(Dedicated to my mother, Jeanne Marois O'Neal)
I just spent a day at one of the world's finest zoological gardens, the San
Diego Zoo. And I'll probably go straight to hell for saying this, but ZOOS ARE
NO PLACE FOR CHILDREN.
Wait a minute ... let me rephrase that: zoos are no place for rowdy,
disrespectful, undisciplined children. The wild things should be the mammals,
birds, and reptiles on the OTHER side of the fences, not the (supposedly)
"most evolved primates" whose parents paid admission.
Have A Little Respect
I'm not talking about repressing exuberance -- for I, too, feel a giddy ecstasy
in the presence of many of the exotic animal species at the zoo. But let your
eyes go wide, squeeze Daddy's hand, whisper in wonder in your sibling's ear, do
a little dance of joy, even, but do NOT shout "EEP! EEP! EEP!" at the
top of your lungs in a cartoon approximation of a monkey's call upon your first
glimpse of a chimp. Do not, indeed, shout ANYthing at ANY time! It's just not
* Do not tap on the glass.
* Do not poke bits of Pop-Tart through the bars.
* Do not push in front of adults or run across their paths or into their
legs. You are not the star attraction here.
* Do not laugh like a demented idiot at full volume when something
Who's Raising Our Children?
I think we all know the answer to this. It's that big blue box (or now, more
often flat-panel) in the living room. It's Nickelodeon, Animal Planet. God help
us, it's The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead. What we really need is little
Emily Post or Miss Manners, but entertaining cartoon versions of these paragons
of etiquette haven't quite caught on. If we're going to let television raise
our kids, perhaps we should tune into some old episodes of Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood once in awhile. Perhaps our children would learn ways to satisfy
their healthy curiosity about the world around them with respect and patience
from this soft-spoken TV icon.
Of course, in the end, the problem isn't TV, and the problem isn't really
the children; it's the parenting, or lack thereof.
It's easy to see where today's children get their sense of entitlement,
their selfish disregard for others. It's from the parents who bump into you at
zoos and other public venues with strollers, repeating, "Ex-CUSE me,
ex-CUSE me," as though their oblivious 18-month-old has more right to see
the exhibits than an admission-paying adult. The ones who shove their
nose-picking 7-year-olds in front of you, obliterating any photo opportunity,
but their own, rather than waiting their turn.
And It's Not Just The Zoos
You see it everywhere, from the grocery store to the natural history museum.
From the mall to the farmer's market. From the campground to the playground.
From the hiking trail to the bike path -- kids out of control.
My mother, God rest her soul, always found a sitter for her six children
when she did her weekly grocery shopping. But if she did take one of us with
her, you can bet your last dollar that she never engaged in a shouting match
with us, never had to remove items from our hands that we had grabbed from our
shopping-cart perch, never let us run roughshod up the aisles heedless of other
customers. When she took us to a restaurant -- an infrequent, but important
part of our family life -- we sat in our chairs, had a conversation, and ate
our food. What a concept! We didn't crawl or run around, crushing cracker
packets, upending the sugar shaker, or annoying other diners. We JUST DIDN'T.
Teach Your Children Well
Of course, not all parents have abdicated their roles. Those of you who take
your job seriously and realize that you are molding the character of the next
generation, I salute you. Those who feel they've gone a bit astray, may I
suggest a little one-on-one time with Junior in the Great Outdoors. I don't
mean drop him or her off at the local Scout meeting and hope for the best. I
mean lace up your tennies or pump up your bike tires and get outside with your
kid. Encourage questions, come up with answers together. Watch the seasons
change in "real-time," not on TV. Breathe some fresh air, watch a
sunset. Pick up some litter and talk about why you're doing it. Feed a squirrel
or a duck and watch how a creature other than yourselves prepares for winter.
Notice that you're not the center of the universe, but you can enjoy being a
small, wonderful, awestruck, respectful part of the world around you.
Sally O'Neal lives, writes, and observes the world alongside the trail in
southeastern Washington State and wherever her travels take her. She has
recently learned she's going to be a grandmother, and looks forward to spoiling
the heck out of her grandbaby while making sure to teach respect.