Monday, December 24, 2012

Questions and answers

Once when our son was very small, we waited  in line at a supermarket behind a man who was rather large in the stomach area. Our son stared at him, fascinated. I knew what was coming but  I wasn't quick enough with a distraction.

"Man," said our son, "Do you have a baby in your tummy?"

The man was not upset or amused, he simply turned away. I was mortified. In the car, I explained to our son that there were things we shouldn't ask people about themselves. Personal things. Things that they might not want you to notice.

"Like what?"

I'm sure I came up with something like:  "Well, generally about the way they look. It could hurt their feelings."

Or maybe not, I'm thinking today.

On Saturday, I shopped for a last minute gift. It was a crowded , knick-knacky place where busy people wandered on this third day before Christmas, moving past one another gingerly, saying "Excuse me" in voices edged with their hurry.  A few in line checked their watches.

A man in a wheelchair sat parked to the side, out of the way, while his companion made her way through the line.  Standing in line in front of  the man was a woman with her small child, a girl of about four.

The line halted while someone checked a price and there was time for the girl to stare at the disabled man. He looked the other way, but she was captivated.

"Why are you in that chair?" she asked him.

He looked at her and tilted his head a bit. Then he smiled patiently and said in a tired voice,  "Because, my legs don't work."

She nodded and he offered nothing more.

The mother watched.

 "Why don't they work?" asked the girl.

I looked at the mother to see how she'd react...Don't ask people personal questions...Leave the man alone...I'm sorry sir, she's just curious. But she didn't stop the exchange. Didn't hurry the girl along and didn't say "Shh."  She rested a hand on her shoulder.

"Because," the man said with a little shrug, "that's just the way it is."

She looked at his face. "Is that hard for you?" she asked.

"Sometimes," he said, nodding, "sometimes it is."

The woman wished him a Merry Christmas and he smiled. They moved on.

How easily, in our  zeal to explain the world and the people in it, we presume - often wrongly - their feelings. How in our efforts to shape tact, we can suppress candor. And how easily, in our wish to cultivate tolerance, this can be confused with pity. 

But this candid little exchange gone right stayed with me.  The child's natural curiosity, only an inquiry still, about someone different from herself.  The  mother's willingness to trust that this  exchange would  unfold without her interference.  But more than that, I appreciated the man's  honest shrug of a response to the complicated question of "why?"

"It's just the way it is."

That, this child will discover, is the reason for many, many things beyond the doors of that shop.  

And maybe, I would tell a young child today,  adults of all types might not wish to discuss themselves with people they don't know. Possibly, I would dovetail this with a discussion about the issue of striking up conversation with strangers.

Maybe not.

There is a difference between a child's curiosity and an adult's judgment. Not all of us know what it is, but I observed one man who has probably learned it the hard way.

But I could be wrong. 


  1. I do agree that certainly a child's curiosity is not nearly as unwelcome as an adult's judgement, however, let me tell you a little story. One day I was reading the story about the old lady who swallowed a fly to my 3 year old niece. The illustrator made the lady very large, and my niece said "She looks like you Aunt Stephanie." It really hurt my feelings. I know she didn't mean to, but I wished her mother had taught her to keep her mouth shut.
    On the same token, my grandfather had only one leg due to losing the other in WW2. My mother said that when she was growing up, she thought there was something wrong with the dads with 2 legs. I guess it could go either way.
    I admit to being overly sensitive about my weight, but I really think that parents should teach their kids some sort of boundaries.

  2. Oh believe me. Someday, my feelings will be hurt like yours were and there will be another post about diplomacy. Point taken. And Merry Christmas!