Are Other People’s Kids Your Problem?

Near me in the café, a little boy of about three sits in a push-chair while his mother fiddles with her iPhone. He’s wide awake, he’s quiet, yet there’s a dummy parked in his mouth. The boy asks for something, removing the plastic thing from his mouth to speak. When the brief conversation is over, Mother puts the dummy back.

FreeImages.com/T. Rolf

I feel like telling her that a dummy is a pacifier, and, as such, is only for pacifying babies.  This boy isn’t a baby, nor does he need pacifying. But I’m not sure she’d appreciate a lecture on dummies and speech development, especially now that she’s returned to her phone.

Besides, it’s not my child. It’s not my business.

In the supermarket a little later, I’m distracted by yelling from the next aisle. A woman is dragging her child by the arm, calling him, among other colourful things, a proper little stinker. I hadn’t actually noticed a pong from the child (but then we are at the cheese counter). Several shoppers stop, visibly shocked. Whether it’s the woman’s rough handling, or the fact that she’s hurling abuse at her child in Waitrose, of all places, I’m not sure. But neither I nor anyone else has words with her.

After all, not our child. Not our business.

FreeImages.com/Gokhan Okur

It must have looked pretty bad on the day, many years ago, that I smacked my twins outside the school gates. I say ‘gates’, but that school had no gates, simply a path that led to a busy street. I didn’t just tap each of my sons on the bottom – I actually slipped one of my shoes off to do it. The reason? Aged four, they’d run out into the road in front of a passing taxi which, fortunately, screeched to a halt. I figured a sharp shock would be a better deterrent than the standard telling off.

But the shoe and I didn’t look good, I admit, especially as none of the other parents had seen the incident. The mothers glared. Some tutted or shook their heads, probably wondering how a family doctor (who also writes extensively on child-rearing) could possibly behave in this way. Yet not one of them opened their mouths. Perhaps they feared that, for two pins, I’d have smacked them with my shoe too. Or maybe they just reasoned those weren’t their children, and it wasn’t their business.

Just the other day on London transport, a woman with long flowing locks boarded the train, two schoolboys in tow. It was about 4 pm and, after a day at school, the boys still looked clean and tidy in their uniforms. Yet the mother, when she wasn’t preening and flicking her hair, was shouting at one of the boys. “You’re disgusting,” she howled as he flinched. “Really disgusting.”

Whatever it was that he had done, it was surely his behaviour that was despicable, not the boy himself.  But I said nothing. Eventually it was their stop, and the woman, still tossing her hair about dramatically, dragged them off as she continued to berate the one who was allegedly so disgusting.

What would you have done?

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For those of you outside the UK, Waitrose is the most genteel of supermarkets. There are things you can expect to hear there, and things you really don’t.

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Next Stop for Gene Editing: Designer Parents

Gene editing has been all over the news these past few days. 

While the technique is still experimental, it holds the hope of bypassing defects that lead to life-threatening conditions.  I suspect the level of interest has a lot to do with the universal desire for a baby that’s perfect in every way.

FreeImages.com/S S

But, with tongue now travelling towards cheek, I wonder: what’s the point of a perfect baby, if the parents happen to be deeply flawed?

In gene editing, enzymes are used as molecular scissors to snip out certain sequences of DNA and replace them. If I were making a template for a designer parent, here’s what I’d cut out:

FreeImages.com/Jean Scheijen

1 Violence

Should be excised from a parent’s repertoire. It’s not even OK to give the little terror a taste of his own medicine. If he kicks you and you kick back, you’re only saying that aggression is acceptable.

2 Swearing

Oh, all right. So Go the Fuck to Sleep was hilarious, momentarily. On the other hand, I’ll never forget the woman who brought her three-year old to speech and language therapy because he knew so few words. But he was fluent at saying, ‘Bugger off’.

3 Impatience

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I’m guessing you too have felt the urge to yank your toddler’s arm out of its socket when he dawdles. Unfortunately, kids learn by example. How do you want to be treated when you’re in your dotage? Enough said.

4 Constant criticism

Yep, even when it’s slick and sarcastic and makes you feel bloody clever, a critical drip-drip-drip of erodes a child’s self-esteem.  Check out Dorothy Lawe Nolte’s poem Children Learn What They Live. 

5 Selfishness

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Only a better-than-average saint could put someone else’s needs first all the time, but that’s roughly what parents have to do. Obviously, it would help if gene editing could also do away with the need for sleep, privacy, quiet, and going to work.

6 Overindulgence

Here I’m thinking of overindulging the child, which is almost as bad as neglect. Growing up without rules or limits doesn’t make for a happy person who knows his place in the world. But, while they’re at it, some parents could also cut down on drink and drugs.

So those are my thoughts on being a designer parent. Sorry if I failed to mention Gucci, Prada, and Tom Ford until the end.

FreeImages.com/Jenny W

Are you a parent, or perhaps a keen observer of family life? What do you think?