I was on the subway on my way to work last week when two men near me began arguing.
I didn’t see how it started. Like so many other commuters, my attention was buried in my phone, split between a podcast and Candy Crush. I looked up when I heard the men raise their voices at each other and took out one of my ear buds so I could hear what they were saying. I was interested in the argument, but I also wanted to see if they would need to be separated or if I would need to move to another car. Listening to the argument turned out to be little help, as the men were both speaking Spanish, but from what I could gather, they had both gone to sit in the same seat and one man took offense at being pushed aside.
Despite their shared language, the two men appeared to be from very different walks of life. The man who had taken the seat had tan, pockmarked, weather-beaten skin and was wearing dark grey shorts and a black v-neck t-shirt. His black hair looked damp and somewhat stringy, though I couldn’t tell if it was wet from water, gel or sweat. The other man was wearing dark slacks and a neatly pressed white polo shirt. His skin was smooth and his hair had been carefully sculpted into place. Polo looked ten to fifteen years younger than Shorts, but I suppose the actual margin could have been smaller.
They yelled at each other for a few minutes. Shorts appeared defensive, but certainly aggressive, as he continually pointed his finger at Polo’s chest and asked, “What’s your problem?” Polo, meanwhile, spoke sternly but simply stood straight, rather than leaning into Shorts’ space. He used phrases like, “You can’t just do whatever you want,” and “You’re not the only person in the world,” as though he were Shorts’ parent.
Which made sense, since Polo’s son was standing next to him, watching the whole thing.
Polo’s son looked to be around eight or nine years old and was the spitting image of his father. He was wearing athletic clothes but he had his father’s face and signature hair part. I decided that Polo was upset because he had been hoping that he and his son could sit next to each other but that Shorts had sat down before them, perhaps bumping into one of them in the process. In that light, Polo seemed more like a protective father, rather than simply a disgruntled man on his way to work. That image was reinforced for me once the argument subsided, as Polo and Shorts sat down next to each other and Polo held his son on his lap.
As I watched the men argue, I listened to their exchange but watched Polo’s son. His expression never changed; his face remained blank, though I thought I saw a hint of fear in his eyes. He seemed to be waiting, as I was, for Shorts to push his father or throw a punch. The boy didn’t say anything; he simply stood dutifully next to his father, watching the two men yell at each other and waiting to see if he would have to defend his father.
I found myself trying to put myself inside the boy’s head to see what he was learning from watching his father. “When someone does something you don’t like, yelling at them is the best way to solve the problem.” “Don’t back down from an argument, no matter how aggressive the other person seems.” “Keep on driving your point home until the other person is convinced you’re right, even if he doesn’t seem to be listening anymore.” “Defend yourself and your family against any and all threats, no matter how trivial the offense.”
There are some positive lessons in there, to be sure. Standing up for one’s beliefs and maintaining personal dignity are lessons I would think any parent would want to pass on to their children. As I thought more about how I would have acted if one of my children had been with me, though, I kept picturing myself making a comment to the other person and then leaving to find another seat. Even if the other person tried to continue the conversation, I believe that my leaving the space and keeping my temper in check would have brought the other person’s anger down, as well. Hopefully, the issue would have been settled quickly and more quietly, without one of my children ever having to fear that I was about to get into a physical altercation.
And then, suddenly, as I was processing what I had seen and telling myself that I would have handled the situation better, I realized that I was projecting my own ideals onto these two men without having all of the information. Maybe Shorts had shoved Polo and his son out of the way. Maybe he had stepped on Polo’s son’s foot. Maybe Polo was angry because he genuinely thought his son could have been hurt, which would have made his reaction more justifiable. Plus, even if I was right that they had simply bumped into each other while looking for the same seat, the men spoke to each other, expressed themselves and then the argument was finished. Neither man became violent and they spoke calmly throughout the rest of the ride.
I know that my first instinct is to act protectively toward a child I see in a situation like this. It’s why I work in the children’s mental health field and has a lot to do with my identity as a father, as well. Even so, I have been working to maintain an awareness of the influence my background and my work experience have on my perception of my surroundings. Part of that means remembering that if I might do things a different way, it does not necessarily mean that my way is the “right” way. I still think that Polo probably should have walked away from Shorts, rather than continuing to argue, but I appreciated the fact that he prevented the argument from becoming physical, especially because his son was there. I also realize that different people, especially people from different backgrounds, can have different definitions for “yelling.”1
The key for us, as parents, is to keep in mind that our children are always watching us. They see how we react to every situation, both positive and negative, and they take notes. If we show affection and smile often and treat people with respect, our children will internalize those behaviors. If we throw tantrums whenever things don’t go our way, we can rest assured that our children will throw tantrums when they don’t get their way as well. If we keep a calm, stoic demeanor all the time and only become really animated when we’re watching sports, our kids will follow those examples too.2
I may not know what triggered the disagreement between Polo and Shorts. I may not even know exactly what lessons Polo’s son learned from watching it, though I think I have an idea. But I do know that parents always have to be careful about the lessons we are teaching our children, especially when we don’t even realize we are doing so.
2. Sound familiar, Yavelberg family?↩