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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kids’ Noise

In 2005 I toured with Ariel Gore, the founder of HipMama magazine and author of six books. I had never toured before. At each event, Ariel announced that we were OK with kids’ noise; our words had, after all, been written in the real life chaos of our lives and so how appropriate that they be read that way as well. Parents should not worry because we could speak over any child. The way she put it always got a laugh and a lot of appreciation.

Later Vikki Law and I used this approach in our “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind” (DLYFB) workshops. We have also made these announcements when we have been speakers and suggested this to others as a way to make a space more child-friendly.

What I personally like to say is that we are glad to see parents and children in the audience, that many times parents are given the “hairy eyeball” if their children make any little sound, and then feel that they must leave and not hear the information. We don’t want to do that so we let the audience know that sounds are fine with us, and that we can speak louder to be heard.

We the speakers can deal with it and we ask the audience to too. If someone has a problem with some sounds, maybe they should pick up their chair and move to another part of the room rather then thinking the parent and child should. Or perhaps they should offer to take a restless child out of the room so the parent can continue to listen and give input instead of thinking the parent should leave. Giving children attention by including them in the discussion or sharing with them a task they can do (instead of only telling them what they shouldn’t do or ignoring them) can help the situation flow smoother as well.

Children’s sounds aren’t the end of the world. But somehow we have the notion that complete silence is necessary when “important people” speak. However, having more space to yourself can be seen as a huge factor within who is more privileged than another. Many parents cannot afford the complete silence of uninterrupted time and space. Our conversations and planning may go on while juggling other activities, within our discontent on the job, in the corners of the dawn or at the edge of kitchen tables.

Many public activist conversations also have problems with adults (some groups of adults more then others) taking up too much space, talking over each other, and other improper behaviors, but a child just being a child is greeted with a greater amount of anger. What are they doing here? seems to be the reaction. If you don’t have a partner, can’t afford a babysitter, or don’t feel ready/want to be separated from your child – you should stay secluded with them in the children’s spaces or at home, and not join us at these talks.

The noise of children is seen as something that is an intrusion on adults. Perhaps is it still the old “seen and not heard” rule.

But it doesn’t always have to be like this. In different settings, as well as in other cultures and countries, the attitude can be vastly different. Activists who have traveled to Chiapas and spent time with Zapatistas commonly report that children run in and out of the room and are present at every gathering. One person told Vikki that, in addition to children’s sounds, sometimes a meeting was interrupted by the sounds of a military helicopter flying overhead: everyone would run out to look; then return to continue the meeting. To this person, although they recognized their own limits and did not want to do childcare personally, the idea of anyone being upset with the sounds of children was absurd!

But often in North America and --it seems to me --most prominently in predominately white middle class spaces, a noise from a child will cause the whole room to turn and give a disapproving look. What usually happens then is the parent’s tension rises, they become more militant to suppress or prevent any sound, and when it happens again, they get up, flustered, and leave. Sometimes even in vocally child-friendly spaces a parent will leave something that they have looked forward to and worked hard to get there, feeling like a bad parent, upset and alone, to soothe a fussy child who will not be easily soothed. Parenting is hard work, especially new parenting where one’s life is majorly changed and one often does not even get enough uninterrupted sleep. Parents may have to leave a room more frequently than others, but they shouldn’t be pushed out before they feel ready to leave.

Recently, Amy told me about trying to make a more child-friendly space at a bookstore reading by bringing blocks to occupy children in the audience. The blocks made sounds and the feeling in the room was like electrified tension. The parent and child left to get away from that.

I remember in our original DLYFB talk – which is geared towards those without children of their own: only a few parents were in the audience. They were struggling with a child playing with fold up chairs. Within our discussion they felt brave enough to bring up their feelings: A parent raised her hand and shared that this was the kind of thing that would cause them to usually leave. We stopped our conversation on hypothetical supporting parents and children situations and started a new group discussion based on what was happening right then: What would be the best way to handle this? What would make this room more friendly and relaxed? The parent said it would be nice for others to make eye contact with them or their children or smile. They are afraid of being an inconvenience to others. From this first discussion came our list of concrete ways to support parents. It seemed a very constructive use of a workshop, to gather and to interact with each other, all different members and needs, not make it some place where only some feel free to speak, though it’s important to acknowledge all those who couldn’t make it there that day and why.

I remember when I first met a new mom zine-friend, Connie, who had traveled all the way from Colorado to California on her own with a new baby to meet Jessica, Tomas, Rahula, and I for our book reading in Modern Times Books. I had told her she would have support when she arrived and wanted to make sure that happened. I ran out, maybe a little too enthusiastic, and offered to hold her infant, to give her arms a break, so she could tend to what ever she needed to and listen to our reading. I made my usual announcement about not worrying about baby noise. When we gathered next, at the Bay Area Bookfair, Connie came up to me with a gleam in her eye. “Remember to make that message again!”

That announcement is always appreciated and it works really well. You can use your own words and put it however you like, but it puts everyone at ease.

Vikki recently told me that while on the “The Community and Resistance Tour” before speaking about prison abolition and incarcerated womens’ resistance, she always includes the announcement about being fine with children’s noises. But even as she pushes others with this form of activism she admits to me that sometimes children’s noises do interrupt her thoughts. (after all, that’s why we mothers often want childcare) But she works to keep her thoughts together, to look back down at her notes, and get back on track, because, she laughingly states: if a pair of 3 year olds can derail her so easily how does she ever expect to go up against the Prison- Industrial Complex and win? And we play to win, so welcome the sounds of the movement growing.


  1. This is a wonderful message that I wish our culture would embrace.

  2. one thing about this essay, a footnote I wanted to add and never did, something that has always bothered me about this essay - is a kind of disclaimer. THIS method is a practice, a practice that has worked so well for me and for others, that has been handed down and shared, in person, in the environment itself, each environment being different. It has to do with communication. I worry that writing an essay on something I never learned through writing, but through life, through other's examples; and that sometimes you need to pick things up in person - that the writing could flatten or be used in ways I never attended. There are many things that are good to learn hands on. There are different environments. There is time silence is peace and meditative, there are ways to organize events so all can be at home, there is balance, theres are difference in different environments and groups. I don't know how to put all that into an essay. I don't think that sharing radical childcare practices can always be put into words but is good to learn in a social way with others. Its a strange disclaimer but I don't think I've ever had something so much a living practice that was less theoretical (detached, european, which can take one thing and use it in another way far from what it was meant; and be the same old oppression in new jargon) western words then this practice and just want to stress the need for folks to communicate, respect, and work with each other. Its about the spirit not the letter, of the thing. Its about figuring out ways to work together better. I don't think in todays world we can make blanket assumptions. But when gathering, we can help guide some ground rules or set out some expectations to organize - similar in other ways that moderators do. this is a great practice I wanted to share - about HOW to make a meeting more child-friendly. This is not something I am trying to force on anyone who doesn't understand how to make this announcement, nor do I want them to be taken and used as empty words. All the best <3