We have all seen our children, perhaps after consuming Doritos or Cheetos, lick their fingers. But ballet barres are notoriously flavorless, so it surprised me when just last week a pint-sized ballerina removed her hands from the practice barre in the lobby of my daughter’s ballet studio and licked her hands as if Frito-Lay had seasoned it.
One. Two. Three. Maybe five licks of her palms and fingers.
I stood frozen, wondering what to do. It’s the peak of cold and flu season; I knew the kids were about to enter the class and hold hands; the mother was seated not far away but was engaged with her younger child and in conversation; and I had a fresh packet of wet wipes sitting in my purse read to share.
Yet, I did nothing. I waved to my daughter as she headed into class and wondered what I’d become: brave in the face of germs or meek at the thought of speaking up.
The dilemma, as my relative in Canada wisely defined it was this: what are the boundaries as parents regarding others’ children?
I have a friend who shares my uneasiness around things we think harbor germs. I imagine if she didn’t have a medical understanding of the body’s need for oxygen, she’d hold her breath on the two-hour flight to Disney World to avoid recycled air.
“Could I have offered that child a wipe?” I asked on Facebook. “Spray that kid with Lysol,” she suggested.
Another friend, perhaps more judicious or fearful of litigation being in the world of academia, suggested I offer every child a wipe and try to excuse my officiousness by saying we’d just gotten over a bug.
Good advice and some I could have thought of if I hadn’t been so caught up in indecision. The boundary in this parenting issue is hard to identify because somewhere it gets blurred: our lives intersect.
Since the ethicist Randy Cohen recently left his job at The New York Times, I’m going to have to reason this out myself. Here goes:
If I saw a child with a stick at the playground, ready to poke out another child’s eye, I’d say something and say it fast. Do matters concerning “safety” give one not only permission but also an obligation to speak up?
How about the age and corresponding judgment of the child? If a kid is say, old enough to figure out how to remove his diaper, but too young to know better than to toss it down a slide at the playground, we might give the parent a heads-up and risk no offense. I imagine many a sippy cup would be raised in appreciation.
Then there’s proximity: the distance a parent is from his or her child and the authority given us in their absence matters. A teacher or the parent holding a play date is expected to step up and keep kids from tossing icy snowballs at each other or hurling insults, which can be just as sharp.
I’d say to my ethicist alter ego that what I faced was smack in the middle of these parameters: licking one’s hands can spread germs (a risk to public health and safety) but I didn’t know if the child was sick. Four-year-olds are young, but not so young that they don’t understand some basic elements of hygiene. And while the parent was not next to her child, she was close enough to have used her parental sixth sense or third eye to have a general awareness of what was happening.
What I feared more than germs was sending an unintended message of judgment.
Am I rationalizing?
Maybe next time I should ask Miss Manners……
My post this week in The Educated Mom looks at poetry and England's initiative to get kids to "learn a poem by heart." I like the sound of that....