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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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Small children in public places. Dare we speak of it? I am pro child, pro public, surely that comes as no surprise? I am the kind of mother who believes that the only way kids can learn to be decent, mindful, respectful citizens is to be out in the world, seeing it all. I am also the kind of mother to drag a kid out if he or she can't behave. My definition of removable behavior changes frequently, and depends on the situation we find ourselves in, the tolerance levels of the people around us, and how we are all feeling. Whining, for example. We all disdain whining, and yet, there is a fair amount of it that is tolerable to me, particularly if I am in a situation where there are other parents and children around, because other parents and children are going to be more tolerant of a small crabby child and a mother on the edge than a crowd of nicely dressed adults trying to have a quiet dinner might be. It is never my intention to make others endure our less than perfect moments, but that too is part of it all, people being tolerant and understanding about someone elses situation. It goes both ways.

There are times when it is not in our best interest to leave, despite the thunderheads of a meltdown on the horizon. The grocery store is a prime example of this. The problem with dragging a misbehaving child out of the grocery store is that people don't go to the grocery store for a pleasure filled ramble through the aisles (unless they are newly in love). People, perhaps especially people with kids, go to the grocery store because they have to buy some damn groceries. If you've got a cart filled with food and your kid suddenly knocks it into overdrive, what do you do? Grab your kid, leave your cart and exit?

We've had our share of public tantrums, the most famous of which was The Cub Foods Incident, which happened when my daughter was 3. I didn't leave. A cart of Cub Food equalls roughly one full hour of shopping. To leave and return later and refill that same cart seemed like the greater of two evils, so tantruming child held kicking and screaming under my arm, I went through the check-out, endured the horrified stares and unhelpful Cub Food employees, bagged my groceries, reloaded the cart and left. We made it home, both of us drained and exhausted. That turned out to be the first in a two-year series of overwhelming, though not frequent, tantrums, which now seems like a dreamy cake walk compared with my third and frequently outraged child.

At the time though, I was very worried about how I was handling bad behavior, especially in public, because people are so quick to judge. Either you're not being firm enough, or you're being too harsh. Often the opinions of total strangers becomes more important than respecting your relationship with your child, so you either cave in to quiet your child, or you pull out the tough love, because it's what is expected of you.

I don't think children want to have temper tantrums, it's not really a choice that they make: "Oh today I think I'll scream myself into a coma after smashing a bottle of Snapple to the ground and running around like I'm possessed by the devil!" A tantrum is something that comes down like a freight train, sometimes out of the blue. You can spend a lot of time modifying diets, regulating sleep patterns, easing transitions, smoothing the way, but to me it seems like a period of time and an emotional hurdle that we had to get through and over. Were I the embroidering type, I might have made a throw pillow for my couch with the addage "this too shall pass" cross-stiched onto it. It's a good saying, suitable for many occasions, particularly the occasion of childhood.

But, a bloody screaming temper tantrum is an all together different thing than just a normal curious child out in public. That would be your run-of-the-mill unpredictable behavior — the running laps around the table while you frantically scarf your $8 salad and try to get the non-existant wait staff to bring the check, the pressing of faces and hands up against glass display cases fillled with fancy cookies, the spilling of beverages, the inability to sit, and the garden variety whining. That's just regular old kid stuff, and as difficult as it may be for all around to witness and endure, sometimes that's how kids act. Deal with it, help me or get out of our way, that's my motto.

I was at Target a while ago, getting the few things that I needed at Target (that always turn out to be a few more things than I thought I needed). I was there for a while and could hear this one particular kid just yelling and carrying on the whole time. My first thought was "if that was my kid we'd be out of here so fast his head would spin", nice and judgemental like. But it went on. I never saw them as I shopped around the store, but I could hear them in the next department over. I finished with my shopping and headed for the checkout and there they were, mother and son. He was about 7 or a 8, a regular looking dude, and she was attempting to pull him down off of the snackbar counter and get him out of the store, talking calmly but firmly and keeping him moving towards the exit.

Everyone in the store was staring at them, glaring at them, judging them. I was heading for the door at the same time as they were, I could see that the trajectory of my path and hers were going to intersect. She was physically struggling with him and trying to push her cart but keeping it together in a way that I never would have been able too. I am a little on the reserved side, and not one to go up to complete strangers and strike up a conversation, but there we were. I asked her if I could help her by pushing her cart for her. She readily consented, and while we walked she told me that her son is autistic. We headed to her car, her son momentarily quieted by the arrival of the wierdo stranger lady. She thanked me for helping her and shook my hand. I said I didn't know if I could be as patient as she seemed to be and she kind of laughed and said "I don't have any choice, I need to buy paper towels and laundry detergent just like everyone else." We parted ways and I found that I was getting a little emotional, because here I've got three kids who are not struggling with anything, really, and I can barely manage to keep from fleeing the scene at least twice per day, sometimes twice per hour.

I'm not saying that one encounter changed my life forever, and that I no longer have all manner of bad parenting moments, but what it made me realize is that we don't always know what's going on with other people, or their children, and that judging other parents based on the behavior of their children is just not something I need to be doing. It got me thinking about my coping mechanisms, and how often they seem to be in short supply, and about things that I could do to replenish them. What I came up with is a regimen of listening to as much music as possible, walking and/or dancing every single day, and having a good supply of fine tip black Micron pens and nice paper to write on. Everyone will of course have a different list, but that's mine.

Actually, that encounter did change my life. I came out of my self-conscious shell and offered to help someone clearly in need of, at the very least, a kind word. I was helpful to her and she thanked me. She presented me with a good example of how to be. That is absolutely the kind of thing that can be life changing, though the changes may well be slow to come.

What bee has flown into my bonnet? What brought all of this on? Well, we went to Ravinia last weekend to see and hear the peaceful Elizabeth Mitchell sing the beautiful songs that have been soothing all of us for years. Ravinia is a lovely place to go to hear and see live music in Chicagoland, and it has its own train stop, making it even more pleasant to travel there. What they do not have, however, besides Bloody Marys on a Saturday morning, is a good attitude towards children. Particularly the wee-est of the wee, the little butterflies one minute old, our newly born friends. I ran into several friends there, many of them sporting babies tucked away in slings. Each one of them told me that they had to buy their tiny babies a ticket to get in. What? That's absurd! A babe in arms needs a ticket? For what? So no unpaid for music will waft into their shell-like ears while they are snuggled up at their mothers bosom?

Hearing about this reminded me of the last time I was at Ravinia, many many years ago. I got into an argument with the box office personnel, because they wanted to charge me to bring my months-old baby into the park. We had lawn seats for Willie Nelson. Who on earth would pay to bring a baby to sit on a blanket and listen to Willie and family blaze through their 80 song set? Well, we did, of course, and the baby slept the whole time, never once leaving our arms. WWWD? Willie wouldn't charge a baby money, but that's an outlaw for you.

(Upon reflection, however, I would have paid double just to see the smackdown of hooting, hard core Willie fans and their giant pyramid of beer cans VS. the staid Ravinia patrons with their fancy folding teak tables, candles and wine glasses... priceless!)

The Ravinia baby surcharge has had me looking around at other outdoor music venues in the area to see what their policies are. Not surprisingly, most have a no charge policy for kids under 2 or 3 — one even has a place called "The Family Zone," whatever that is. I am imagining of course, an elaborately appointed room, with comfy couches, free water,and a window overlooking the concert, with piped in live sound. More likely it's a spot at the top of the hill where you can park your strollers and spread your blankets, that turns into a glorious toddler mosh pit. Both win/win.

Here is what I found out about the outdoor music venues. Indoor theaters are a separate issue all together, as many do not allow children under 5, which is totally justifiable, depending on the show.

Charter One Pavilion: kids under 2 admitted free (have to sit on lap)

First Midwest Bank Amphitheater (aka Tweeter Center, Aka The World Music Center): "The First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre welcomes all children and families. Children over the age of 2 must have a separate ticket to be admitted."

Pepsi Skyline Stage (Navy Pier): "Children under the age of 12 must be accompanied by an adult. Children under 3 are free when seated on an adult's lap. There is a place to park strollers."

Alpine Valley: Tickets are required for all guests who enter the theatre who are over the age of 2. Children under 2 are permitted to enter the theatre free of charge and they must sit on the lap of the parent throughout the performance.

Millennium Park: Free for all!

Aside from some unfortunate naming policies (who wants to say they saw their first concert at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheater?) all of these venues have the right idea: babies are babies, and really more like an extra appendage than a separate being. They aren't coming to greedily hog all of the sounds, they are just along for the ride. To those of you with babies, get yourselves to an outdoor concert before it gets cold out! Maybe not at Ravinia, even though Emmy Lou Harris is coming next week. If you must, don't pay that baby fee without commenting on their policy; maybe if enough people point out the ridiculousness of charging an infant to the box office and management, they will see the error of their ways.

The women that I ran into at Ravinia with their tiny, beautiful babies are doing the right thing. Even a 10-week-old baby looking out from her cozy world is learning about the city, people, the sky, music, voices and, as was proven in our family recently, they do grow up and have to be able to do things, like eat in restaurants, use the library, grocery shop and coexist with a billion or so other people. All children, no matter their age or temperament, have a right to be in public. I think we'd all appreciate it everyone could be on their best behavior, especially the adults.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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