A couple of months ago, I took Fourth Offspring for a late night jaunt down to the hospital. He’d been playing outside with his siblings in the afternoon, and had fallen—as he has, numerous times before and since—and his arm was hurting him. He’s not very verbal (he isn’t quite two years old yet) but it seemed like his wrist was sore, and even after icing and painkillers, it still was bothering him. So we went to Emergency.
I was a little reluctant to take him.
It’s not that it was going to cost me anything, as hospital visits are covered by our national healthcare. But this was the third time Fourth Offspring had been to the emergency department in the space of about two months. First, he chewed on a plastic spoon and I was concerned he’d swallowed some (he was fine). Then he woke up in the middle of the night with a barking cough, barely able to breathe (he had croup). And now the arm.
I didn’t want to take him, because despite having managed to parent three other children quite successfully through toddlerhood, I felt like I was failing. I was worried what the medical professionals at the hospital would think.
And they did ask me what had happened, and how he had done it. I had to keep repeating that I wasn’t there (another failing) and I didn’t know (I was in the kitchen). I worried that it would be a mark against me that I didn’t cry when he was so upset while two nurses and I held him down as they wrapped his arm in plaster (I figured getting upset would just make him more upset).
When we’re young, we’re often told that it doesn’t matter what other people think. Don’t worry what they say, don’t worry if they tease you. It doesn’t matter. Be your own person. Do your own thing.
But in fact, it does sometimes matter what other people think. Considering what other people think is a means to social cohesion, it reminds us of our manners, it pulls us back in line with the norm. That’s not always a bad thing! Of course you should be your own person, and do what makes you happy. But if we want to be part of a society, that has to happen within the bounds of what society thinks is OK, even as that slowly evolves.
When I think someone can hear me, or see me, I do modify my behaviour. As much as I’m happy to walk around in my underwear in my own home, I’m not about to go out and work in the front garden like that. If my children are outside playing, and are misbehaving, I might yell at them, but if I know the neighbours are out in their garden, I’ll likely be more patient, and less likely to raise my voice.
If someone is watching, I modify my behaviour accordingly, so that I’m doing what’s acceptable. I’m not going to change myself completely, rather, I just do a mental check. And this is what stops us from all sorts of acts, many of which are not just socially unacceptable, but which would start tearing whole strips off the social fabric, if we allowed them. If one of my colleagues at work eats the last of the cake, for example, it’s not OK for me to follow them home and set fire to their house. If a friend stands me up when we’ve arranged to meet, it’s not acceptable for me to send disturbing anonymous text messages at midnight for the next week.
Sure, these are seriously extreme examples which I’ve just thought up, so please be assured that I’m not about to do anything like this (especially now I know you’re watching!!) But the point is, when someone is watching, most of us keep ourselves in check, to some degree. We think about what is ‘too weird’, what is acceptable, and then we act. What other people think matters.
And this is what gets to me about the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. The world has been watching. Everyone has been watching. We have been watching as a lack of information and entrenched fear and racism perpetuated, daily, a cycle of frustration for everyone involved. We were watching as journalists were being arrested, as Amnesty International—AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL—arrived to observe the protests and the reactions of the police.
I was worried, when I took my child to the hospital, because I thought that someone might think I had neglected him, or purposefully hurt him (they didn’t, and the x-rays seem to show that if there were a break, it was tiny, and he’s fine). I wonder sometimes if my neighbours might think I yell at my children too often in the mornings when I want them to get their shoes on because we’re going to be late. I’m sure we’re late too often for school and the teachers will think that I don’t take my children’s education seriously.
And because I worry what they all think, I modify my behaviour. I watch Fourth Offspring a little more carefully. I try to yell a little less. I attempt to be organised and on time for school. I’m happy to be a little weird, to sing nursery rhymes at the top of my lungs, to talk to myself occasionally, but I’m human: a social creature. I genuinely (generally) want to fit in. Most of us do. We might not mind being a little on the fringe, but we understand about what’s required to be able to interact, communicate, and be part of a group.
I can’t help wondering why it is that when I’ve been watching what’s been happening in Ferguson, that the authorities there haven’t seemed to be worried about what we think? They’ve brought in the National Guard, used tear gas, shot rubber bullets, arrested protesters. Only now, after almost two weeks of unrest and confusion, does there appear to be a veneer of calm. And all that time, we’ve been watching, waiting, for them to show us that they understand about social cohesion.
I know what I think of that.
But I guess they just don’t care what I think.