Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I've Never Been More Happy To Have Been Wrong

Last night my wife and I were taking the bus home from dinner with Mom and Dad. A couple boarded with a child in a stroller. The father lifted some of the seats near the front to make a space for the stroller, set the brakes, then, oddly I thought, took a seat across the the aisle from the child. Equally strange to me was that the mother also passed on the seat beside her child, instead sitting one row behind. I observed the family, not talking, the mother staring out the window while the father seemed to contemplate his navel. Not only where they not paying attention to their child who was young enough for a stroller, but they had placed themselves apart from him in a public place. I found myself pitying that child who I could not see from where I sat, but who most certainly would prefer his parents to be closer.

But then I caught myself in mid-judgement. Maybe, I thought, the child's asleep, maybe they're all tired, maybe they've been in close proximity all day, maybe they all just need a little space. 

Then the child spoke. The words were unintelligible, but loud enough because I could hear them from a few rows back. Neither parent responded, however, and again I found myself entertaining speculative judgement. As I looked at the father, I imagined I saw a stern figure, a man with a temper. I could not see the mother's face as she was sitting directly in front of me, but I found myself thinking of her as long-suffering, a woman who was perhaps browbeaten. That poor child, I thought. Poor all children I thought as I recognized that this challenging marital dynamic is all too common.

The child spoke again, this time even more loudly although the words still weren't clear to me. Again, the parents ignored him, seemingly lost in their own worlds. I thought there was something about the father that looked Russian. Perhaps an immigrant. I wondered about his own childhood, envisioning a stern father and passive mother in his own past, something he was unconsciously recreating for his child who seemed to have been "left alone" and ignored on the bus. The child spoke again, this time even more insistently, a shout even. This time I understood: "Let me out!"

Oh no. That poor child.

"Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" The child's voice was rising. The mother leaned forward a bit. I thought she was finally going to sit up front now in order to comfort her child, but she remained like that as the child shouted, "Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" At first, the father seemed to be ignoring the shouts, but finally he raised his eyes to look across the aisle. Slowly he crossed over, standing in front of the stroller. I was holding my breath. By now the child was wild, his head rising up above the hood of the stroller, apparently struggling against his restraints. I was tempted to step in. I'm an early childhood professional. I knew what that child needed. Perhaps I could role model for these parents a loving way to help their child sooth himself.

The father leaned over the boy in a way that struck me as menacing. What was going to happen? Would I have the courage to intervene? Of course I would if I saw any violence, but what about if he stops short of that, but still scolds or threatens or raises his own voice the way I imagined such a stern father would? I'm a mandatory reporter after all, someone the state expects to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. I wondered if I was about to witness something like that. I read the mother's unchanged position as a sign that she was tense with fear for what was to come.

The mother remained poised, but immobile, the parents not having exchanged as much as a glance. The child continued to rant, "Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" At first I couldn't see the father's expression, but when I did, I was relieved to see that he was smiling, his face close to his son's who was evidently kicking and tossing about in the stroller. He was saying something softly to the boy, his hands touching him in a way that made me think he was tickling him. Was that what he was doing? How incredibly misguided. Tickling a child into submission? I suppose it's better than yelling or hitting, but just barely . . .

I was in full-on judgement mode when the boy began to settle, still chanting his demands, but ever more quietly. Whatever the father was doing, whoever that man is, wherever he is from, he was supporting that boy to sooth, smiling, touching, speaking words so softly that I couldn't hear his voice. The mother remained poised in her position that I now understood as full attention, as she watched this man work with the boy, and in that moment it landed on me that this couple knew what they were doing and that this boy was loved beyond measure, as all children deserve to be loved.

Soon the boy was quiet again. The father remained standing near the stroller for the rest of the trip. I only now realized that there had not been a seat beside the largish stroller: they had been forced to raise it as well to make room for the stroller. That's why they had all sat apart rather than together. The mother leaned back into her seat again, no longer looking out the window, but at the man who had soothed the boy and even though I could not see her face, I knew that there was love in her expression.

I'm sharing this story not because I'm proud of my own part in it. I might not have done anything, but my thoughts were harsh, full of the prejudice, based upon ignorance, and, thankfully, wrong, wrong, wrong. I watched the father for several stops, full of admiration for him, for what I'd seen him do, for how calmly he had done it, not once looking around to see what know-it-all jerks like me were thinking. A few stops later they got off. I regret not having told this couple how much I admire them. So I'm sharing this story today out of respect for these parents and for all parents who have been unfairly judged by friend and stranger alike; parents who are loving their children the way they know they should despite what we ignorant bystanders may be thinking. I've never been more happy to have been wrong. I'm looking forward to having my judgements thrown into my face again today.

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