It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Not too little!

It’s a long, long, sloping sidewalk that challenges us as we make our way over the bridge on our way home from a lovely long outing on this beautiful fall day. A sidewalk with clear boundaries: on one side, the decorative concrete wall preventing us from plunging into the water below, and on the other side a 20-cm drop to busy street beside us. (As in, the sidewalk is raised, not broken.)

I am pushing a single stroller with New Baby Girl — now with the new, improved blog name of Rosie! — while the other three hold on: Grace and Poppy hold on to the stroller itself and Jazz holds on to Grace’s hand.

(All this finely calculated: Poppy is the second-youngest, and so must hold on. Grace is a terrible dawdler and would end up a km behind in about three minutes. It’s astonishing how far back she gets. Oh, the irony: dawdling is the one thing Grace does quickly. Jazz does not normally have to hold on at all, as she keeps up and stays close, but when on a busy street or a crowded sidewalk, she’s required to.)

All this careful arrangement does mean that, small as we are, we string out across the entire width of the sidewalk.

Now, one thing that truly annoys me is oblivious sidewalk-hoggers. These are generally groups of children and teens, though adults do it on occasion too. Once a child is 9 or so, I start to expect some sidewalk awareness. Three six-year-olds are strung across the sidewalk, meaning that me, walking on my own, am going to have to slide sideways around them or walk on the street? I cheerfully call out “beep, beep, guys!” Three fifteen-year-olds do it? I square my shoulders and refuse to budge an inch. This usually means that the one closest to me — who fully expects this mild-looking middle-aged lady to MAKE ROOM for his/her stupendousness, the only real, significant person in the universe, after all — this usually means that the one on my end careens off my shoulder. Only, I was expecting it, see, so I am unfussed, whereas little Lady (or Master) Self-Absorbed often actually staggers a pace.

“Oh, gracious!” I’ll say, as if I hadn’t been expecting it at all. “Sorry!” Which is a bald-faced lie. I’m not. At all. I hope that this has taught them a lesson, if not in manners and consideration, at least in self-preservation, which will result in the same behaviour: pay attention to oncoming traffic, and make room.

So, since this inconsiderate behaviour annoys me so very much, I’m not about to tolerate it in my kids. Yes, they’re only toddlers and cannot reasonably be expected to figure this out themselves. Not the point! Pro-social behaviour training starts NOW!

So as we climb this long, long sloped sidewalk, I keep an eye out for oncoming pedestrians, in both directions. When someone comes up from behind, I simply stop and gently pull the child-obstacle out of the way. (We are slow-moving traffic, after all, and it’s a long section of sidewalk where no one could feasibly pass by stepping into what is usually a busy street.) When someone is coming from in front, however, the training begins.

“Jazz, honey. There’s a lady coming. See her? When she gets close, you’re going to have to squish into Grace a bit, so she can get by.” This said, you note, when said woman is well ahead. All this talking takes some time, and toddlers? They do not have lightning-quick reflexes.

As the woman gets closer, I remind Jazz. “Okay, Jazz, time to move over. Come this way a bit.”

And the woman, she smiles down at the four little faces, says, “Oh, that’s okay! They’re fine! Don’t worry!”

People do that. They think they’re being nice. They are being nice, but I sigh a little sigh each time it happens. ‘I don’t have to move because I’m little and cute’ is not the lesson I want these children learning. I usually just smile back, but today Jazz notices.

“Why did her say ‘don’t worry’?”

And I pause to consider. Why did she say that? It’s not too hard to figure: She’s probably seeing a woman with a lot on her plate, and is trying not to add more to it. She’s being considerate, is what she’s doing. Besides, there’s another explanation which is likely also part of it, that these children are too little to be aware of traffic, too young to be held culpable for their oblivion. Which is true, but…

But not forever! They get a free pass for now, but when do we expect these things to magically kick in, if we don’t actively teach them? Judging by the number of adolescent shoulders I knock into in a month, this is not something that just happens.

So I have to think of an explanation that will, well, explain what she just said, but without undermining my long-term agenda.

“You know what? I think she might have said that because she thinks you’re too little for good manners.” And you know what? Sometimes that is what it is. The follow-up comments tend to give it away. “Plenty of time for that!” or “Oh, it’s okay. They’re just little!” Well-meant, but unhelpful. And false.

I had chosen my words carefully, and I hit the mark. Jazz rears back in indignation. (Jazz is a champion indignation-rearer.)

“I am not too little! I am a big girl!”

“Yes, you are, and you have good manners. You have good manners, and you are learning more every day.”

“I have my good manners! I can say ‘please’!”

Grace is catching the drift now. “I can say ‘please’, too!”

“Yes, you can. You say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry’. All those good manner words. You’re learning to say “would you, please’ when you ask for help, and today? Today, what are we practicing?”

Blink. Blink. Blink. Mary and the trick questions. Geez. A hint is required.

“Just now, when that lady came, what did you do, Jazz?”

Oh, now that she knows. “I squished into Grace!”
Grace echoes: “She squished into me!”

“Yes. Why did you do that?”

A few more exchanges, in which it is determined — because this is in no way obvious to a toddler — that had Jazz not ceded a sliver of sidewalk the woman would have had to leap either into oncoming traffic or the canal. On or the other. But she would not have been able to walk on the sidewalk.

This is subtle, people, subtle. For toddlers (and, it seems, for many teens).

And so, when the next woman approaches, and we are in this process again, I call out to her: “We’re just learning our Sidewalk Manners!”

To which Jazz adds, “Because I am a BIG GIRL!”

And we are all very proud.

October 4, 2012 - Posted by | manners, our adoring public, outings |


  1. This story made me so happy! We don’t get the opportunity to practice sidewalk manners much, being in an area where people out for a walk is just not the norm. But when we go to the community centre for R’s preschool pickup and drop off, it keeps coming up. Move quickly through the door if there are people behind you. Wait your turn in line. Don’t run into people (that’s Louis, oblivious he).

    It is hard when strangers, from a desire to be nice to the littles – and kind to the adult shepherding them – undermine lesson time. I think the way you handled it was terrific.

    Thank you! Being aware of people around you is a life skill: taking them into account is good manners. I guess I’ve just shown that goes for caregivers as well as toddlers. 🙂

    Comment by Hannah | October 4, 2012 | Reply

  2. This is such a lovely image. I often have trouble walking around the narrow streets of my university town (built long before the automobile was imagined) when groups of arrogant, braying young men stride along in long lines of well-dressed foppery, exchanging witticisms and far too busy being excellent to notice that I’m walking towards them. If I’m feeling solid I also do the shoulder-careening, but sadly I’m normally at least a foot shorter and several stone lighter so it would be me bouncing off.

    “Far too busy being excellent to notice…” Nicely put. I can see them even now! Given your size disadvantage, perhaps you could arm yourself: a solid bag with something with hard corners inside it? Positioned so that the corners point away from you? That way, even if you do bounce off, they’ll regret their oblivion and perhaps take small, seemingly harmless women into more account in future! Oh, I’m well into the realms of fantasy, I know, but fun to imagine nonetheless!

    Comment by May | October 4, 2012 | Reply

  3. So cute.

    Comment by IfByYes | October 4, 2012 | Reply

  4. Yeah! You took my name. I suggested Daniel too. I feel bonded to you, naming your children.

    Comment by evilhrlady | October 4, 2012 | Reply

  5. great post! I love that you are always teaching the small ones in your care such good manners! any suggestions for books (their sized, not mine) that teach good manners?

    Do you know? I don’t, and I had to stop and consider why. My conclusion? I love books and read for my own pleasure and to the children all the time, but this is one instance where I feel books are unnecessary. The best way to learn good manners is to practice them. Books, I think, wouldn’t get you much further ahead.

    Comment by Brooke | October 4, 2012 | Reply

    • we’re constantly working on it, hopefully one day it will click! 🙂

      Comment by Brooke | October 5, 2012 | Reply

  6. That’s one of my huge pet peeves. We’re standing in a line and my daughter steps on someone’s toes. It’s not because she doesn’t have room. It’s because she’s not paying attention and caring that there are other people there, so I correct her. And the lady says don’t worry about it. Why, oh why, can’t they just say thank you???

    Comment by ktjrdn | October 5, 2012 | Reply

  7. When people walking toward me seem likely to bounce off of me, I sometimes just stop and hold my position. It seems to get their attention, and for those who don’t, they do more bouncing than I do.

    Comment by Jan | October 6, 2012 | Reply

  8. I have started saying to the teenagers walking towards usthree abreast on the narrow path that we walk on our way to school ‘These 5 (my 3 and my neighbours 2) are all under 8 and all managing single file walking, including the two year old. Perhaps you could try it too?’

    Comment by Clare | October 8, 2012 | Reply

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