Moving about my town this weekend, I made two markedly unpleasant observations, which were quite distinct from each other, but also meaningfully connected. They both spoke to the deplorable effect that many adults have upon the children growing up around them, in the one place through the influences they predicate upon them indirectly, and in the other through what they willfully do to them.
When I had just gone out of my home to catch a bus and go to meet a friend, I was walking down the principal street of my neighborhood and I saw a ten year-old boy turn to stare openly and at length at the backside of a seven year-old girl who had walked past him. Now, it could be that there was some other context that I was missing – he may have recognized her from elsewhere but been too shy to call out to her – but to my eye his behavior was indistinguishable from that of the appallingly many men I have seen stop in their tracks and follow with their eyes the receding course of a woman they find attractive.
The young boy didn’t appear to be simply looking; he appeared to be leering, and I know all too well what that looks like. It’s been so commonplace in recent years that there’s no longer any deluded part of me that’s willing to pass it off as an anomaly when I see another man doing it. It’s become a social trend, and in turn I’ve become pretty consistent in reacting to it in some fashion when I see it. That action only rises to the level of staring crazily at the unabashed lecher, but my hope is that by thereby calling attention to the fact that he’s not invisible to the world just because the object of his ogling has her back turned I can help to instill a slight sense of shame.
To do so seems like an even stronger imperative now that I’ve seen a young boy exhibiting the same brazen rejection of self-restraint. After all, the boy was about ten years old, and the object of his leering about seven. Unless human biology has changed far more than I realize, there’s no way that he has sufficiently developed sexuality to provide him with a strong instinctual desire to look. Even if there was, that instinct would direct his attention toward a woman with fully developed secondary sexual characteristics, not a child like himself.
The logical conclusion, as I see it, is that the boy was showcasing an environmentally learned behavior. The vulgar social trend of open displays of unchecked lust is probably self-progenitive, like many social behaviors, and will grow and worsen in communities where it is not combated. What I observed was a ten year-old boy having learned lecherousness before he ever learned about sex, and perhaps before he’d so much as heard the word “hormones.” It is a truly hideous culture that allows its youth to inherit vices before they inherit any reasons for indulging them. And that is a trend that is only interrupted by adults within the culture being mindful of the behaviors that they put on display to their children, and seeing that the indulgence of common vices never outstrips the reasons for them.
While the incidental corruption of youth by the action of a collective culture is awful, at least there is a plea of ignorance to be made. What is worse still is putting the worst of oneself on display in full awareness of the fact that a child is the main witness or the direct object of it. I was coming back with my friend from where we had met up, and we had to wait a few minutes in the Metro Rail station before transferring to a bus. Other passengers emerged from the tunnel with us and most of them headed straight out to the street. A boy who may have been as young as four, accompanied by who I presume to be his mother, was among them, but the two stopped short inside the door at the behest of the woman’s sudden and exceptionally severe shouting.
“Are you serious?! Tie your goddam shoe! I’m fucking sick of this shit! Tie your goddam shoe! And it better fucking stay tied this time, or I’m gonna beat your ass!”
She delivered these commands and threats with lengthy pauses and with repetition, so that the entire affair lasted a thirty seconds or so as the boy sat on a bench and tied his shoe while she stood imposingly over him, doing nothing but staring down with a fury that never relented. I stood nearby and glanced repeatedly in their direction with a similar, but I think righteous, fury in my eyes. But that was it; I reacted in the same way that I tend to react to lechers on the street, which I steadily realized was not good enough as I watched them go.
As always seems to be the case when there is a subtle but significant opportunity for me to stand up for something, I found myself regretting my prolonged silence for a long time after the fact. When these demonstrations of immorality spring themselves upon me, it tends to take me time to process what I am witnessing. And in this case, I wrestled silently with the situation for too long. It’s one thing when someone is harassing a stranger, but another when some public conflict is between friends or among family. The lack of known circumstance makes me reluctant to insert myself into a situation that does not concern me. Perhaps there are issues involved that I don’t understand.
In this case at the rail station, my moral compass wobbled terribly because of the fact that it was the woman’s own child at whom she was directing her aggression. I’ve always found that there is a common but flawed cultural assumption that people have special rights and privileges in dealing with their children, and that it’s almost never the place of the community to insert itself into another person’s parenting. But recognizing the common assumption as flawed doesn’t mean that I entirely avoid being influenced by it. The effect is evidently that I feel I must be quite sure that a situation rises to the level of unjustifiability, as by involving physical violence, before I confront wrongful actions against one’s own child.
Unfortunately, when the aggression doesn’t cross the line from threats to physicality, I’m compelled to make moral, rational, and probabilistic calculations before my perception of the situation reaches a breaking point at which my mind exclaims, “of course there’s no justification for that!” Of course there was no justification for this woman screaming at her four year-old child because his shoelaces had come undone. He’s four. He probably learned how to tie a bow just months or weeks prior, and clearly he wasn’t getting any help from his mother in perfecting the craft. Her assistance took the form only of demeaning criticism and public humiliation, and even if that isn’t the normal dynamic between them when the child is struggling with something, her response isn’t justified even in an isolated case.
I wanted to defend the child against the maternal onslaught he was absorbing, and it would have been worth doing so not just for the sake of protecting his fragile emotions, but perhaps more so for the sake of protecting his malleable mind from being warped into the image of the insanely hot-headed, irrational woman who is raising him. The aggression hurts the child in the short term, but he’ll get over it. Kids are resilient. But at the same time, dealing with his problem by doing nothing more than shouting at him to fix it or suffer the consequences gives the impression that that’s the best – perhaps the only – way to solve further problems. One day, that child will grow into a man who has the power over someone else in a situation, and if his mother’s treatment of him is indicative of the overall environment that he’s living in, there’s a definite risk that he’ll command that power without reason or restraint.
At a higher level, there’s a terrible social consequence to the message that’s sent by the parenting techniques that the woman put on public display that night. The black mother and son, being in Buffalo, were almost certainly from a background of low socio-economic status. A cycle of enforcement that says “solve your problem or suffer the consequences” is indicative of a tragic victim-blaming tendency that even operates inside of disadvantaged communities. Rather than doing anything to help the boy become more practiced at tying his shoes, his mother merely insisted that he do it better, implying that worse consequences of failure would be as good as greater opportunities for success. One wonders if she will offer the same message when he needs help on his homework, or when he’s looking for a job, or when he needs a social support system. There is an implied resignation there, accepting the assertion that there’s something wrong with the individual, or the race, or the community, and that until such time as that changes, there’s little point in trying to help them to better outcomes.
Everything moral choice that we make – with respect to our children, our neighbors, within ourselves – begins the alteration or supports the preservation of the way things are at the level of the family, of the community, and throughout the culture. I failed to decide quickly to step up to the woman and insist that she stop screaming expletives at her child and start actually raising in hopes that he’ll be even better than she. And in that failure, I missed an opportunity to put a new nick in the structure of the world as it is. I feel as though had she stayed around another moment I would have been past my breaking point, but as it was she stalked off quickly enough that I barely raised my voice before she was through the door. However, her child trailed behind her, and I saw that he looked squarely back at me as he was going out. In absence of having truly stood up against an example of horrible stewardship of our children, I comfort myself with the hope that the boy himself recognized my indignation for what it was, and that even as he followed his raving mother, he realized that not everybody is the same, that there are other sorts of people that he can grow into.