Give Me Your Attention — or Else!

I recently attended an aerobics class at a local exercise studio. This particular studio offers the wonderful convenience of on-site childcare. For a nominal fee, a responsible adult will watch your child during the hour-long workout. The childcare room is adjacent to the one and only work-out area and there’s a glass panel in the door. So if they want to, the kids can gaze out at the sea of sweating mommies at any time and see that their own mommy is “right over there.”

At least four women had brought their little ones along to this particular class. The children, who ranged from about 9 months old to preschool age, entered the room without a fuss and began exploring the toys and activities on offer. All but one little girl.

This child, who appeared to be about 4 years old, immediately began shrieking for mommy. The childcare worker tried to distract her, to no avail. It only exacerbated the tantrum. The child screamed relentlessly at the top of her lungs.

Despite the loud dance music, we could still hear her screaming — face pressed to the glass, contorted for maximum dramatic effect. It was annoying, and disruptive.

The instructor made a few halting attempts to laugh it off, turned the music to the highest reasonable volume, and spent a few uncomfortable moments singing extra-loud into her instructor’s mic to cover the sound. That wasn’t going to work for the long haul, of course, but we all assumed the child would calm down after a minute or two.

No such luck. She continued to wail throughout the entire hour. Her mother was at the far side of the room. I saw feet walking past me after the girl was dropped off. There was no way for me to tell which exerciser she was, as every woman on her side of the room was actively ignoring the screaming. I confirmed they could hear it when I had to pass them to collect my hand weights.

I did my best to ignore it, too, but the child’s shrieks for mommy were so unrelenting, it ruined the hour for me. Moving to another location would have been a waste of time and would have disturbed other exercisers, forcing them to shift from their chosen spots.

Throughout the hour I pondered why this child, but none of the others, was so upset. What was her problem? Was she bored? Not likely with the slew of enticing toys to explore. Was she afraid? Also not likely. The caregiver was a friendly, competent woman. There were plenty of unperturbed kids there with her, and most important, she could easily see that her mother was right outside the door and clearly not going anywhere.

If nothing else, you’d think that watching mommy bounce around like a lunatic would be somewhat entertaining. I know my own kids laugh hysterically or stare in awe whenever I attempt anything remotely dance-like. So funny! Look at mommy trying to be something else!

But no. There was only one conclusion. The little girl wasn’t scared. She wasn’t worried. She was pissed off.

But why?

Because mommy wasn’t paying attention to her. Mommy was doing something for herself. For that 1 hour the child was not the center of mommy’s universe, and that was unacceptable.

The more the child ranted, the more attention the caregiver lavished on her. Of course, with the racket the kid was making, the caregiver likely felt she had no option but to do everything she could to quiet her down and limit the disruption.

Me, I would have said, “Your mom is a person, too, and she is doing something she wants to do for a little while. You do not need to be the center of attention all the time. You’re behaving like a brat. Please stop it.” Then I would have ignored her completely.

If she didn’t stop, I would have summoned the mom and asked her to remove the child. But, I doubt the caregiver had the authority to do so. As is generally the case, money trumps civility. Better to frustrate and disappoint an entire class full of exercisers than to risk losing or offending one client. The fact that they might lose clients to the disruptive atmosphere never crosses their minds. Why? Because for the most part, they probably won’t. While I might think twice before returning, most people wouldn’t see the situation as something fixable, something avoidable, something that has been inflicted on them at their expense, or something they should expect to be different.

Those of us who think a paying adult’s time is just as (or, dare I say, even more) valuable than a child’s in that same setting, is a pariah in the modern-parenting world. Few would dare speak up. Few would ever think to do so.

And how selfish and unkind of me, expecting the poor child to quietly play in a safe, nurturing, and beautifully appointed room for an hour while mommy does something other than hover around her awaiting the next demand! I might as well be the evil fairy-tale stepmother. Such an insensitive brute am I!

Were it my studio, I would have told the mom that she cannot bring the child back unless the behavior improved drastically, because it’s unfair to the other paying customers, as well as the well-behaved children in the playroom. Because of that one child (or rather, her mom), nobody had a good time. We all deserved a refund.

Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly did feel bad for the kid. I felt bad that no one had explained to her that everyone, even mommy, counts. That all people are as important as she. That she is not the center of the universe, but that does not mean she isn’t loved more than she can ever imagine. I felt bad that she had no better means at her disposal of expressing her dismay than shrieking and whining. I felt bad that she was unable to look around her and see several ready and willing playmates, each a potential lifelong friend. I felt bad that all the lovely toys and games held no appeal for her. I felt sorry for her, indeed. But I was pretty pissed at her mom.

(originally posted Sept. 13, 2010)


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