Go ahead and apologize for your child. Please.

Reading hither and thither about the internet over the last few years, from time to time, especially Mommy blogs, I’ve come across puzzling comments (puzzling to me) indicating there is something offensive about apologizing for the behavior of one’s child.  I most often have seen it in discussions of children who have issues- perhaps autism, perhaps developmental delays, or extreme sensitivities.  People will pose the question as rhetorical sarcasm, “So what am I gonna do?  Apologize for my child?” and the reader is apparently meant to recoil, because of course not.

I do not understand.

I have a disabled child, as our regular readers know. She is extremely disabled. She does not speak and is not toilet trained (she’s 27). She gets into things she should not get into. She does not learn quickly, of at all. Sometimes in our travels, she has grabbed things that belonged to another person. Sometimes she has slowed down the flow of traffic when disembarking from a ferry or a train. Sometimes she spills things. Sometimes she makes disturbing noises.

I apologize to other people when she does these things, because that’s manners. I do this not because I regret her, not because her demonstration of her abilities is socially unacceptable or something for which I owe the world an apology, but just because it’s good manners. Although she cannot help it, sometimes her behavior or her disabilities is an inconvenience to others. Sometimes it is a legitimate frustration or source of injury (she ripped the watch off of an elderly lady’s wrist once, she sometimes steps on people’s feet accidentally, and she has grabbed at strangers’ purses and food before).

I am not apologizing because I am ashamed, I am apologizing because it is a polite way of acknowledging that we are at some level inconveniencing others, however unavoidable that might be. I am apologizing because it is a social lubricant, a nicety, to acknowledge their discomfort rather than belligerently refusing to recognize that while I adore my child, not everybody else does, or needs to.  You don’t have to make a scene, you should not grovel, you should not act like you or your child have committed a crime.  You are simply acknowledging the frustration, annoyance, or inconvenience of others with a smile and a polite, “I’m sorry.”  Nod briskly as you say it and turn your attention back to your children while you do what you can to remedy the situation.  Do not respond to rudeness.

There’s really nothing at all wrong with apologizing when your baby acts like a baby- it’s not confessing shame, it’s simply common courtesy.  Well, I suppose it must not be common any longer, but it is courtesy.

Don't be a goop. If your child inconveniences others, it's polite to say, "Sorry."

Don’t be a goop. If your child inconveniences others, it’s polite to say, “Sorry.”

Of course, it is quite rude for others to make their distaste for a crying baby known in situations where it is unavoidable (public transportation, for instance).  But refusing to apologize on my part because of rudeness on their part is in no way an improvement over the situation. Rude people who have no patience with noisy babies we have always had with us.

I came across this in a book called Everyday Etiquette: A Practical Manual of Social Usages, written by Marion Harland andVirginia Terhune Van de Water, published in 1905 (they are a mother daughter team and wrote of wanting to help others towards social harmony and beauty).  I thought it was interesting, since such a solution today would not be welcome:

“One word here as to the child on train or boat. The person who is truly well-bred will not turn and frown on the mother of the tiny baby who, suffering with colic, or sore from traveling, is wailing aloud. Of course the sound is annoying, but it is harder on the poor, mortified mother than on any one else. I already hear the question, “Why doesn’t she keep the infant at home then?” Frequently she can not do this. The child may be ill, and be on its way to seashore or mountains to gain health; or the mother may be summoned to see some ill relative, and can not go unless the baby goes, too. Whatever the cause of her going, the fact remains that she derives no pleasure from holding a screaming baby, and her discomfort is turned into positive anguish by the disgusted looks of the women, and the muttered imprecations of the men.

I saw once under such circumstances a woman who was an honor to her sex. Op- posite her in the train sat a young mother, and in her arms was a fretful, wailing baby. It was evidently the first baby, and the poor girlish mother was white and weary. At every scream the baby gave she would start nervously, change the little one’s position, look about at the pas- sengers with an expression of pathetic apology, all the time keeping up a crooning “Sh-h-h!” that produced no effect on the crying atom of humanity.

And, as is often the case, the more nervous the mother became, the more nervous did the baby grow, and the louder did he scream. An exclamation of impatience came from a woman seated behind the suffering twain, and, at the same moment a man in front threw down his paper with a slam and rushed out of the car and into the smoker. Then the woman who was an honor to her sex came across from the seat opposite, and laid a gentle hand on the mother’s shoulder, smiling reassurance in the tear-filled eyes lifted to hers.

“My dear,” said the soft voice, “you are worn out, and the baby knows it. Let me take him for a minute. No, don’t protest ! I have had four of my own, and they are all too big for me to hold in my arms now. I just long to feel that baby against my shoulder! Give him to me! There, now! you poor tired little mother, put your head down on the back of the seat, and rest!”

She took the baby across the aisle, laid him over her shoulder with his head against her cheek, in the comforting way known to all baby-lovers, and in three minutes the cries had subsided and the baby was asleep in the strong motherly arms, where he lay until Jersey City was reached. And the tired little mother fell into a light slumber, too, comforted by the appreciation that she was not alone, nor an intolerable nuisance to all her fellow passengers.

Was not such an act as this woman’s the perfection of true courtesy, the courtesy that forgets itself in trying to make another comfortable?
This same spirit spoken of by Saint Paul as “in honor preferring one another” can be inculcated in the children in our homes. The small of the human species are, like their elders, naturally selfish, and must be taught consideration for others.”

And that’s really the point- it’s not all about you.  Courtesy forgets itself and doesn’t stand on some misplaced sense of pride or self-serving attitude.


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