the hard part

Kids Deserve to Take Up Space Too

Photo-Illustration: the Cut; Photos Getty Images

Amil Niazi’s monthly meditations on the highs and lows of parenting — and every feeling in-between.

Last summer, my husband and I drove with our 4-year-old and 2-year-old to his hometown on the east coast of Canada. We were there to bury his parents, a memorial that had been a long time in the making because of the pandemic. It was a heavy, sometimes magical time that, after a few weeks, took its toll.

On the four-day-long drive back home to Toronto, we pulled a U-Haul full of memories and keepsakes behind our aging Honda, praying nothing would fall off or out or something worse we hadn’t even considered. Our first stop along the way was a small town in Nova Scotia, where we pulled into a restaurant for lunch. We were all sticky from the hot car and tired, emotionally fried from the last three weeks, but the kids were faring surprisingly well.

It was one of those casual, pub-food-type places, where nachos and fried foods littered every table and tinny Top 40 blared from the speakers above the bar. We sat down and ordered quickly, but between the lunch rush and understaffing, our chicken fingers and fries took over an hour to arrive. While we waited, the kids joked around with each other at the table, looked out the window next to our booth, danced in their seats to the music playing over the speaker, and generally entertained themselves during the excruciating wait. Just as we were finishing up, an older couple who had been sitting behind us got up to leave. As they did, the wife got close to me and, in a tone anyone would recognize, told me my kids had ruined their lunch.

I admit: I lost it. I looked up at her, heat spreading across my face, and told her we’d just buried my husband’s parents and maybe she could show a bit of compassion. I regretted saying it immediately. What difference should his grief make to this stranger? And how dare I use it to try to win some hypothetical argument? The woman seemed unfazed. I apologized to my husband, and, thankfully, the kids seemed not to notice that this outburst had anything to do with them. We managed to laugh about it afterward, but that feeling, that itchy mixture of anger, guilt, shame, and resentment, sat like a heavy ball in my stomach the rest of the way home.

I’ve since thought about that interaction more than I want to admit. At any moment, like a shitty magic trick, I can conjure up those exact same emotions. Those maybe ten seconds impacted me, probably forever. And now, as school winds down for the year and parents prepare to scramble to entertain their brood for the next few months, that woman has been on my mind even more. Who has a right to exist, to take up space without judgment or reproach? And if it’s not our kids, some of our most vulnerable, then how can we call ourselves a loving society?

Whether it’s on an airplane, in a restaurant, in an elevator, or on the subway or any other space that throws strangers of all kinds into tight quarters, there’s an underlying tension that seems to fill the space when kids are involved. There’s an unspoken feeling that they should blend into the background, keep quiet, be still, and find a way to disappear in order to be accepted into a public space. But while you’re sighing or eye-rolling or just silently but obviously bracing yourself, trust that no one is more tense than the parents of these kids. We’re on edge, hoping desperately that they’ll be on good behavior, that they’ll be mindful of their words and actions, that they’ll find a way to be the best version of themselves and draw as little attention as possible to both them and us.

But they’re kids. Even at their most polite and small, they take up space. They cry, they laugh, they want to play, and they want to exist as they are. Are they wrong for that? If we can’t be hospitable to the young, who will we make accommodations for? Who do we give permission to be a part of the world? The list, seemingly, is ever-shrinking.

Something seems to have shifted post-lockdown, and our appetite for empathy and grace in communal spaces has withered. Our tolerance for the discomforts of the outside world, after an extended overabundance of inside comforts, is now paper-thin. I feel it acutely as a parent; in every public interaction and space, I’m holding my breath, watching the glares, and listening to the muttered grievances, every encounter underscoring that we shouldn’t be here, that we’re a nuisance and don’t belong. It’s a hostility that extends itself to anyone who is not an able-bodied adult; we design our spaces to welcome a select population and keep the rest at bay. Anyone who is vulnerable, disabled, or stands out knows immediately where they aren’t wanted, which spaces are welcoming and which aren’t.

Sure, of course there are oblivious parents, people who don’t respect the shared space and let their kids run wild without regard for others. But I promise you they’re a minority; most of us are excruciatingly aware of how our kids are behaving and on tenterhooks making sure they don’t get in the way. I try desperately to make sure my kids are mindful of where they’re walking, of who else they’re sharing space with, and when they need to make room for someone else. More than anything, I want them to be caring, respectful people who can extend grace where they see fit. But they’re still kids. They’re loud, they get in the way, they exist.

This summer, when you see kids and families at the airport or on a patio, make some allowances for their personhood, just as you’d expect others to make room for yours. We all carry our own personal grief, trauma, sorrow, and fear, so what if we tried harder to be compassionate and understanding of what’s unspoken in our shared spaces? How much easier would it be to navigate the world?

I’ve thought so often about what I wish I’d said instead to that woman who refused to let that moment go by with some sympathy. I know she probably won’t see this, but there are many, many others just like her, and hopefully some of them will. Meanwhile, I’ll be traveling and taking my kids to restaurants and galleries and teaching them how to be in the world with the kind of empathy and love we all deserve.

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