IN August of a certain summer in Seattle, I was entering a fast-food restaurant after a morning of shopping with my then eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. We were accompanied by a neighbor boy and were all footsore and weary from the bump and bustle of modern department stores. As they plopped down in one of the booths, my son's friend whispered something to him. He, in turn, asked if it would be all right if the two of them went across the street to a convenience store for some juice as the friend was wearing braces on his teeth and was not to have carbonated drinks.
I pulled some change from my pocketbook and nodded assent. They darted out the door and returned a few minutes later with flushed faces and apple juice.
My daughter and I were sharing some giggles and enjoying the air-conditioned booth together, so the boys asked to be allowed to take a table by themselves across the room. It seemed like a logical assertion of eight-year-old independence to me, and I agreed. I reminded them to get plenty of napkins and then eyed them from time to time as they poked each other and grinned happily between trades of French fries for pickles.
When lunch was over, we gathered again to leave, the children putting the refuse of paper and cups in the trash bin. Just then a woman approached us smiling.
``I couldn't help noticing,'' she said, ``the way you treat your children as people instead of objects.''
I was thoroughly taken aback because the scene had appeared to me quite an ordinary one. I was on the verge of saying so when she continued.
``People are so much in the habit of removing dignity from their children by looking on them as chattels. It's really refreshing to see the kindness and consideration you show them.''
I blushed clear to my elbows and mumbled through some kind of ``thank-you,'' completely at a loss for words, as she turned a waving hand to us and left.
As we headed for the car, my mind was a mixture of surprise and delight at the frankness of this encounter with a total stranger ... and in a McDonald's!
Over the years I've thought of her often, and her words have reminded me how easily we show intolerance and irritation to our children at the same time as we smile and treat adults with understanding.
My children are grown now, but I watch with pleasure the thoughtfulness and generosity they show in their relations with children. I am reminded again that even a small contribution of dignity and independence to a child is an enduring one.
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