Picture this –
A tall girl, who is obviously old enough to know not to behave like this, is screaming like a banshee in a shopping center. She chucks her book and her purse and squats down on the ground. Her mother picks up the book and purse, hefts the howling girl who is almost as tall as her off the floor, and leads her to a seat. She then gets eye level to the screaming girl, telling her things like “eyes here” and “use your words”.
The mother never loses her cool, and sometimes even cracks a smile as the girl gets caught up in her hissy fit. Finally the mother takes her by the hand and marches her out the mall doors, as the girl is still howling, sitting her on a bench just outside in a “time out”, while telling her that she’s being “very naughty” and needs to stop screaming.
There is no abuse happening. The mother doesn’t lose her temper, isn’t mean to the child. Just firmly trying to take control of the situation.
And while she’s trying to calm her child down, she meets your eyes. Your wide, unblinking eyes that are staring at her, your mouth slightly gaped open, or maybe a slight frown on your face as your steps slow down so you can fully take in this apparently unbelievable sight you must gaze at. If the child was small, toddler or preschooler sized, you wouldn’t be staring. You would just keep moving, maybe smile in solidarity of “been there, done that”, or shake your head with “When I have kids…” or “That’s why I’m never having kids.”
But it’s different when it’s an almost five foot tall child howling and screaming.
It’s a sight you just can’t tear your adult eyes away from.
You must stare.
You stare at the child. Then you stare at the mother. The mother meets your stare with her own steely unblinking stare, daring you to say something. Waiting for you to look away.
Yet you keep staring. You keep eye contact with the mother until finally, you blink first and look away. Keep walking.
But of course, you have to look back a couple more times at the mother and screaming tween-aged child.
You can’t help it.
Except you can.
You are the adult. You’re the one in control of your actions. Not the screaming child. You, the intelligent adult who choses to stare at the upset special needs child who is still learning to express herself, and only knows how to express unhappiness or frustration by screaming. You choose to stare at her while she’s highly visibly upset, gaping at her, frowning at me, confused by the whole situation.
Does your staring at us help the situation? No.
Does it ever occur to you that she might have special needs? I have no idea. None of you have asked. If any of you asked even “Wow, what happened?”, I could give you a quick “She has special needs, she can’t always control her emotions.” And then you’d be more enlightened.
But people don’t ask. They just stare.
I deal with you staring, gaping, frowning rubberneckers of life every time I step outside with my child. Every time Maura has a public meltdown, I not only have to quickly diffuse the situation with her before it gets out of control, but I must deal with your silent judgment, your stares, your rudeness, your wiliness to insert yourself into our situation with your gaze, but your obvious unwillingness to try to help or even understand what is going on.
So I stare back. Even though I was taught by my elders that it is impolite to stare. That it’s rude to gape at people.
Mostly though, I tend to ignore most of you. It’s a trick I’ve learned. When my child is in the midst of a complete and total meltdown, the world around me vanishes and it’s just Maura and me. I will ignore everyone around us and deal with just her, to the point that I will just take her by the hand and march her out of the place we’re in. See, taking her out of the situation helps calm her down. I’m not taking her away from your prying eyes to abuse her without witnesses. I’m taking her away from the visuals that are feeding her tantrum. If you follow us, you’ll see me find a place for a “time out” – a seat, a bench, a low wall she can sit on – while I tell her sternly that “that is enough, you need to stop screaming”. Not meanly, just sternly. There is a difference. And she will calm down, and there will be hugs, and I may actually laugh again because I can see the ridiculousness of the whole situation. And we shall move on.
Granted, when this all happens, I will also abandon people we’re with in my haste to get her out of whatever area we’re in – my husband and teens have learned to just catch up with me. My friend – who was with us this particular day when Maura threw a screaming fit in the mall because she was, as it turns out, hungry and overwhelmed by choices at Old Navy and upset because I wouldn’t buy her just anything – did catch up with us. She asked, for future reference, what she could do to help. Because she’s a real friend, she laughed when I told her this –
“Stare people down. Give them the stink eye. Wave the rubberneckers along, nothing to see here.”