I remember the first time that it happened. It was a weekend afternoon and my six-year-old son and I were returning from a soccer game at a park near Chelsea Piers. We were sitting on a city bus, an elderly woman got on a few stops after we did. She was carrying bags of groceries, moving slowly and looking exhausted.
The bus was full and although I don’t recall the other seated passengers, I do remember that none of them offered her a seat.
“Let’s get up,” I told my son, motioning him to move.
Except he didn’t.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to.”
It was that moment of mortification that many parents fear. A child being defiant and, worse, in public.
“Get up, please,” I breathed.
“Why?” he asked, looking straight at me.
“Because when a person who is older than you needs to sit down, you get up and offer it to them,” I explained. And then I picked him up and carried him towards the back of the bus.
He thought it was unfair. For one, he was six, so he argued the whole world was older, was he doomed to years of giving his seat up to teenagers? For another, why did we have to give up our seats when no one else did?
This, it seemed, he asked in an especially loud voice.
It was very unpleasant and I knew that it was my fault. Somehow, despite my blood oaths to the contrary, I’d never taught my son the importance of giving up his seat … and now I had a six-year-old who felt as though I were making unreasonable demands on him.
It struck a nerve with me because when I was pregnant and used the NYC transit system, I was rarely offered a seat. (And no, I wasn’t one of those tiny pregnant women. You could spot my pregnancy aerially.) I thought it was shocking. I rationalized the reasons — maybe the people sitting didn’t want to offend me by asking if I wanted to sit down, the implication being that I was somehow weaker than they were. Maybe they thought I was fat.
Maybe they just didn’t care.
Men, white men, in particular, were the least likely to offer me their seats.
Maybe they were absorbed in their newspaper, as my husband suggested. Maybe they didn’t care.
Or maybe no one ever told them that it’s the right thing to do.
I wanted to raise children who looked up. I vowed to raise children who’d look around them and if someone needed to sit down, they’d give up their seat. But once my children were born, the giving-up-the-seat took a backseat. There were always more immediate, pressing issues to address. Seeing my six-year-old son refuse to get up was a wake up call for me. And an extremely rude, self-centered one at that.
I worked to remedy my omission with my son. I routinely offered my seat on the bus and on the subway and I made him get up right with me. He did it, albeit grudgingly.
Until this past weekend.
He’s 10 now, and when we were coming back from a baseball game on a crowded NYC subway, an older woman got in our car. I looked at him and he shot up.
“Ma’am, would you like to sit down?” he asked.
She did, exhaling deeply as she set her bags down, and then she looked up to thank him.
“It’s not a problem,” he said.
And he sounded like he meant it.
Because it was the right thing to do.