It was a quick strike. Her arm flashed and grabbed him by his jacket collar. His neck lolled like a bobble head. He was probably about seven. The age my daughter is now. Then the woman bumped her belly against his narrow chest and looking down into his eyes, inches from his face, she yelled at him to stop being such a loser. And she kept yelling. She just kept on going.
And, I kept going too. I just walked by. Even today, years later, I’m not okay with that. I still remember the ways his eyes narrowed up not in anger or fear but complete, total, anguish.
I have yelled at my child. I don’t like myself when I’m that. I confess only to show that in no way do I have this parenting thing figured out. I have been pushed too, like the woman in the parking lot that day. Swollen with frustration over my daughter’s slow-poking or refusal to get in the car or her amazing, unceasing ability to interrupt.
But on that day, with that mother and that boy, I should have said something. I should have caught this tired mother’s eye and said, “boy, we’ve all had days like that, hang in there, I know it’s hard.” I should have looked into the boy’s eyes, instead of at him, to let him know that I saw him too, too let him know that no kid – not even those who behave badly – are ever losers. I should have done something to change the energy just a little and maybe ease the moment.
I don’t know what would have happened. She might have gone off on me, or maybe the interruption would have broken the hostility. Maybe it would have helped the mother feel less alone, a little less crazed and the boy a bit safer. What I do know is that either way, I’d feel better myself. The only reason I didn’t get involved was because I thought it impolite.
Teaching Bad Manners
We talk a lot about manners in our household: Chew with your mouth closed, say “please” and “thank you.” Do not say everything you are thinking. Be kind. Mind your own business. Follow directions. Don’t talk when others are talking, elbows off the table, don’t pick your nose in public, serve your friends first, no name calling, say “hello” not “who are you?” Don’t spit. Never spit.
I’m a big believer in good manners. I think it shows respect for others and makes things easier. Good manners often yield good consequences.
So, you can imagine my daughter’s confusion when I told her there were times to be impolite. Break the rules. Disagree. Step in to other people’s business. There are times, I said, when it’s more important to look out for one another than it is to stay quiet and well-mannered.
I didn’t say to be unkind or even pushy. You don’t have to be violent, or hurtful, or demean others. You don’t have to humiliate someone who is behaving in a way you don’t like. I think kindness is possible in every circumstance. You can move with empathy, even while you are intervening, even while saying things others don’t want to hear.
“Thank you, but I said No.”
“Please don’t speak to me like that.”
“I see by your behavior, that you are upset, is there anything I can do to help?”
You can be clear and firm even in your kindness. You can also be noisy and inconvenient when you must.
When to Step In
Move in when, someone is hurting you or someone else.
Disagree when someone is telling you that you won’t succeed. Interrupt them. Be clear. Tell them otherwise.
Do not mind your own business when someone needs help. Offer to lift their groceries into the car, hold the door open, let them go first. Acknowledge the mom with a smile, or understanding nod when her kid is throwing a fit. Do not mind your own business either when someone’s done well. Instead, send a note of encouragement and praise. Call them out for their success. There are so many of us here, no one should ever feel alone on this planet.
Do not quiet down when one person is attacking another because of his beliefs, or race or gender or disability or difference. Get loud. Stand up. Say “stop.” Keep saying it. And if you think it’s not your business, remember what hurts me, hurts you. We are creating this life experience together. Nothing is separate.
Speak up when you are told to stay silent.
Do not go along when you are being manipulated into doing something that does not align with your values.
Laugh loudly, dance if you want – even if it’s noisy. Even if people will snicker and point.
Stick up for the underdog, because one day the underdog will be you.
Courage to Stand Up
This all takes courage, of course. Courage I didn’t have the day I saw the mother lean into the face of her child. I hope I have it now.
I want to be safe, but live boldly. Sometimes that means getting involved, getting loud, acting impolite breaking rules. Scary sure. But it’s scary too to think that people won’t do this when it matters.
If you are brave enough to speak up, step in, change the moment, I for one, will be here admiring your courage, marveling that you stepped up when more than manners were at stake.