(Editor’s note: This post was written a week ago)
You know that frustrating feeling of facing a conflict situation on the spot, then wishing you could go back and say or do something completely different? I hate that feeling of regret, some self-loathing, feeling tongue-tied, replaying the situation over in my head, wishing I was wittier, or cleverer, or more assertive, or less aggressive, or less oblivious. Eventually I get over it, and as I get older, I’ve developed more forgiveness towards myself, but I still have those times where I just wish I could be cooler in a conflict.
Today I had more than one of those moments. One in the car and one in a restaurant play place.
Coming back from a play date at a local open gym, I stopped at a four way stop, waited for the only car to turn left, then proceeded to move into the intersection where my daughter and I were almost t-boned by a texting driver who blew down the street, through the stop sign without a pause, at a speed definitely higher than the 25 mile an hour speed limit. Incensed, I thought about getting the driver’s license number and calling the police. Stuck behind the jerk for another half mile until he pulled over to continue his conversation, I seriously contemplated pulling over on the well populated street to confront him about his dangerous driving behavior. I even had my turn signal on to do so. Then, considering the safety risk, the presence of my daughter, and the probable futility of such a conversation, I flicked my turn signal back off and kept driving to the next parking lot, where I called my husband, fuming while he empathically commiserated. Part of me so wished, sooo wished, I could have confronted the individual. In my head, I imagined myself calling attention to his behavior, making him aware that he endangered a small child and her mother, and teaching him the error of his ways…a likely scenario, right. Still, my relative helplessness in the situation rankles.
The next situation surfaced during dinner at our local Chik-Fil-A in the children’s play area, a place notorious for negligent parents and out of control kids. I hate going in there, but my daughter loves it, so I try to deal. This evening’s incidents were over the top though. The culprits in the situation were one girl about six years old, and two boys around 9 years old. Their mothers were seated behind the glass plating separating the dining area from the play area. During the hour and a half or so we were in the restaurant, neither mother arose from her seat to check on the status of things in the play area. I understand giving kids some space, and also the need to have adult conversation. I’m not going to get into generalizations about the kids or the mothers’ parenting styles, because I’ve only seen a snapshot and who knows what factors were in play. But here is what I observed: the little girl chattering non-stop to any adult that came into the play area, constantly seeking adult attention, while climbing on the edge of the play structure in an unsafe way; one of the boys saying something obnoxious about the gaze of my two year old daughter “Why are you staring at me? Do you like me, like love me? Ugh, that’s disgusting.”; the other boy making nasty noises in my daughter’s face and saying something about scaring her (my husband caught this one and intervened gently in this situation); the boys beating on each other and pushing their way in front of other kids and climbing up the bottom of the slide while other kids were trying to come down. Meanwhile, the moms continued chatting outside, leaving the two sets of parents in the structure to contend with the continual issues.
Finally, the situation that tugged on my heart strings the most was what one of the boys and the girl said to another girl, about 12 years old, who was hanging out with her dad and little brother in the play structure area: “Are you a girl? You don’t look like one. Your hair cut makes you look like a boy.” Subsequently, the little girl climbed into a hidden area of the play structure, asking “When are going, Daddy? Can we go now?” Her embarrassment was palpable and heartwrenching. The little girl was at the awkward age, but still cute with her short, sassy cut, that looked something like what Demi Moore’s daughter, Rumer, would sport. It took her a little while to emerge from the play structure; she surfaced when her brother was ready to leave, and I finally said something I didn’t regret: “I like your hair cut. Those little kids don’t know anything about fashion.” She gave me a sweet little smile then asked about my daughter, commenting on how cute she was. The dad (who I’m guessing was either at a loss for how to help out his daughter in the situation or planning to talk with her in private) said goodbye to my husband and I when they left. I know I couldn’t take away the words that were said, but hopefully, they’ll take away some of the sting and self-doubt she was feeling.
I know self-doubt. I was an awkward pre-teen and teenager. I still have many awkward moments. Even tonight, I think of what I might have said to the child who made an age appropriate, but mean comment to my daughter. I could have said, “That is not very nice.” I could have said, “She’s two and she’s just looking around because she’s interested in what you are doing.” I was just too emotionally flooded to think clearly. I don’t think my daughter understood the dynamic, but it angers me to see young boys putting girls down on the basis of their gender. It frustrates me when boys disrespect girls from a young age or when I see young boys putting down girls or each other to try to appear tough or masculine. It frustrates me when girls join the bullying to try to compete with the boys. It says something to me about the messages these children are receiving and ones they may not be receiving. I wonder about my role in being a voice that contradicts that, but I think would be self-righteous and presumptuous of me to assume that teaching role with other people’s children. But if their parents don’t hear, don’t intervene, where will they learn differently? I remind myself I’m not the parent of other kids. The problem comes when I see kids hurting other children in front of me or when my own daughter is involved when she is still too young to advocate for herself with older children. I wonder what she learns when I am silent, what she thinks about saying that she doesn’t yet have words to express?
In another dimension, I would sit down with those moms, and say, “I thought you’d want to know what your kids said in there, so you could address it the way you see fit.” In my head, I can play out this scenario with everyone being open and appreciative and kind to each other. I can hear the moms having quality follow up conversations with their kids. I can feel something shifting in the direction of kindness over cruelty. But I know that my imagination is not reality, and I’m bound to offend them if I open my mouth. So I keep my observations to myself. I wish I could find a way to handle the play area experience differently, one that would allow everyone to keep their dignity, one that would take away hurt, one that would teach those kids to be a little kinder, and remind the parents to tune in occasionally. I know I may be perceived as self-righteous, but I might be a little right, too. Tonight, I have to take refuge in my writing, unburdening myself and shedding a sense of helplessness as I find voice on paper for the words I am unable to grasp when I need them.