The controversy over a pregnant mom being asked by a flight attendant to clean up her kid’s spilled popcorn got us wondering: In public spaces, whose job is it to clean up after your messy kid?
In my case, my son, who is now an adult, was a notoriously messy eater as an infant. Every meal at an Indian or Chinese restaurant invariably ended with fistfuls of rice strewn around the floor surrounding his high chair.
My husband and I were always very apologetic – and always tipped our server a little extra for the bother. Usually, the waiter was kind enough to clean up the spillage with a handheld vacuum before we were even out the door. The memory of those messy meals haunts me still.
Many parents have dilemmas similar to mine in the restaurant, or that of the pregnant mom in the airplane. When a kid has made a mess in a public space, what’s a parent to do? What, in a similar situation, have you done? We asked CNN Opinion contributors, who weighed in with anecdotes and advice. Read more opinion on CNN.
Lynda Lin Grigsby: Putting communal crayons back into their box
“Isn’t cleaning the table that person’s job?” my daughter, 8, once asked me in response to my request that she put the restaurant’s communal crayon back in its frayed box. She pointed to the waitress, who was struggling to take orders and bus tables.
I’ve always been hyper-conscious of how my children’s behavior affects other people. I pick up their dropped detritus and store it in plastic bags in my purse until I can find a trash can. I use wipes to clean up surfaces smeared with sticky little hands.
Doing this shows my kids the importance of being conscious of our impact on our environment, whether we are hiking in canyons near our home or sharing pizza at our favorite restaurant.
When my daughter was much younger, she had a sudden onset of diarrhea during a five-hour flight to Hawaii. We reached the airplane bathroom in time just to close the door before she lost control of her body on the toilet (not in). I soothed her, then started to clean when I discovered there were no more paper towels and just a sliver of toilet paper left. She watched me clean the poop with my bare hands and wipe down the seat with the last of the toilet paper — it was the ultimate mom move.
While I did this, I explained that other people need to use this bathroom because everyone poops, quoting the picture book she loved.
I pointed out that flight attendants have many different jobs that keep them on their feet almost the entire time of the flight. By showing her that we can clean up our own mess, however imperfectly, we acknowledge the humanity of the crew.
Today, my daughter puts the crayons back without needing me to explain.
We are all sharing space and doing the very best we can. I hope that, in turn, people can acknowledge the humanity of families traveling with young children. Sometimes life gets messy, and crucial resources — like paper towels — run out. In those times, I hope we can see the humans clearing tables and the moms cleaning the bathroom, instead of just the trash on the floor.
Lynda Lin Grigsby is a journalist and editor who has written for a number of national news outlets. She is a former editor of the Pacific Citizen, a national Asian American newspaper.
Roxanne Jones: A little consideration is the key
I’m the woman who minds her own business when a chicken nugget flies across the restaurant. Or when the kid in the row behind me on the airplane keeps kicking the back of my seat and tossing cookie crumbs over the headrest.
Still, when it comes to managing messy moments with your children in public, a little consideration for others can go a long way. That was my thought when I first read that Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Anthony Bass was furious that a United Airlines employee had “made” his pregnant wife clean up food mess left by his child on a flight.
I can empathize with people in this situation. If you’re a parent, as I am, you’ve been there. I’m not heartless, but call me old-school: I believe parents are responsible for the messes their young children make.
My two boys are grown now, but I can recall the countless embarrassing kid moments that I somehow survived as a young, frazzled mom: The shrieking on transatlantic flights, or any place my sons decided that they didn’t want to be. The trail of destruction left in toy departments as my older son crashed down all the train sets and begged me to buy them. The dirty looks – and a few choice words – from adults nearby.
Restaurants were the worst. You can barely figure out how to have a social life – or even a married life for that matter – when you have young children. So, I’m a big believer in socializing kids early. My son’s dad and I often took him to restaurants, sometimes even upscale ones. We’d practice using our “inside voices,” saying please and thank you, and get him used to watching us interact with strangers in a social setting.
It was risky: There was no telling when my son would lob a half-eaten, mushy French fry across the table and hit someone. Embarrassing! But being a responsible parent, for me, meant that I should help clean up the messes. Put the trains back on the shelf. Scoop some of the fries off the floor and put them on the table. Apologize profusely and tip big.
No one expects you to scrub the floor, but a little consideration can go a long way. And it’s a good lesson to teach our children.
Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD.
Ashish Prashar: Creating a welcoming space for infants
Taking our baby out with us to eat was a given from day one. It was easy, but we were nervous when we started to wean him.
My son took to solids quite quickly, and he’s loved almost everything he’s tried. He even makes an adorable sound when he really likes something – strawberries, for example. But like every infant, (he’s now 1) he’s exploring. He plays with his food. He sometimes takes time to figure out the consistency. He drops his food and occasionally sends it back at me when he’s babbling and eating.
We made a trip to a local spot in Brooklyn for brunch. From the moment we entered, our baby was treated like a guest, just like us. We were seated outside. They turned on the heaters for us to ensure he, like us, would be comfortable. They removed chairs and sat his highchair opposite his mom and next to me and filled his water cup as they filled up our glasses.
Every time they walked past, they said hi to him, they smiled and even asked if he needed anything else. We ordered our food and ordered him scrambled eggs, avocado and raspberries. As a treat, we ordered a gluten-free pizza to share and give him a taste.
Not only did he eat everything, but he was the star of the show, no matter the noise he made, banging on the table or the occasional piece of scrambled egg he dropped. At no point were we made to feel guilty for our son’s presence. Above all, they provided a welcoming space for him.
Human beings are born ready for connection, and for babies that is through feeling. What the restaurant did was recognize that our son is his own person. Their actions set the tone for everyone else – and naturally people chose joy instead of getting upset that he was banging the table. For that we are very grateful.
Ashish Prashar is a dad to a 1 year old. A criminal justice reform advocate, he sits on the board of Just Leadership USA and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. He tweets @Ash_Prashar.
Joyce M. Davis: Having understanding for exhausted moms
I always have compassion for parents of small kids. It’s not an easy job. The best parents allow their children the freedom to explore their world, while keeping them safe from danger and as inoffensive as possible to people who don’t adore their every breath.
My son is now a tall, handsome 28-year-old Black man, running for public office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and serving as a soccer coach for Harrisburg High. But I remember dressing him in a white bunny suit and parading him on a stage at the Hershey Lodge one Easter weekend where he won first-place in the “cutest boy bunny” contest. Seems they like 2-year-old chocolate bunnies in Hershey, Pennsylvania. It didn’t hurt that he was a chubby extrovert, stopping in the middle of the stage to dance to “Here comes Peter Cottontail.”
Generally, our son was well-behaved, and we had high standards for his public behavior. My husband and I knew that as a Black boy, he wouldn’t be allowed the kind of wild abandon so many parents allow their kids to display in public. That’s why I have compassion for parents who try to walk the fine line between allowing their kids playful exuberance and ensuring they don’t raise someone’s hackles in public.
Truth is, too many parents these days just don’t seem to care about whom their kids offend or how they act in public. Yet I’m far more forgiving of parents who may be too permissive than with the disciplinarians who berate their kids – or worse – in public. It pains me to see parents treating their kids like anything less than the treasures they are.
Even the best parents don’t get it right all the time. But parents are expected to have developed the mechanisms to control their kid’s behavior in public and at home. That doesn’t mean using physical force on a child. It means spending the early years developing a relationship that ensures children obey and respect parental authority.
And yes, if their kids make a mess, parents should make a good faith effort to clean it up. They should also let their kids know there are repercussions for bad behavior. And if the kids are old enough, they should have to clean up the mess themselves.
That said, I keep coming back to the issue of compassion for parents. You never know what a mom is dealing with and what may be causing unruly behavior in a child.
We generally had no behavior issues with our son in restaurants, and we dined as a peaceful threesome many times. Except for one night, when my son squirmed, cried, whined and caused an ungodly ruckus, while romantic couples glowered our way.
I finally had to take the screaming toddler to the bathroom to try to calm him down. That’s when I saw the problem. A safety pin that once held the label of his new pants had opened, piercing into his soft stomach. No wonder the kid was screaming.
Then, there was one Sunday in church when we disrupted the whole service. A child that usually claps and dances to gospel music started screaming every time the choir stood up to sing. Turns out, he had a raging ear infection. We only learned that when we took him to the doctor the next day. Of course he screamed, the doctor told us. The music hurt his ears. You would scream, too.
I think of that ear infection every time I hear a baby shrieking to the high heavens on a plane, or in a restaurant or at church. If the mother could stop it, believe me, she would. I think of that safety pin piercing my son’s tender skin every time I see a young mother struggling to control her whining toddler. Been there. Done that.
And when I see kids making a mess while the mother just sits there and smiles, I think, let the poor woman alone. She must be exhausted.
Joyce M. Davis, outreach and opinion editor for PennLive and The Patriot-News, is the president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She is a veteran journalist and author who has lived and worked around the globe, working for National Public Radio, Knight Ridder Newspapers in Washington, DC, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague.
Jeff Yang: Getting down on my hands and knees
Growing up in an immigrant Asian household, the controversy over whether parents with young kids should be responsible for their mess feels a bit alien to both my childhood and my subsequent parenting as an adult.
We were always told as kids that as their offspring, we were extensions of our parents: our honors or achievements reflected on them – and so did our mistakes and misdeeds.
When I accidentally knocked over an entire children’s museum display intended to demonstrate the power of exponents (“what if you doubled the number of beans each time?”) they were the ones apologizing profusely to the museum staff and watching over me like a pair of hawks as six-year-old me picked up thousands of beans from a basically bean-colored carpet.
As an adult dad, I remember going through something very similar to the plane incident, except that the mess was the intentional result of my two bored and rowdy young boys, 9 and 5, tearing cocktail napkins into very small pieces while seated in the row ahead of me as I dozed.
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When I woke up and saw bits of paper scattered on the floor around them (and in their hair, and on their clothes) I had them pick the blizzard of bits off of one another and put them into a cup, then made them stay behind as passengers exited and do the same for the confetti strewn around the floor.
The difference between me and my parents? I got on my hands and knees and helped them, something my mom and dad would never have done – it’s a generational thing. That’s something a pregnant woman like Anthony Bass’s wife might not advisably do, but my sons weren’t pregnant, nor was I.
Either way, there are ways of making clean up as fun as making a mess – while teaching a lesson about other peoples’ needs and feelings.
Jeff Yang is a research director for the Institute for the Future and the head of its Digital Intelligence Lab. A frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, he co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” and is co-author of the book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now.”