Big Babies: When It Comes to Kids, Many Adults Need to Grow Up

Fully grown human beings are having tantrums over infants and toddlers who dare to exist and make noise

A photo of a baby crying while riding a shopping cart in a department store.
The Walrus / iStock

When my son was six weeks old and there was little to do but fill the blurry days pushing his stroller from one arbitrary destination to another, I took him shopping at my favourite consignment store. As I walked around, he woke up and let out a piercing wail. I was already pivoting his stroller toward the exit when an employee looked up at me. “Oh,” she said knowingly, “that’s a new-baby cry.” She and another employee rushed to gaze at my furious, tiny baby while I prepared to apologize. “Mine never liked the stroller either,” she said. “Would you like me to hold him while you shop?”

I’ve often been struck by the unexpected generosity of strangers toward my babies, perhaps because I’ve absorbed the rhetoric that a noisy child is a blight on society. Recently, in Vancouver, a furious debate erupted online after an application to expand a daycare in a residential neighbourhood was denied, partly on the grounds that nearby residents objected to the noise. “I can’t escape the noise currently, so if she were to expand this daycare, we would have no peace,” one person argued in a hearing, as reported by journalist Dan Fumano. His column in the Vancouver Sun ignited an online firestorm of opprobrium, much of it from dismayed parents chasing the pipe dream of securing a child care spot (Vancouver has only one space for every five three-to-five-year-olds). But there was an undercurrent of sympathy for the aggrieved neighbours. “Children don’t just laugh,” columnist Sandy Garossino asserted on social media, while radio host Buzz Bishop complained about living next door to a daycare: “It’s eternal toddler preschool noise and it’s very irritating.”

It’s true: children, especially babies, make noise. Many people would say kids are fine if they are quiet and unobtrusive—which is to say, if they don’t behave at all like kids. Earlier this year, a Southwest Airlines passenger had a meltdown over a crying baby, captured in a TikTok video that went viral. Airplanes are designed to maximize discomfort and unwanted intimacy, and as such, they’re a frequent locus of anti-baby sentiment. “You’re yelling,” a flight attendant cautions, and the man screams, “So is the baby! Did this motherfucker pay extra to yell?” On video, it’s comedic; in person, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare: becoming the target of society’s mounting intolerance toward children. Even when they’re happy, babies are often unwelcome. On a Reddit forum titled “Am I the Asshole”—a crowdsourced gauge of social mores—one user recently asked whether making their infant laugh in a restaurant was rude, particularly since another diner asked them to stop. The prevailing sentiment was yes. “There’s nothing wrong with your kid laughing, but there’s a time and a place for it,” one poster replied.

What is the time and place for children? Often, the pro- and anti-child camps split along the question of whether or not kids are, fundamentally, annoying. Many people are quick to argue that the sounds of children are beautiful and life affirming. While I appreciate people sticking up for crying babies, I also think it’s the wrong question. The right one is whether children are members of society, or whether we should treat them less like people and more like dogs (to whom they are compared frequently).

In some cultures, the answer to this question is implicit. Indigenous spaces tend to be very baby friendly, and the idea of censuring a child for shrieking is unthinkable among my Indigenous friends and family. You see babies at every ceremony and event, which makes their presence unremarkable. They’re part of the community, and everyone shares in the task of looking out for them. Many other cultures outside of North America have a similarly inclusive approach; when my husband and I visited Japan, we marvelled at groups of unescorted schoolchildren. The long-running Japanese show Old Enough!, which features children embarking on their first independent errands, captivated viewers when it hit Netflix in 2022 with its vision of a society where toddlers might venture out alone to the grocery store.

The prevailing North American attitude views letting your child out of your sight momentarily as negligence, while approaching a child you don’t know is similarly taboo. In 2017, a single father in Vancouver was investigated by the Ministry of Family and Child Services for letting his children, who ranged in age from seven to eleven, take the bus to school alone after he had spent two years teaching them how to navigate transit. There are similar stories of American parents investigated and even arrested for letting their kids walk home alone from parks or playgrounds. These incidents underscore how conditional the participation of children in society is; even when they are quiet and orderly, some adults will remind them that they do not belong.

While the most vehement anti-child positions are the fringe views of a small but vocal minority, the rejected Vancouver daycare is an example of a real-world impact, one that compounds the challenges of parenting without social support. Parenting is already a hard and lonely gig, one that got harder and lonelier during the pandemic. But it’s not just parents who are feeling isolated. In 2021, four in ten Canadians reported feeling lonely some or all of the time. The pandemic insulated us from regular human contact, and many have emerged with a heightened sensitivity to others. Everyone else seems louder, more annoying, more obtrusive. The New York Times, investigating the growing phenomenon of “consumer rage,” pointed to the “frictionless economy” of online, depersonalized transactions as one cause: many of us have been sold on the idea that our daily lives should be populated with easy, efficient, painless transactions and interactions. And children, in all their irrepressible raucousness, are friction. The transactional nature of modern life has led many adults to believe that if they are paying for a restaurant meal, an airline seat, or a house in a nice neighbourhood, they should be entitled to dictate the terms of their experience—and to exclude those who disrupt it.

This is an impoverished and self-defeating perspective. We all begin our lives dependent on the tenderness of adults, and if we’re very lucky, we’ll grow old enough to rely on others’ care again. At any point in between, we may become disabled or ill, or we may experience a mental health crisis, a serious injury, or just a really bad day. It’s only temporary good fortune that prevents any of us from becoming the friction in someone else’s existence. When we inevitably do, we should hope that others treat us with compassion. Enjoying a serene restaurant meal is nice, but it is in our collective self-interest to cultivate a more tolerant society.

At the consignment store, I thanked the shop employee for her offer to hold my baby and took him outside in the sun to soothe him. These moments of spontaneous kindness from strangers linger in my mind: a young man wordlessly lifting the front wheels of my stroller over a high curb; a fellow passenger whispering, “You deserve a glass of wine,” after my baby cried through forty-five minutes of a flight; a grandfather at the playground kneeling to gently wiggle my daughter’s shoe back onto her foot. To brush against one another’s insufferable humanity and turn toward it with kindness rather than irritation is, to me, the substance of community. Sometimes that humanity is loud, but it’s always beautiful.

Michelle Cyca
Michelle Cyca is a contributing writer at The Walrus. She has written for Maclean’s, the Vancouver Sun, and Chatelaine.