Why A Stranger's Comments In A Fast Food Restaurant Were So Important

by Crystal
Father and son eating at a fast-food restaurant while looking at the food at a window seat

It is likely you don’t understand the ramifications of your comment. It is likely you didn’t put much stock in it, either at the moment you said it, or at any point afterward. It is very possible that the incident never crossed your mind again.

The scene that inspired it was simple: you saw my son run up to the counter and ask for stickers. I stopped him and asked him to repeat himself, but this time to ask while making eye contact with the woman at the register. He paused, connected, thanked her, and ran off to create his sticker masterpiece.

That’s when you said it.

It is likely that you didn’t know I had spent many hours and numerous occasions working on this social skill with my son. It is likely that you didn’t realize this is one of the indicators that led his doctor to diagnose him with autism.

Even if you had simply been praising a mother for encouraging her child to make eye contact with the counter attendant, that would have been enough to deserve this letter. It made it just that much for meaningful to me.

Our Parent-Shaming Culture

It’s all too rare that parents hear praise from strangers, and yet that simple act was a powerful one, so powerful that I’ve remembered it for months and finally decided to write about it.

Parenting is often described as a thankless job, but in my experience, the most thankless element is not that our kids don’t yet get the gravity of what we do for them. It’s that everyone else doesn’t.

People who watch us on the street as our kids have meltdowns, utter curse words, run out in front of cars, or roll their eyes at our well-meaning affections — in other words, act like kids — often write us off as negligent, irresponsible, poor disciplinarians, or worse.

Judging parents is so automatic that there is often no lag time between the offending action and the judgment, no moment of pause that might otherwise be an opportunity for compassion, understanding, or simply neutral curiosity about the context that parent and child might be living in.

The fact is, most environments in the modern world are designed for adults, have adult rules, and tacitly expect adult behavior. This makes bringing kids almost anywhere a challenge. There is a secret, unspoken class divide between the parent and the non-parent.

For a moment, you bridged this gap.

I was on my way home from work waiting for a train when a little boy who looked to be between the ages of four and six bounced up the stairs to the platform with his parents, humming and singing and hopping around like a ball of sheer delight.

A nearby elderly woman made a snide remark to her husband about moving away from the “nuisance” and getting on a different car. “If I had a son,” she said, “he would never act like that”.

For some reason, overhearing that judgmental comment lit me on fire, and I even considered shooting one back. Obviously, that wouldn’t have done much good.

Luckily, the parents and their son were out of earshot and continued on blissful and oblivious. There is justice in the world.

Where Have All The Children Gone?

The thing that struck me most about this woman was how entitled she felt to have a certain kind of experience even in this very public place, an experience that was patently un-childlike.

It also struck me how simple and natural this little boy’s behavior was, and how even the most basic understanding of child development would support that conclusion.

My unposed question to this woman is, what if this attitude were taken to its logical extreme? What if we, as a society, were to sequester “childish” behavior even further than we already have?

What would it actually take for that bouncy, cheerful little boy to suppress his natural behaviors and “act like an adult” at the train station? I shudder to think.

Kids are already relegated to parks and plastic play places, or expensive indoor museums and experiences that aren’t accessible to every income bracket. We’ve already compartmentalized family life so much that, in a way, it’s becoming fringe.

What does it mean that we, as a culture, are developing such an aversion to kids? Why are we trying to expunge the spontaneous and causeless joy that an energetic, playful little boy expresses at a train station? Does it remind us of something lost in ourselves that is too uncomfortable to see?

And even if we aren’t going so far, there is a growing number of people who identify as “not a kid person.” There was a time when I counted myself as part of their ranks. Interestingly, it wasn’t motherhood that changed it for me but inadvertently teaching preschool.

After a long stint in academia, being around these little humans who were completely logic-and-rhetoric-free bundles of feelings, impulses, and reactions had a profound effect on me. It did something to my heart, and I no longer identified as being a person who isn’t into kids.

In fact, I imagine that the way I began to see those little kids is the way that God might see us: completely irrational, dramatic, exhausting, inconsistent, and maybe even a little bonkers.

But say what you will — those little kids running around, screaming, jumping on each other, wetting their pants, and falling asleep on our shoulders are nothing if not love embodied. And if we let them, they can elicit in us the most unadulterated kind of love there is.

Finding Joy In Kids And The Kids In Ourselves

From an evolutionary perspective, disliking the young of our own species is pathological. It’s kind of that simple.

Certainly, animals in the wild abandon their young for various reasons, but we are basically programmed to be nurturing and affectionate to not only our own progeny but those of other species, as well.

In some cases we’re even favoring the latter; after all, “fur babies” don’t talk back, they don’t have teenage angst, and they don’t usually force us to confront things about ourselves we might not like to see.

It took me a while to recognize that my general avoidance of kids said much more about me and what I was avoiding in myself than it said about kid behavior in general. I’m grateful every day that falling into the preschool-teaching profession shook me up and taught me to reflect, and more than anything, to open my heart.

After all, that is the quality in you, the anonymous man at In-N-Out, which led you to spontaneously thank a mom — a total stranger — for encouraging her son to make eye contact. Your open heart touched mine and opened it further.

I’ve noticed that the more my heart opens, the more I become a better mother. Heck, a better friend, sister, daughter, coworker, neighbor, customer, even fellow driver, too (none of us are immune to road rage).

Parents deserve to get a little lift to their hearts because theirs is some of the greatest emotional work that there is to do as a human being. Parents are raising the future, the workforce, the culture-makers, the inventors, the creators, and the stewards of the earth. Thank you, if only for an instant, for recognizing that.

Parent or not, love and compassion is our greatest emotional labor, and it doesn’t always come easily. Somehow, in that moment at In-N-Out, you nailed it.

You have my deepest gratitude for your seemingly inconsequential act of kindness and respect that has already rippled this far. May I do it justice and allow it to ripple even further.