The ideal ride on the Washington DC Metro is like entering, zombie-mode, into a time warp with your own personal pod. Put your shades on despite the dim, back-lit tunnels, the better to catch up on sleep or to stare at others without being stared at in return. Be ready with head-phones or ear buds to listen to your own music instead of the bland safety and station announcements which are often unintelligible. Some immerse themselves in their e-readers or play games and even watch movies on their phones. Others do crosswords and sudokus on the free subway papers. Eating and drinking may be prohibited, but many sip coffee from cups and mugs anyway. Do whatever it takes to isolate yourself while travelling on the rickety, smelly, and jam-packed train.
Until Tenleytown station, when a mother comes in with her toddler on a stroller. I imagine she’s on her way to work, but first, she has to drop him off at daycare.
She occupies one of the reserved seats. Hardly has the train left the station when she pulls out a picture book from her bag. She shows it to her toddler and, surprised, he claps and chortles with glee. Today’s lesson is about animals in the zoo. She reads: “Giraffes are tall and have long necks. Zebras are like horses with stripes. Turtles walk slowly and hide in their shells. Bears are huge and furry…” His eyes open wide, so does his mouth, as he tries to take in every word she speaks.
Little by little, the passengers around them turn away from whatever it was they were doing and focus, mesmerized, by what’s going on between mother and child. The pair, however, seems completely oblivious of their surroundings.
Such a scene of intense humanity is a rare comfort as one travels amidst a sea of indifference on the Metro.
But soon we reach DuPont Circle and the mother and child get off.
At Rhode Island station, however, a few stops down, another mother, with child in tow, enter the same carriage. She has earphones on and drags her child by the sleeve to an empty seat. He’s crying and she’s yelling at him to stop, hitting him on the head because he doesn’t listen. He cries even louder.
Much as you would like to mind your own business, it’s hard not to notice. The boy must have done something wrong, surely, and his mother’s right in reprimanding him. She’s just doing her duty. But he doesn’t understand and she offers no explanations. Only more shouts and sharp tugs at his clothes. Angry and frustrated, he continues to ask. But with her ear-phones on, she tries her best not to listen. They’re on the train and it’s embarrassing. He has to learn to keep still and quiet and hold back his tears.
I get off at Brookland and can’t help but reflect on the contrasting parenting styles I’ve just observed. Humans come with a built-in parenting app called language, and with a bit of empathy, it could work wonders, transforming children from barely to fully-linguistic creatures, equipped with a moral sense. But first we’ll have to pull the plugs from our ears, the blinders from our eyes, and the locks from our hearts:
Imagine a toddler runs, trips, and scrapes his knee. That stings and he cries. He can’t figure out the pain, but only feels the hurt. Until his mother comes and asks, “What happened? What did you do? So you were running and you fell down?”
He nods his head.
“And you hit the sharp edge of the rock and wounded your knee?”
He assents again.
“Now it couldn’t hurt that bad”, she says, as she wipes the knee and blows the wound a kiss. “Besides, I’ve got a brave little boy who’s now going to stop crying.”
And so he does, stifling his sobs to please his mother.
Language is, by far, the best parenting app. Talking to kids, explaining life’s events, helps them go beyond their immediate experiences of pain and pleasure, and achieve a necessary cognitive distance. Not only do they learn the names of things and acquire an understanding of causes and effects, but they also develop a knowledge of what’s moral, of the appropriate initiatives and reactions to their surroundings.
We all have to learn to use this app more often and better.
Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. For the academic year 2018-2019, he is a visiting professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of the recently published “Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission.