standing on the pew — and that was 1942.
He did other things, too, as a kid. Like borrow his dad’s straight razor to practice shaving (my grandmother, who died before I was born, caught him before he could cut himself) or speak out when he disagreed with something — even if he was supposed to be seen and not heard. He wasn't malicious or rude; he was a free spirit.
He was such a free spirit that his energetic demeanor prompted my grandmother and grandfather to buy a harness with a leash-like strap for my uncle to wear in public so they wouldn’t lose him.
Sounds like he was just as rambunctious as my little boy. Maybe the truth is that generations apart, with decades between, in 1942 and today, bad days are the same.
And bad days don’t make bad kids.
Next time I’ll tell you how my uncle’s boisterous behavior prepared him to be a grandparent of a gaggle of grandchildren.
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.