Childish Behavior

January 09, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

It was a classic case of a bit player upstaging the star. It was also the stuff of every parent's nightmares: 7-year-old Andrew Giuliani stealing the show last Sunday as his father, Rudolph, was inaugurated mayor of New York.

The reactions fit the predictable range that children's behavior always seems to elicit, from the ''somebody ought to slap that kid'' remarks to the New Yorkers who told the New York Times that Andrew's antics reassured them that their tough-talking new mayor was, in fact, a softie at heart.

If you want a lively discussion and you're tired of politics, venture the topic of children in public -- or even the matter of young Andrew clowning his way through a ceremony viewed by millions of people. It's a fertile subject.

You can start with finger-pointing. Mayor Giuliani, for instance, made his name as a tough prosecutor, the kind of politician whose goal in life seems to be to strike terror in the heart of anyone ever tempted to commit a crime. Many people are likely to judge Andrew's behavior as excessive even for a 7-year-old -- proof that the mayor may talk a good game but fails to instill appropriate behavior in his own family. Tsk-tsk.

Or you can take the approach of a bemused fellow-sufferer. No doubt parents who have at one time or another been sabotaged in public by an uncooperative child (and what parent hasn't?) were delighted to see graphic evidence that rank doesn't protect a father from the same pitfalls that have humbled millions of other parents.

Or, if you like, you can sympathize with young Andrew. After all, children aren't always capable of treating pomp and circumstance with the respect adults accord to these events. Even when they do -- and most children are capable of more than we give them credit for -- they don't always see the point of putting up with the tedium. All that solemnity must seem pretty silly at times.

We like to think we've come a long way from the notion that children should be seen and not heard. But that's not the case. Especially on ceremonial occasions, we may not mind seeing children, but we do mind hearing them. To the uninitiated, a category that includes children, ceremonies have their comical aspects. But human beings are social creatures, and ceremonies are essential to a cohesive society.

That's why we need an ingrained sense of appropriate behavior in a given situation -- and why parents earn their gray hair instilling a sense of civility in their offspring. When a child breaks the rules in public, we may chuckle and empathize. But most parents also breathe a sigh of relief when it's not their child.

The question of appropriate behavior is itself fodder for endless argument -- more so than it should be. Children can adjust to wildly different standards of behavior. The treatment accorded a youngster in one culture may strike us as cruel or damaging. Yet if the treatment is accepted as appropriate by that society, the children usually grow up functioning just fine.

Some of the more troubling problems in our society may in fact stem from the loss of consensus on appropriate behavior for children and, in particular, for adults in relation to children. A prime example: What kind of madness would lead to policies that forbid child-care workers from touching young children in their charge?

This past week, National Public Radio broadcast a story about a child-care center where the director, fearful of child sexual-abuse charges, had instituted a policy that workers were not to touch children. As one observer noted, that kind of solution only sets children up for abuse.

Anyone with a brain knows that young children need physical affection, just as they need to eat in order to grow and to hear language in order to speak. Depriving them of appropriate affection only makes them vulnerable to inappropriate advances.

The old cliche applies only too well: Here is a glaring example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

When adults lose all sense of appropriate behavior, young Andrew's high-spirited transgressions recede into perspective. We can survive 7-year-old transgressions.

The larger question is, can the 7-year-olds survive ours?

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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