The other night I went to a fantastic concert by a jazz orchestra and an Ethiopian vocalist. I, along with hundreds of audience members, enjoyed every moment of it. As I looked around the mass of concertgoers I noticed, as I often do, the dearth of children in attendance. I counted at least three under the age of 12, which is better than most concerts I attend. The same is true for many events and locations in my world. Restaurants, public lectures, you name it –the absence of children reflects the age segregation that is our societal norm, a norm that is so entrenched people just take for granted that human beings should naturally be separated based on how old they are.
When my children were young, part of our homeschooling philosophy was to include the kids in our lives. What we did, they did, which meant that they went to concerts and plays and meetings and rehearsals. I worked a job that offered flexibility, so my infant daughters could come along and nurse when I went in to work after hours, their older siblings bringing books, journals, puzzles, games or whatever they chose to occupy themselves until it was time to go.
My older kids had already reached double digits when their infant sisters were born, which meant the babies got carted around everywhere — soccer games, basketball games, open mikes, and more. My husband and I love music and theater, and it wasn’t long before we were bringing the whole family. My youngest was eight years old the first time she saw “Hamlet.” We plopped ourselves down in the front row and got many concerned looks, but our kids were riveted. Such occasions often ended with us being approached by adults astonished at the “good” behavior of the kids, but even at those young ages, they’d already attended plenty of concerts and plays, some of which they performed in themselves, and had a good understanding of performance etiquette.
Of course, our kids also wanted to be there. I don’t recommend dragging children along to things they don’t enjoy. We found that when we made our kids welcome in all aspects of our lives from the time they were babies, the result was that they happily joined us. Other results were that they spent a lot of time observing people of all ages doing real stuff. They learned through some discussion with us but mostly through osmosis how to conduct themselves at a public performance, or a restaurant, or a meeting. They were already used to deciding how to fill their own time, so it was easy for them to bring along their own work if they knew they might be bored, at my workplace or community meetings for example, where they would find a quiet corner where they could keep themselves occupied while absorbing the workings of the adult world around them.
I think these experiences contributed to their willingness to pursue their own interests in various settings as they got older. When one daughter was 12 and started singing jazz, she felt completely comfortable participating in adult jazz jams. My son spent many of his teenage years in adult digital photography groups, showing his photographs at local open studios alongside other adults, performing at any folk music venue that would have him, and birding with some of his best middle-aged buddies.
Certainly, people had opinions about all this. Sometimes we just sensed the judgment, other times it was verbalized. Once when my eldest was eleven I took her out for a “late night,” i.e. 10 p.m., belly dancing show at a Middle Eastern restaurant which featured a friend of ours performing. We were approached by an employee who threw us out and chastised me for having my kid out so late on a school night (which of course it wasn’t, for us). More than one person expressed their disapproval that my tween daughter was singing jazz standards with “inappropriate” lyrics, songs like like “Black Coffee” and “Fine and Mellow.” When she and her sister were five and seven, some people thought we shouldn’t have let them play the little Tommys in a production of the musical “Tommy.” There was also disapproval when my eight-year-old joined the cast of a production of Tony Kushner’s “Slavs!” Her six-year-old sister insisted on attending the rehearsals and every show, and ended up memorizing and repeatedly reciting one of the monologues from the play. Was the content mature? Sure, but she didn’t know that. All she knew was that the larger-than-life cross-dressing babushka delivering the lines fascinated her, and the words sounded like music, and she wanted to say them.
What of young kids who might get antsy or speak at inopportune times, or even babies who heaven forbid might make a little noise? I would argue that they should not only be tolerated, they should be welcome. Last year my eldest daughter brought her 8-month-old son to one of my choral concerts and was approached at intermission by a concertgoer who said, “I came here to listen to a concert, not a baby. Couldn’t you find a babysitter?” My daughter replied by saying that her son had as much right to be there as anyone, which is pure truth. How much noise was he making? He babbled once or twice, and once he made a cry and my daughter took him out of the concert hall for a bit. One of the babbles was during a quiet part of a song, but really, he made no more noise than the adults who periodically coughed, or shuffled their programs, or clapped if they felt moved to. Because in our culture babies and children are routinely segregated from “adult” activities, people easily filter out the adult noises but not the baby noises.
For me, homeschooling was one way to combat age segregation. Our environment was always teeming with babies, kids, teens, and adults both young and old. Park day, games day, potlucks, nature walks — none of those activities had age limits or requirements. The age mixing was beneficial for every single one of us, even, and perhaps especially, the adults. I feel blessed to continue to enjoy relationships with kids and young people through book and writing groups I participate in with homeschooled kids, and in inter-generational theatrical productions.
I get that some people see the question of whether kids and babies should go to “adult” events, or “non-family” restaurants, or other places where kids generally don’t go, as a controversial issue, but to me, it’s not an “issue.” The ease with which people express judgment, animosity, and intolerance toward parents and children is more like a really screwed-up aspect of our culture. Children and parents should be welcome participants in the world. The coos of a baby, the laughter of children, their energy, curiosity, questions, observations, and contributions should make us smile, not recoil.
Once many years ago I was at a reading by the wonderful poet Galway Kinnell. A man in the rear of a packed room was holding an infant, and at one point the infant began to fuss. As most reasonable adults bringing children into performance spaces do, he began to respond to the child’s cues and take him out of the room. From the front of the room Kinnell lifted his hand and said, “Stop. Don’t take that baby out of here.” The man did stop, looking mildly surprised and perhaps even a little embarrassed as all eyes turned to him and the baby he held in his arms. Kinnell continued: “The baby is the tuning fork of the poet.” He then proceeded to recite “Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” a poem he had written long before for his own infant son, to the baby, which of course directed everyone’s friendly attention toward the baby, who stopped fussing and began to coo and smile. It was one of those remarkable, beautiful moments I will always remember.
It felt like all of us in the room that day learned something important about connecting with and integrating children into the larger world, not just dumbed down “kids only” events. As my daughter said, children have as much right to be in the world as anyone. Let’s make them welcome.