There’s recently been a flareup in the feminist blogosphere of a long-running argument about childhood misbehavior and the social obligations of parents. In a thread over at Feministe several people, on both sides of the debate, analogized childhood to disability, arguing about whether and how kids’ behavior in public spaces can be compared to that of adults with disabilities.
So I’d like to talk a little about the relationship between childhood and disability today. It’s a subject that I’ve got some familiarity with, and it’s one that’s relevant to both children’s rights and disability activism — two topics this blog has addressed in the past.
People who dislike children (not people who aren’t into having kids of their own, or people who are uninterested in kids, or people who are annoyed by bad parents — people who dislike children) tend to have a recurring constellation of complaints about them. For instance:
They’re dirty. They touch everything. They’ve got no social skills. They’ve got no regard for personal space. They’re loud. They say inappropriate things. They do inappropriate things. They’re creepy. They’re demanding. They can’t control themselves. They smell bad. They can’t control their bodily functions.
All of these complaints are true of some kids. None are true of all kids.
It turns out that this list is a pretty good facsimile of the list of complaints that folks who are intolerant of adults with cognitive disabilities have about them. And each of these complaints is true of some adults with cognitive disabilities, and none are true of all adults with cognitive disabilities.
I should pause here to explicitly state that I don’t consider adults with cognitive disabilities to be children, or child-like. Among the many things I dislike about the terms “retarded” and “developmentally delayed” is that they imply that cognitive disabilities are simply a matter of slowed-down intellectual development, which is rarely if ever the case.
But adults with severe cognitive disabilities, like children and the elderly, often behave in ways that challenge non-disabled adults’ beliefs about how people should behave, particularly their beliefs about how people should behave in public spaces. The ways in which I’ve seen people be made uncomfortable by children in some ways mirror the ways in which I’ve seen people be made uncomfortable by people with disabilities.
And I do think there’s another relevant parallel in the fact that some people who don’t know a lot about children, or about a particular child, nonetheless feel comfortable making assumptions about that particular child’s abilities and deficits, and making judgments about what that child should or shouldn’t be exposed to, or attempt to do, and using those assumptions and judgments to govern how they treat that child, rather than interacting with the child in an open and respectful way.
Replace “children” with “disability” in the above paragraph, and “child” with “person with a disability,” and I think the statement is just as true. And it’s not just true of people with cognitive disabilities, either — old people and people with physical disabilities are often wrongly assumed by strangers to have cognitive disabilities as well.
Building on that, I think there’s something important that those of us who are no longer kids, not yet old, and not presently dealing with disabilities need to understand:
Public space is not our space. Children, the elderly, and people with disabilities don’t use parks, restaurants, stores, museums, and theaters at our indulgence, because it’s not our space. It’s everyone’s space, and everyone has an equal claim on it.
Parents who take their kids to adult-oriented places — myself very much included — tend to overstate the case for our children. “My kid would never scream in a museum or throw food in a restaurant,” we say. ” My kid would never impose on other people, and if she did, I’d deal with it. When you’re complaining about kids, you’re complaining about other people’s kids. Don’t lump my kid in with them.”
But here’s my secret: my kid doesn’t actually behave as well as I do. Sometimes she whines. Sometimes she has to be reminded to to keep her voice down, or not to run. So yeah, when I take her to the Museum of Modern Art, we do impose on other patrons, at least a little.
And you know what? A little imposition on other patrons is okay. I’ll apologize sincerely to anyone she disturbs, but I’m not going to apologize for her presence. Because MoMA is her space as much as it is mine.
My sister whines in public sometimes, too. Sometimes she gets overwhelmed and cries. Sometimes she raises her voice. (Running in museums is not an issue with her, I’m happy to say.) If we say that my daughter shouldn’t go to museums because she might whine or cry or raise her voice, then we have to say that my sister can’t go either — and one of the best days I ever spent with my sister was the day that we visited a MoMA exhibit of design for people with disabilities. MoMA is my sister’s space as much as it is mine.
And if we say that people who might whine or cry or raise their voices shouldn’t go to museums, then we’re going to have to bar my grandmother, too — if not now then very soon. My grandmother the artist. My grandmother who, when she was in college in Idaho seven decades ago, read Dorothy Parker and hung a print of the Rouen cathedral on her wall. My grandmother, whose copies of the catalogues of the MoMA “High and Low” exhibit and the Peggy Guggenheim collection sit on my bookshelf.
MoMA is my grandmother’s space far more than it is mine. She almost certainly will never again see the inside of it, but if she does, the rest of the people there will just have to suck it up. She’s old, and being old isn’t always pretty.
When my daughter was first learning to ride her Big Wheel on the sidewalk, I used to tell her that it’s not enough to not bump into people — you have to respect them, too. You can’t ride so fast or so close that you scare them, or make them step out of your way. If you see that they’re nervous, you have to slow down even more, and give them even more room. You have to minimize the disruption as much as you can.
Because my daughter isn’t a lone child zooming through a world of uniformly robust adults. When she’s out on the street, she’s sharing that space with other kids who might not be paying attention, and with old people who might be really worried about falling and shattering a hip, and with folks carrying heavy and fragile packages, and so on and on.
Which brings me to my most important point: that the duty to minimize disruption isn’t a duty that the young and the old and those with disabilities have to the robust adults among us, it’s a reciprocal duty that each of us, whatever our condition, has to each of our neighbors, whatever their condition.
Each of us has an obligation to refrain from whining too long or too loudly in museums. But each of us also has an obligation to accept the company of others good-naturedly, and to respond with grace when disruptions inevitably occur.
Note: This is a retooled version of an essay I wrote a couple of years ago. If you’re keeping score at home, I now have two daughters and no grandmother.