The adage is that “children should be seen and not heard.” Yet these days, it seems as if there are plenty of people who would prefer that children disappear entirely from public places, such as airplanes and restaurants.
A recent viral tweet demonstrates exactly that.
On Nov. 25, user @AbortionChat posted on X (formerly Twitter) that a child had run up to her dog. After she blocked the child from reaching the dog and said “Maybe we don’t run up to dogs we don’t know,” the child’s parent responded, “She’s three.”
In her tweet, the dog owner quipped that perhaps the child should be on a leash “if she isn’t on voice recall” (a term usually associated with dogs, not children).
Small child runs up to Zoë. I body block and say, “Maybe we don’t run up to dogs we don’t know.”
The parent: She’s three
Me: If she isn’t on voice recall, maybe she should be leashed? pic.twitter.com/myoDYKDgW5
— AbortionChat (@AbortionChat) November 25, 2023
The tweet has been viewed more than 23 million times and has generated 2,500 replies. Predictably, responses on X have been divided.
Some commenters argued that the parent should have been keeping a closer eye on their child and that it is a parent’s responsibility to teach children not to approach dogs they don’t know.
"She's three," is not an argument a frightened dog will acknowledge.
— KK Lena 🟧🌈☮️ (@meltedpotmama) November 26, 2023
Others pointed out that if a dog is a potential threat to humans of any age, it shouldn’t be out in public.
Everyone seems to feel equally entitled to inhabit public places without being bothered by other people, their children or their pets. But there’s less willingness to admit that being in a public place means that you run the risk of having to interact with others there — and these interactions may not always be pleasant. Some, like the one now immortalized in the tweet, may even be confrontational.
Commenters pointed out that it’s not unusual for a child to approach an animal and that even when parents are working on teaching kids to proceed with caution in such scenarios, children often need reminders.
You couldn’t have found a kinder way to respond? It was a teachable moment that you made ugly.
— Chris (@reclusechris49) November 26, 2023
Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, of the Protocol School of Texas, says it sounds like there was room in this particular interaction for both (adult) parties to show better judgment and grant one another a little more grace.
It was an understandable instinct to block the girl from reaching the dog, to protect both of them, Gottsman told HuffPost. But the tone the dog owner took with the child and her parents wasn’t necessary. “To take it further and to be disrespectful to anyone, including a child, is out of line,” Gottsman said.
“It’s all in the tone of voice of the delivery,” she added.
To continue hashing out her anger online, she said, remarking that perhaps the child should have been the one on a leash, is unproductive and rude.
“That’s inappropriate. That is not kind, not courteous, it doesn’t breed goodwill. It incites anger,” Gottsman said.
Unfortunately, once the dog owner took a negative tone, the parent became defensive and was terse in their own response (“She’s three”). At that point, neither party was bringing their best self to the interaction.
The parent, Gottsman said, might have reacted by apologizing — not that their child was being bad but that they are still learning how to interact with animals. The dog owner also might have been more understanding and gentle in their words to the child.
While parents can’t expect everyone they come across to have a deep understanding of early childhood development, it’s fair to expect other adults to understand that you can’t talk to a toddler the way you do a teenager.
Erin O’Connor, a professor of education at New York University, is an expert in child development. She’s also the parent of a 3-year-old, and she told HuffPost she was alarmed by the enormous amount of attention this one angry tweet was gathering.
“There’s a lot of pressure on parents because there’s sort of this idea that there’s a ‘right’ way to parent,” O’Connor told HuffPost. This leads to the expectation that parents should be able to keep every child in line at every moment, which simply isn’t possible.
Developmentally, a 3-year-old will move on instinct when they see a fluffy dog, O’Connor explained. “It’s like a little stuffed animal. And the thought that a parent could necessarily stop that from happening right away, I think, is unfair.”
A child’s prefrontal cortex, the control center of the brain that will one day give them executive function, is still under development at age 3. Their burgeoning ability to reason may not be sufficient to counter their drive to touch the dog.
While of course parents are responsible for teaching kids how to interact with dogs, a lot of times teaching looks like mistakes, redirections, more mistakes and more redirections. Repetition is the name of the game.
“They’re learning what a boundary is, and they’re learning what’s safe and what’s not safe. And that takes patience,” O’Connor said.
Often parents supply that patience, but it may occasionally be required of passersby.
As she is also a dog owner, O’Connor recommended that if a child runs up and wants to pet your dog, you get down on their level and, if the dog is friendly, gently explain that it’s good to ask before you pet a dog. Then you can demonstrate how to let the dog smell their hand and then gently pet the dog on the back.
It’s also perfectly fine to tell the child “I’m sorry, not right now” if they want to pet your animal “but not to make it about the child misbehaving and insinuating that the parents also didn’t behave well,” O’Connor said.
Like Gottsman, she believes there’s a way for parents to be apologetic and acknowledge that they didn’t do anything wrong.
If her daughter were to approach a dog with a little too much enthusiasm, O’Connor might say, “I’m really sorry. She just really loves dogs. We’re teaching her about this, but she’s little, she’s just learning right now. And your dog is very cute, so she just wanted to say hello.”
People should know that being in a public place means potentially having to interact with others there, and these interactions may not always be pleasant. You may have to gently enforce a boundary or even compromise your space.
“I think there are public boundaries and then there is some understanding that perhaps it’s not always going to go our way,” Gottsman said. A child might spill water on the floor of a restaurant that we all need to step carefully around. We might have to put up with the sound of a dog barking or a baby crying.
You may have to have a developmentally appropriate, kind interaction with a child who comes bounding up ahead of her parents because she wants to pet your dog.
O’Connor wonders if the enforced solitude of the pandemic has made us less generous when it comes to sharing space. She recalled when she was at a public park with her then 2-year-old daughter, who was “darting around, she got out of her stroller.” A woman passing through got angry and told O’Connor, “I’m trying to walk!”
“I understand that. But she’s 2. She isn’t walking in a straight line, but she’s gotta learn to walk,” O’Connor remembers thinking.
Kids have to learn everything from how to get from one place to another to how to handle sticky situations, but they won’t have a chance to learn how to interact with others if we keep them holed up, pandemic-style. If we want our kids to learn how to be in public, we need to give them opportunities to practice being in public.
“We’ve come so far in some respects in understanding child development and how important the first three years are,” said O’Connor. “At the same time, there seems to be much less patience around having children in these situations.”