Earlier today, while entering the grocery store, I was greeted by two young boys, each maybe four or five years old. In unison they were repeating, "Have a good day!" to everyone, myself included, who entered the building. I didn't pay much attention initially, but several times while shopping inside the store, I ran into the kids again - and they were repeating the mantra-like pleasantry with as much enthusiasm as ever.
Overheard while reaching for Valarie's PG Tips tea: "Have a good day!" In the pharmacy looking for extra strength Tylenol: "Have a good day!" And in the produce aisle choosing mushrooms: "Have a good day!"
Before long there was a mantra of my own, although unlike the two youngsters', it was part of an interior monologue only: "Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!"
If course I admit this with a proper amount of shame and embarrassment. As I walked out of the store, I started thinking to myself, "Oh great, now I'm the child hater." But I don't hate children. Turning 34 this spring, I'm at an age where many of my friends are having children. And I don't greet that with dread: I adore their kids. You should see how much camcorder footage I have of Neil's twins, or still shots of Mac's little girl. And after my parents had their second child when I was 12, I came to cherish the chance to watch my sister Sara grow up.
But all these examples are entirely different from the experience of encountering kids in public.
What's so charming about children is that because they are still learning to live in the world, their behavior is so purely original and guileless. They make the rest of us grownups feel like robots conditioned to behave in a certain way. But at the same time, I tend to cling to the unwritten mores of society quite a lot. Saying "Excuse me" and other customs, like such waving someone ahead when you're both unsure of who was first, are civilized acts. They're demonstrations of respect and kindness that we can all cherish. It's what differs us from the animals.
When children are around, however, you have to be ready, sometimes quite suddenly, to step out of this implicit rulebook for societal behavior. Suddenly, another human being staring at you for a seeming eternity, or talking to you with a familiarity they haven't earned, is not only okay, but it's expected to warm your heart.
I'm not saying I disagree with letting children be a little boisterus in public now and then. And I'm 100% for being as gentle and encouraging with kids as possible. My own childhood memories still loom very large in my mind, and I shudder at the notion of any kid facing traumas or even mild everyday disappointments. And I'm not without sympathy for parents. I know it's impossible to keep your children perfectly behaved in public all the time. And even if you could achieve that with your kids, the discipline you'd have to use on your kids to me wouldn't be worth it. I'm definitely not looking for more spankings or even time-outs to be dealt out because of me.
Yet somehow I seem more taken off guard by children like today's pair. It was cute that they were ceaselessly outpouring goodwill. It seemed to brighten the expressions of most shopppers to whom they squeaked "Have a good day!" But it also was loud and high-pitched and extraordinarily redundant.
I've always had an acute sensitivity to sudden noise: screaming in a horror movie, car brakes, Mariah Carey when she hits those stratospheric high notes. And regardless of the context of cuteness or innocence that accompanies children, it so happens that the have a much greater tendency for those kinds of disruptions: crying, squealing, whining, and all with very little awareness of the other people in the room. And I know that's something you can't blame kids for. They need time to go through the natural process of growing up without curmudgeons like me complaining. But when I get stressed out by the noise kids make, I'm just thinking about the noise.
In other words, it's nothing personal. It's just a physical reaction to an unpleasant stimuli. As Dr. Mehment Oz, co-author of You: The Smart Patient, says in this month's Esquire magazine, "Environmental noise stresses the parasympathetic system, your subconscious autopilot that continuously surveys the world around you and creates your response. In a noisy environment, this autopilot releases adrenaline, which drives up steroid levels in your blood vessels and higher blood pressure."
There's a line from some ancient episode of Saturday Night Live in which Jan Hooks, playing Diana Ross, kept repeating to her cheering audience, "I love you! Don't touch me! I love you! Don't touch me." I always laughed at the dichotomy, and the seeming accuracy of the satire. All the pop hits aside, Diana kind of had that coming. So I guess now I'm the instigator of a new version that skewers myself: "Have a good day - and shut the fuck up."