“Sorry,” the young mother murmured. “I didn’t want to tell your son what to do, but I was worried about him whacking on the snake.”
We were gathered around a docent at a Florida zoo and I had been crowded out of the front row where my son Teddy, barely 2, had squeezed in next to another mom, getting up close and personal with a boa constrictor. I thanked her and wondered why she’d apologized, for as Hillary Clinton had recently called to our attention, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Six months later we arrived in Davis, where “it takes a village” is an implicit motto, and calling out errant behavior a civic duty. When my new neighbors took us to the Farmers Market, an alert citizen chastised us for allowing our children to “climb public trees.”
My first friend in Davis was also new in town and we bonded over anxiety about the unwritten rules we always seemed to be breaking. A woman once chased her down to inform her that her son’s face had become very red while he was running, and suggested she consult a doctor. Tragically, the child has a life-threatening case of Irish complexion.
Then there are the food police. My friends “W” and “R” are much healthier eaters than I. I once watched in shame-tinged awe as my younger son Andy munched his first asparagus tips at their house. But they’re dedicated civil libertarians who support the individual right to ingest what you want.
The Root Beer Incident took place when their son was about 10 years old. He had earned a reward, and chose a root beer — a rare treat from his visiting grandma. He unwisely transported the banned substance to the Davis Farmers Market. “Whatcha got there?” the lemonade vendor asked with a friendly smile. “Root beer,” the boy beamed back. “C’mere,” Lemonade Man beckoned. The boy approached with the easy trust that children learn in a village like ours. The man took the cup from his hand, dumped it on the ground, and handed him a lemonade saying, “This is much better.”
Had it been my child, that man would have learned the lesson I taught “Teachable Moment Man” many years earlier.
Teddy was just shy of 3 when his little brother was born. He was, as 2-year-olds are supposed to be, dogged about doing everything himself. If I tried to hurry things along by buttoning his buttons or tying his shoes, he would shout “Myseeeelllf!!” I was conscientious about encouraging him to learn through completing tasks as well as reading and exploring.
One day, when baby Andy was just 3 weeks old, I had a single task to accomplish: I needed to mail a package at the post office downtown. It doesn’t sound like much, but with a newborn and a determined 2-year-old, it was challenging. It took until 3 p.m., but we made it. As we left, Teddy showed me a real estate magazine he’d taken from one of those sidewalk vending boxes. I told him to put it back.
As the box snapped shut, I heard a voice say, “Teachable moment.”
“What?” I asked, turning to see a little man I can only describe as what a gremlin might look like if he came from Berkeley.
“Teachable moment. Your son was interested in reading. You had a chance to teach him, and you missed it.”
It’s tempting to blame what happened next on postnatal hormones. But the fact was, it had taken me until 3 p.m. to get to the post office half a mile from my house because I had been teaching my son all day long. I lost it. I yelled at that man. I yelled at him long and hard and what I yelled ended something like this: “Here is your teachable moment: Learn how to mind your own @$%^& business!”
Perhaps I should not have lost control in front of my kids. Perhaps I should not have used an obscenity on the little gremlin. But I am convinced that, as Paul Simon sings, “I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to hole up in my Aggie Village compound with a cache of Airsoft rifles and Nerf guns. I have a tribe of moms whose wisdom and care I’m grateful for every day. But I do not regret letting my kids climb public trees, or that they love root beer. To those villagers brandishing virtue like a pitchfork, I invoke another wise saying, one my mom often quoted from Dear Abby: M.Y.O.B.
— Sharon Campbell Knox is a mom of two great boys who has lived in Davis for the past 12 years. She works as a writer at UC Davis and publishes the occasional poem.