Other People’s Children

On a recent trip to my “washateria,” a four year-old boy was gamboling about the aisles, roaming from the arcade machines to the folding tables. His mother circled through, occasionally crossing paths with her child as she unloaded washers and loaded dryers. The boy was a bright and happy sound in the establishment, playing with the metal sign he’d taken from the paper stand. I retrieved the sign after he’d dropped it, without causing him alarm. I read my paper and wrestled the crossword as my clothing worked through the cleaning process, and when I was at the folding table, the young boy climbed into a metal clothing basket and stood up.
Some people complain that “community parenting” is no more, that we are afraid to correct misbehaving kids. Perhaps, “misbehaving” is a judgement call: I find no offense in having a creative and inquisitive 4-year-old laughing and dancing and darting around me in a public place. But when that child stood up in the cart, I did not hesitate to smile at him and say, “Ooo! That’s dangerous. Let me help you down.” The kid grinned at me, mischievously shaking his head. As I approached him, his mother suddenly appeared and grabbed him from the basket. “I told you not to do that,” she snapped at him, giving me a sharp, sideways glance.
I recently watched a performance of a band, and marveled, not for the first time, at the strength and maturity shown by one young man. I remembered the first time I met him. He accompanied my son on a visit to me in St. Louis and as I introduced him (and the young lady who had accompanied my daughter) to the delights of the city, he was quietly curious about the most dangerous things to do. He wanted to walk on the edge of spiked fences and dash across six lanes of a crowded street. My son was accustomed to the rhythm of the city — briskly distinct from the movements of Mooresville, Indiana — but his friend wanted to test all of the urban boundaries. After I denied his request to dive chest-first down a dark hill in Forest Park, telling him that sharp sticks or stones might gouge him, I asked my second bride about his behavior. She pondered for a moment, then said, “Well, his mother just died…”
Of course, I did not need that information to hone my instinct to protect and guide a child. Chris and Ricky and Lauren and Alicia were all my children, dancing in the bright shadow of my protective wing. And in my recent slow drive down Audubon Street to the place where the Pennsy Trail follows Bonna Street, my eye was on a baby stroller, the prow of a ship of people moving down the west side of the street. The front of my car was five feet away from the great yellow triangle that mutely proclaims “Walkers” when the stroller was swung sharply east into the crosswalk. My car humped as my brakes bit.
There are no “other people’s children.” We are parents to the children of the world, and we owe each of them a duty of care, the care given to me when a friend reached into surging creek waters to snatch my 7-year-old daughter from beneath the froth that might have carried her beneath the great rubber raft on which we had floated, and that I gave to the child in the stroller, whose caretaker would “pay no praise or wages,” but blithely offered to me a twinkling of fingers, unmindful of my duty.