Monday, April 13, 2009

Mom's explanation falls on deaf ears

This woman wrote in to Miss Manners aware that she had responded to the situation at hand in anger and with hurt feelings, and if she doesn't totally regret her reaction, she also realizes it wasn't appropriate, either. She wants to know what she should have done instead:

Dear Miss Manners:My son just turned 3 1/2. He has moderately severe hearing loss and wears hearing aids in both ears. As a result, he has even greater problems with volume control than the standard 3-year-old.

This Saturday afternoon, we were at the library. We looked at books for about 15 minutes, checked some out, and then stopped to put his snow suit on to go out. At this point, a man in his 50s came over to me and asked me to keep my son’s voice down. I showed him the hearing aids and said that my son was doing the best he could.

The man was disdainful and walked off saying, “Excuses, excuses. Everybody has excuses.”

I was cut to the quick and blush to admit that I called after him, “And you’re perfect?”

Had we been inexcusably loud at any point, a librarian would have said something. As we were on our way out, could the man not have suffered another 15 seconds?

In any case, a stranger took it upon himself to school me. I should not have responded by showing him my son’s disability and asking for tolerance. I didn’t think I was trying to put him in his place, but it’s possibly how the man felt. And it’s possible that it is what I was trying to do, on an unconscious level. After all, parents are not famous for rational reactions when being approached about how they’re handling their kids.

What would have been the polite reaction?

Miss Manners gives a reasonable answer, I think, though I have absolutely no experience with disabled children and how best to guide them socially. What do you think?

Gentle Reader: The offense that most concerns Miss Manners here is the one you committed against your son. Whether or not he picked up every word, he undoubtedly understood that he was being cited as a special case whose hearing loss excuses him from being considerate of others.

There are two bad lessons here, in addition to the embarrassment he will feel increasingly at being singled out. One is that he can get away with behavior that others cannot, and the other is that he doesn’t quite fit in with normal people.

The stranger, while no great example of manners, was correct when he said that you offered an excuse instead of an apology. “Sorry we disturbed you” was all that was necessary.

Miss Manners' response makes it even clearer that when the man came up to this mom about the noise, she pointed (probably literally) straight to her child--which is definitely inappropriate, whether he has a legitimate difficulty with volume control or not. Talk about passing the blame!

But I also feel like a public library is not, these days, the same kind of somber, quiet place that we expected 50 years ago, or that we expect today in academic libraries. Yes, there should still be an air of respect for others and for learning, but especially in an area where a three year old would find himself, there are surely other children playing, reading out loud, and making noise. This could cut two ways....either this man maybe needs to find another corner, farther from the children's section, or maybe the fact that this mom and boy stood out among all the other chatty kids indicates that, in fact, he was being significantly louder.

I think I agree that overall, the best thing to say would be exactly what Miss Manners said: "Sorry we disturbed you," in as neutral a tone of voice as possible, and leave--since they were leaving anyway. Does this strike anyone as too hard on the mom, or the child? What about the complainer, what do we think of him?


Anne said...

I think both the mom and the library dude were in the wrong here. She should have just said "sorry, we're leaving" and he really didn't need to add the "excuses, excuses" line. Have a little compassion and understanding. The kid DOES need to learn to be polite, regardless of his circumstances, but he's only three. If it was really bothering him, he should have found a library employee and put them on the case instead.

Library noise drives me crazy. About a year ago, I went to a library near my parents' house to study for the LSAT, and some guy started talking loudly on his cell phone. And didn't leave. I don't understand that at all.

In this case, though, I hope the mother sees her scuffle as a learning experience for both her and her son and that ticked off library guy learns that being a jerk doesn't get you very far.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't bring much to the table here, but I just have to say that I love your blog title. You never cease to amaze Welzenbach.

As for the actual question, I tend to side a little more with the mom than the complainer, but they both were a little in the wrong. Luckily it didn't seem to be a horrible irreversible situation, and one that they can all learn from (hopefully).

Becky said...

Yeah, I agree with both of you that the complainer is kind of a grouch. There was no reason for him to be so jerky.

I think what bothers me is that the mom seems so focused on her child's disability, she's sort of oblivious to the fact that she's still the mom of a 3 year old--which means, I think, that she's responsible for how he comes across in public, not him.

I mean, if someone commented on a crying infant in a public place, would the mom say "HEY! She's a BABY! You're not perfect either!" No--she would assume that that's a given, apologize for the disturbance, and if possible soothe or remove the baby.

There are lots of 3 year olds with perfect hearing who are prone to yelling or tantrums in public places--the parents don't say "he's too young to understand his feelings." They apologize and leave the situation until the kid is calmed down.

There are any number of reasons why any small child might have difficulty in a given public or social setting--it's the mom's job to guide them and to mediate between them and the big world--not point out why they are deficient to the universe.

Speaking of which, regarding her barb to the complainer, "And you're perfect?"...I'm not sure if she was comparing him to her, like, she gives excuses but complainer is not perfect either, or to her son, like, he's a toddler with special needs, but complainer is not perfect either.

If that latter....that was way lame of her.

Anonymous said...

I hope this mom can turn this into a lesson for her child. As a daughter of a special ed teacher, I've heard so much talk about how irritating it is when teachers and parents feel sorry for students with special needs and make excuses for their behavior instead of teaching them to advocate for themselves. Kids who don't learn to advocate for themselves end up worse off than they would be just because of their disability. They get whiney, they expect things to be done for them, the expect special treatment because of their disability, etc. Even though this kid is only three, the sooner he learns how to deal with his disability and stand up for himself, the better off he will be in the long run.

Maybe that sounds heartless. Of course special attention needs to be paid to these kids, but I believe teaching a kid to make the best of his/her situation from the start is invaluable.