Today, a stranger in New York shamed me for refusing to give up my train seat to a child. And I can’t figure out if this is a cultural difference – if Australians just have different seat etiquette rules– or whether I’ve inadvertently been acting like a jerk on public transport my entire life.
Here’s how the seat-shaming incident began. I was sitting on the subway, reading a book in a minding-my-own-business-like manner, when commuters started packing in as we approached Times Square.
I looked up and noticed a blonde woman in her mid-30s giving me some serious side-eye.
I glanced around to make sure I wasn’t doing anything offensive. My bag was surreptitiously tucked under my feet, so I wasn’t taking up more than my fair share of space. I also wasn’t clipping my nails, sporting some funky BO, or blasting music from a set of portable speakers (although God knows enough people do all three on the New York subway.)
So I wasn’t sure why she was giving me serious scowl-face, but I figured maybe she’d just experienced a spot of indigestion or been asked to work a weekend shift. Fair enough.
I then noticed the blonde woman had a child with her, who looked about six years old. He was grabbing onto a pole near the train entrance and babbling away to his mum about some show they’d apparently just seen.
The woman continued with her glowering until she finally spoke.
“Can my son sit down?” she barked at a teenage boy sitting next to me. “He’s very little. He needs a seat.”
The teenager obliged, and the six-year-old happily took the teenager’s place.
“Sorry,” the teenage boy earnestly told the blonde mother, as if he was truly upset that he hadn’t noticed the little boy there earlier.
The blonde woman looked at me pointedly: Take note, you rude little woman, her admonishing glare said.
That was my thought as the exchange took place. I felt like I was taking crazy pills-- Because, I mean, is giving up your seat for a child actually A Thing?
If so, I’ve been breaking that unwritten rule, well, ever since I was a child myself.
In my hometown of Melbourne, I was raised to give your seat up to your elders; both out of respect and because they’re likely less fit and energetic than you. So anyone over 55 years old- well, I’ll be offering them my space on the tram or train. Same goes, of course, for pregnant women, anyone with a disability, and anyone holding something burdensome or heavy (a woman with a baby strapped to her chest, for example.)
But a child? I understand the logic if they’re too small to support themselves properly; they’ll be bouncing around uncomfortably for the whole commute.
But surely by age six, children’s arms are strong enough to grip a subway pole. School-aged students are pretty agile and fit. In fact, I remember feeling my most nimble as a kid—not like today, where even in my late 20s I’m constantly exhausted and struggling to stand straight on a bumpy train wearing high heels.
Not to mention that offering children a seat when they can safely stand seems, frankly, indulgent. Recent generations of kids are already much more entitled than previous generations; the studies on helicopter parenting and cotton-wool coddling all suggest our children could do with a lesson in resilience. I hardly think they need more special privileges just because they’re still growing. If anything, we need to de-special-snowflake our kids.
Do you know what else could be seen as rude? Talking to a woman with headphones on.
It turns out much of the Internet feels differently. And, in fact, some people from America in particular seem to think I’m a downright Grinch for my point of view. Case in point: A note sent into The Gothamist by a tipster, which showed a photo of a woman sitting down on the New York subway while two young children stood nearby. The description read:
“This morning on the 2 train… This horrible woman saw these 2 little kids needed a seat, and just sat there keeping on with her magazine. Kids really looked like they wanted a seat, but she kept ignoring them.
Scores of commenters appeared to agree with her that yes, the woman was a nasty, vile person for letting these two seemingly able-bodied children stand
To top it off, native New Yorker Jake Dobkin has claimed in another article that the order of preference for who gets a seat first on mass transit, in order of precedence, is:
“Disabled old person, Disabled person, Very pregnant woman, Child, Regular old person, Not very pregnant woman, Regular adults.”
Yes, you read that right. Pregnant women and elderly people should be giving up their seat so children can sit, Dobkin claims.
Maybe it’s because I’m not yet a parent, but that just sounds downright outrageous.
So my opinion might be unpopular, but I’m sticking by it.
If your child’s able-bodied and old enough to ride public transit without a stroller, I’ll be holding onto my seat.