December 27, 2006

The Little Girl Who Came to Dinner

Kids say the darndest things. I have a story to tell that involves a little girl who came to dinner with her parents last month. She is cute as a button, a future prima ballerina, and all of three and a half years old. Her parents don't seem to curb her much and I really had to hold my tongue a few times.

We currently live in my mother-in-law's house, the house my husband grew up in. This lady was known to many as grandma and there are toys all over the place to prove it. Some of the toys at this house are genuine antiques, the likes of which have never been seen by the current generation of kids. We were rather hoping that if we introduced our friend's daughter to some of these toys that she would settle down and entertain herself. No such luck. She expected us to give her all our attention, and she got worse as the evening went on.

At dinner she busted my chops for giving her a paper napkin instead of a nice cloth napkin like the adults had. She spilled her water glass all over the table and I was never so grateful for the custom table cover as not a drop of water got through to the beautiful wood underneath. After dinner, my husband and the little girl's father sought refuge by remaining in their seats and talking amongst themselves on their favorite topics of hunting and fishing. I was left to clearing the table and to entertaining our little guest. I didn't really like the separation of sexes. I felt as if I was in a Victorian era time warp and that the men might pull out stogies at any time.

I have to stop myself here and say something positive about this child. Our little guest tried everything on her plate without a fuss. That really impressed me and my husband as our nieces and nephews are the most finicky on the planet.

The child's mother told her that there would be no dessert if she did not finish her plate, which I thought was a good disciplinary move; however, I couldn't help notice that she did not finish her place and the child got dessert anyway. I guess you have to pick your battles. After dessert and coffee, her mother then suggested we put on music so she could dance for us in the living room. I politely acquiesced. Big mistake. She danced for us and at first it was really cute, then she wouldn't allow us to talk during the performance.

The most surprising thing that happened on this social experiment of an evening was a conversation my husband had with the little girl when I was out of the room. He said she was standing next to him in the kitchen, staring at him for the longest time. He could tell there was a big question forming in her little brain. Then she blurted out:

"Why don't you have children?"
This made him smile as he replied, "We do have children. We have lots of nieces and nephews."

Perhaps this was not the most direct and honest answer, but it seemed to satisfy her at the time. It must have seemed strange to her that we were surrounded by toys and not children. As my husband I reflected on the evening the next day, trying to think through how we could have made the evening any better, we realized we may be the only childfree adults this little girl has ever been around.

As hosts, we felt we should have served dinner earlier, as it may have been much past the child's normal dinner hour. Her mother could have had a better plan for this too. I am sure the whole evening had them off her normal routines, which are very important for little ones. A new mother doesn't always know these things nor how to coordinate with a hostess. If my mother-in-law had been present I am sure she would have offered this sage advice. As a childfree adult, I kept my mouth shut.

This whole episode in my life reminds me of Twiga's post, Friendships, which addressed the awkwardness Purple-minded folks sometimes experience when mingling with their childed friends .

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KaraMia said...

It's funny,the have kids people vs the no kids people, truth is, what you might think of as rudeness or not being disciplined is often just a child becoming independent. Like the napkin thing, she just wanted to be like the grown ups...but to you, might have seemed rude behavior. What it called for was her mother to tell her how to ask politely for a "big girl" napkin instead of doing it the way she did. Parenthood is like alot of things, you dont become an expert just because you have filled that position. It's a learn as you go thing. Hard when you havn't been there to understand all the things a kid and a parent goes through. As a parent, it becomes hard to realize that some people don't think certain things are 'cute'. We tend to put up with alot when it comes to our own families.

Teri said...

Right, right! It was interesting just to witness the whole show. I definitely felt out of control over how the evening was going. She controlled everything. There were little struggles going on all night.

Thanks for your comment. My hat is off to you for being a single Mom.

AlphaGirl said...

Wow. Better you than me. I don't think I would have allowed a 3-year old to hijack the adult evening without saying something. I guess it's a matter of perspective: My brothers and I always ate at our regular hour, and the adults ate later. This was two-fold: The adults could have their time without their interactions being hi-jacked by the young ones, and we could just be kids. We would come out and say a quick "hello" to the guests, and then go about our business. If we were guests in someone else's house, we would usually eat with their kids earlier, and then hang out and play with their kids while the adults ate. Once we got older, the rules relaxed a bit, but the expectation was the adults were there to see my folks(or vice versa) and not us. Any mealtime power struggles were met with a swift collection of our plate and being excused from the table.

I'll be very frank in saying I think 3 year olds leave a lot to be desired, and I'm so glad I don't have to put up with one, no matter how cute. My childed friends all have kids that are tweens or teens, so my contact with 3 year olds in thankfully nil. =) A lot of their "cute" behaviours strike me as not so cute and annoying.

Elise said...

I agree with Karamia that the napkin thing was totally just the little girl trying to be more grown-up, which is totally normal and wonderful...can't fault her for asking (although hopefully she wasn't too demanding).

But the fact that she demanding constant attention from the adults, despite a houseful of toys? This kind of relentless child-centeredness seems to be a more recent development in the history of childrearing. I adore my niece and nephew, but I recognize a lot about them in this story. Particularly since they're twins and therefore have a built-in "playmate" capability, one would think that they'd play independently more, but there's always an adult tie-in, it seems.

This is not the children's doing, but rather their parents'. It's just another example of the child-must-always-be-entertained mindset that leads to video monitors in the back of minivans. Whatever happened to daydreaming? Some of my most pleasant memories of childhood was looking out the window in the car, or just zoning out a bit.

Not "allowing" the adults to speak during her performance? Sorry...that's where her parents should have stepped in. Having children "join in" an social visit is wonderful; having them be the hothouse-flower sole focus of it is something quite different.

AlphaGirl said...

Just an additional comment. As the host, you were in the driver's seat in terms of setting the tone for the evening. You had several oppurtunities to gently and politely intervene and to re-establish the evening as an adult event and not a child-centered one. Kids are never too young to learn that when they are a guest in someone else's home, it's the host that calls the shots and sets the tone for the evening, not the kids. There are many polite, gentle, but firm ways of expressing your expectations to young houseguests. Having a 3 year old shush guests during her "performance" and said guests bowing to that demand says one thing to the little ballerina: She's in charge.
A more apt title for the piece would have been "The Little Girl Who Hi-Jacked Our Dinner"

Preraphazon said...

I feel your pain. The last few years, I get to see one of my girlfriends once a year, on a holiday. She comes in town and expects everyone to set their plans aside and come over to her mom's house on the holiday or eve and hang around for several hours watching her son.

The first years, he was a toddler. There's a bunch of 50-something adults sitting in a circle in the living room, with Junior in the middle talking as loudly as possible so that he is sure we can hear him over our own futile attempts at chatting amongst ourselves. Whatever it is he's doing, everyone has to watch him or he will just get louder and more demanding and may even hit his mom to get her attention if necessary. Now, I spent a few days with them at their home once, and it was clear to me that "No" was not a word she ever intended to expose her boy to. Example: at the zoo, she let him ride the merrygoround as many times as he wanted rather than hear him whine if she said no. She seems to have no concept of what being polite means or that children should be taught not to interrupt adults. I am outspoken and she was a bit like a little sister to me, so I gave her my opinion on it early on, but to no avail.

Of course, the boy can't even stay in his chair at the dinner table and compared to your friend's fairly direct instructions about eating everything on the plate, my friend lets him pile everything on his plate and then not eat anything except the cranberry mold if he wants. And he usually does this while under the table, not at it.

Adult conversation was completely out of the question. You couldn't even hear yourself talk, much less carry on an intelligent conversation, because Junior, literally, never shut up -- ever.

I came to dread these get-togethers. However, I do have encouraging news to report. Once he started first grade, apparently the teachers got to him, because last year and this year, he is much better. He goes and plays quietly on his own occasionally and doesn't yammer continuously, through no fault of his mother.

So maybe your little missy will, despite her parents, straighten out a little in a couple of years. Junior still has his problems. For example, his mother blames the fact that no children want to play with him on racial issues (she's very progressive in this regard, so this is a surprise -- it's other people's racial issues, you know). This is more acceptable to her than to think that maybe she's spoiled him to the point that he believes he should always get his way and always be the center of attention so that no kid in their right mind wants any part of him. I'm hoping school will eventually guide him along on that as well.

Caveat: This year, I agreed to come do my time as usual IF she would agree to get OUT of the house and do lunch with me, hoping, of course, Grandma would babysit. I let her know I was a bit weary of sitting around every year. She agreed to it. But once she got in town, she found an excuse not to honor the agreement. I found an excuse not to be available to sit around as long as usual and left. That road goes both ways.

As for being the only childless couple your little toddler friend knows, growing up, I had a childless aunt and uncle. She always sent me something pretty for Christmas, something girly, which I really appreciated, and I was always interested in their lives as opposed to other relatives' lives, because they had a travel trailer and went all over the world in it, and they were avid ballroom dancers, so much more interesting than the couples with kids. I watched them grow old together, traveling as long as they were able to, and they were great role models for me. They even left me a nice little nest egg. So never feel bad about being the only childless couple.

Tiara Lynn said...

One of the primary reasons my husband and I remain childfree is our kid tolerance is almost embarrassingly low. My personal tolerance for “annoying” behavior is virtually non-existent, and the persistence of a child tests that in truly incredible ways. The way I try to refer to it when I have to excuse myself when my husband or sometimes a niece or nephew if getting on my nerves is “they’re not being annoying, I’m being annoyed.” I realize that there is a difference, and it’s often not their fault. That said, I’ve noticed many of the parents in my life simply don’t understand, though, that even on a normal level not everyone is going to find every tiny little thing that the kids do is charming. I addressed this on my blog bit in a recent post about my personal holiday experience… I try to be more tolerant, and my point of no return is certainly getting more manageable, but while I do enjoy children in small doses (I can’t say that I unequivocally don’t like kids), I get bored and irritated with them (and many adults, to be honest) quickly.

Teri said...

It's important to know yourself. It's also important to know how much you're willing to work to salvage a relationship.

I certainly didn't want to tell the parents how to parent. I'd rather just not invite them again. Not unless I felt there were other children or guests to distract the child-centered direction the last evening took. I really wanted to see how the young parents would handle it on their own and how they would work as a team. They didn't and there were many factors why.

I feel I should cut this dialogue off here because I don't want this site to be about good parenting and bad parenting. It was just an interesting evening; one I would rather not re-create.