On making spaces friendlier to parents

by Julia_Wise27th Jan 201520 comments

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Diversity and inclusionParenting
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Julia and her husband run an effective altruism meetup series in Boston. They have a 10-month-old daughter. This post is adapted from Julia's blog.

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I've been thinking about how a social scene becomes more or less friendly to parents and children, and why it might be in the interest of the Effective Altruism movement to be more friendly.

Jeff's and my social life has mostly been composed of three circles, two well-established and one newer.

The folk dance scene is well-established. Lots of people got into it during the folk revival of the 1970s, and now there are lots of second-generation dancers my age. Both baby boomers and 20-somethings are excited about a new generation coming into the traditions. The activities themselves are fairly child-friendly—you can wear a baby or toddler while contra dancing, and children can start dancing themselves once they're about 5. The women's Morris team I dance with are 30 of Lily's biggest fans, and we're never short of helping hands when we tour with them. I've heard older women say that the reason our team has never lacked for members is that it was supportive of young mothers in the 1980s, and those women came back, bringing their daughters and their daughters' friends. Some other teams lost a wave of women at the point that nobody would help them hold the baby at a gig. 

(Relatedly, I understand this is why Google gives more generous parental and especially maternity leave than most American companies. They wanted to reduce the high attrition rate of female engineers, who were especially likely to quit after having children. The longer maternity leave has indeed reduced attrition.)

We're not really active in Quaker circles anymore, but our meeting was very child-friendly, in part because it was founded 30 years ago to be more child-friendly than the other local meeting. As with Morris, a few decades ago there was a shift from seeing childcare as something that the child's own mother was expected to provide at all times to something that was more supported by the community. 

Then there's our third social circle, the effective altruist/rationalist scene (I realize these are separate scenes in most places, but in Boston they're pretty intertwined.) It's made almost entirely of young childless people. There are more child-free-by-choice people and more antinatalist ideology, both of which are fine with me. The activities themselves are less child-friendly, in that intellectual discussion is harder to do while someone is making silly squealing noises in the corner. As Lily comes into the awkward age of being too old to play quietly on the floor and too young to follow the conversation, I expect it will be harder to keep her quietly amused. So there's a question of how much Lily will tolerate adult activities, and how much our friends will tolerate Lily being a child.

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So why wouldn't parents just use a babysitter?

Imagine we went to an afternoon discussion group - we'd need to spend time finding and screening sitters, then arrange with one who was available at that time. If we're gone 3 hours (plus 30 minutes to show the sitter around and let the child get acquainted), at the $12/hour going rate in our city, that's a total of $42. For us, that's an expensive afternoon out.

Also, maybe this is just me being a first-time parent and believing my child is more of a fragile flower than she is, but our one experience with a sitter did not go all that well, even with someone I thought was going to be totally capable. And my kid doesn't reliably eat for other people, so we don't want to come home to find her crying with hunger (it's happened). If using sitters works for your family, great! It just hasn't worked for us.

For breastfeeding mothers, being away from the baby for a significant amount of time means needing to pump milk. Bringing Lily with me and feeding her at a gathering is easier and more fun than washing the pump parts, packing it all up, excusing myself to the bathroom during the event to pump alone, and keeping the milk cold until we get home. To be away from her for something as long as a weekend would mean way more pumping and stockpiling of milk than I am willing to do. At this point she won't drink formula, so we can't just switch her main food at whim.

I think it's good for Lily to see more than the same few rooms and toys every day. She's interested in seeing different places and faces. 

Also, I love Lily and I like having her near me. It's not surprising that parents would evolve this way.

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The only really negative comment I got when I was pregnant was "I guess that's okay, as long as I never have to see the kid or hear it." This was from an organizer of a meetup (not an EA meetup) we had attended for years, and I nearly interpreted it as a command not to come back once I had a child in tow. Jeff assures me the person must have meant it as a joke. I didn't think it was a good joke.

I don't like dogs, and I've encountered service dogs that were about as badly-behaved as my baby (making noise, trying to eat other people's belongings). But I would never tell somebody I didn't want to see them if they were going to bring their dog. 

I'm fine with some spaces being kept quiet and tidy—performances, parties that have been announced as adult-only, etc. But there are a lot of borderline cases. Can I bring my baby to an academic conference? To a panel where I'm a panelist? (I've been assuming the answer is "yes" for those two, and nobody has stopped me.) Is a baby babbling or a toddler whispering more distracting than an adult coughing? Or an adult with a hissing oxygen machine? If we would be okay with those adults present, I'd say we should also be okay with a reasonably quiet child. Jeff and I do remove Lily if we think she's too distracting or loud, but I think minor child noises should be considered acceptable. 

I recognize the element of choice here—I chose to have a baby, and people who need service animals or oxygen machines did not choose to need those things. But I think supporting the continuation of humanity and the socialization of the next generation can be considered a pretty basic part of human life. I understand that you may really dislike children. But understand that if you don't want children in your presence or at your event, it's not only the child you exclude. It's me.

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It's not just when children are brought to events that these issues come up.

Years ago I went out with a friend a few months after the birth of her son. It was her first time out without him. We went to the swing dance at MIT, and a young man there (probably an MIT student) asked her what she did for a living.

"I'm a stay-at-home mom," she answered.

"Oh, that's weird," he said.

She was too jangled to ask what he meant by that, so we'll never know. In his life in a mostly-male top-notch academic enclave (sound like anyone you know?), he probably didn't know any stay-at-home parents. So maybe he meant "I don't know anyone with that occupation." Maybe he meant, "You seem too smart for that." (In fact, I think parenting was more rewarding than the PhD program she had quit.) Maybe it was just his default response when he was surprised.

If your life does not include any stay-at-home mothers (or any construction workers, or any other group you don't have much contact with), take a moment now and reflect that this is not actually a weird occupation. If this is your default thing to say when you are surprised, please think of a different thing to say.

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I've heard discussion about whether having children is a good way to increase the number of people in the EA community. I don't think it is per se, because it's much faster to talk to other adults than to raise people from infancy. Hosting an EA discussion group is probably a much better way to spread these ideas than having children. I was an antinatalist myself for a long time, and though I no longer agree with those ideas, I can understand why other people hold them.

But this is not about whether you like children, or whether you agree with having children in principle. It's about who you welcome in. A large proportion of adults are parents, and to exclude parents is to keep this a movement with an unnecessarily narrow demographic.

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What can you do to make spaces more welcoming to parents and children? (These suggestions are mostly based on my experience with babies. Parents of older children can chime in with their suggestions.)

  • Say, "It's good to see you. I'm glad you could come!" 
  • Converse with the parent like they are a normal person. It's fine to talk about the baby or not. But consider that they probably came to an effective altruism discussion to talk about effective altruism, and allow time for that.
  • Don't give a young child food or objects without asking. You'd be surprised at what kids can tear up and choke on.
  • If the parent is having a hard time juggling coat, shoes, baby, and bags, ask if you can hold anything.
  • If there's a quiet space (like a bedroom or a sofa in another room) that you're okay with them using, offer to let the parent use it for feeding or hanging out with a fussy child. Bonus: now you don't have to be in the same room with said fussy child. It's probably a good idea to mention this as a general offer before the child gets fussy, so it doesn't come across as a veiled "Your child is annoying me; please remove it."
  • Offer to hold or supervise the child while the parent goes to the bathroom or gets something to eat.
  • Spend some time talking with an older child—do they have questions about the discussion? What is their favorite book? Do they like animals? Did they do anything fun this week?
  • If the child really is disrupting the event, an organizer can take the parent aside and figure out a plan ("I'm worried that people can't hear the discussion well. Is there anything I can do to help? Would you be able to take your child to another room while she calms down?")

You don't have to do all these things if you're not comfortable with them, but the first one would be a really good start.

Lots of people in this movement have been very nice to my family. Thank you! Keep up the good work!

20 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:18 AM
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I would like to see both the rationalist and the EA communities be more welcoming of families. However, at the same time I often dislike when children are present at meetups. (not that I ever express this, since I most emphatically do NOT want to discourage parents)

The biggest reason for this is the gender imbalance of these groups. As a female who is good with children, I know that when a child shows up that I will be the one (and probably the only one) who will be helping to take care of the child, and so missing out on the activity that I actually came there for. OTOH I'm perfectly happy to see children at SCA (medieval recreation) events, where the distribution of responsibility is much more widespread.

Thanks - that's a good point.

It took me a while to realize that I wasn't offering my baby to young men because I didn't perceive them as good/experienced with children, but that the reason they weren't experienced with children is that nobody hands them babies. So I've tried to offer her to a group of people in general ("If anybody wants to hold Lily, she's available") without either pinning down the women or excluding the men.

If you don't like being the default childcare provider (I wouldn't!), this seems like a good conversation to have with the group. I bet a lot of people haven't noticed the dynamic.

That's a good point. Though as a guy I generally feel it would be seen as weird for me to request to hold someone else's baby, especially if there are a bunch of girls around. As such I normally end up missing the opportunity, even though I'd like to.

Take the opportunity! As a girl, it's not that I WANT to take the child, it's that other people rarely step forward, and I think the parents deserve some time to participate.

It's totally not weird for a guy to take the baby. Children are pretty hardy. You're unlikely to break one. Parents are usually pretty expert at calming their kids down, so if something DOES happen, you have a parent right there.

(Note: Currently I'm the nanny to the only child who ever comes to meetups, and I'm fine with being the person responsible for taking THAT SPECIFIC baby for a bit, because I know I'm going to have a much easier time with him than anyone else. My comments are in regards to other instances.)

That's a really good point. One reason diversity matters it that it's harder work to be the minority representative in a group, to the extent people often find its not sustainable and drift away.

(I was glad though to have a different experience when visiting CEA offices with my daughter - pretty much everybody there that day wanted to give her a cuddle, and she certainly enjoyed her favourite sport of beard grabbing!)

Like many people (especially among the rationality-esque circles), I have some amount of sensory processing disorder, and certain types of anti-quietandtidy-nesses are extremely disrupting to me, even though I would like to be compatible with as many people as possible.

e.g. Sniffling more than once in a few minutes will cut through whatever I had my attention on, so I have to avoid sniffling people. But I'm perfectly okay with most nose-blowing, coughing, sneezing, and other typical adult sounds.

I haven't had enough experience being around children to get a precise guess. I think I'm perfectly compatible with some children instances, but have to avoid most of them, and I'm guessing competently raised children are less likely to be disruptive and so I might be compatible with most of them?

I do not know how to solve this problem, especially because people with SPD often have very different specific issues.

Thanks - that's helpful to add.

I guess if I were regularly attending a group where some noise Lily or I made was making it impossible for someone else to focus (whether that was me sniffling or her babbling), I'd like us to talk about it and maybe work out a plan ("I'm not especially interested in this talk, but I really want to hear the next one, so I'll take a walk now and plan to come back in an hour.")

I agree with Dette that children will make noises, and no amount of parental competence will stop babies from babbling, etc. The understanding of when to be quiet and when it's okay to be noisy comes much later in childhood, and experimenting with noises is how we all learned to talk.

Thanks for sharing that viewpoint Alice. I would guess the resolving these types of issues largely depend on everybody being clear about their needs and as understanding as possible of other's needs.

One thing though, is that there are lots of factors other than the parents' competence that might affect how un-quietandtidy a small person might be on a given day. My daughter is a bit younger than Julia's, but I've already discovered that she might sit quietly through a given situation on one day, but be unsettled and noisy on another. I generally feel quite self-conscious and will remove us both if I think she's disrupting the event. I don't think you intended it this way, but saying people's compatibility with a child is a measure of their parents' skills makes that kind of feeling much more acute!

Due to my parent's schedules, I once got stuck with my younger brother (11 years old at the time) at a Less Wrong meet up and the party of an EA friend in DC. I felt very awkward trying to keep my brother tame and entertained without detracting from the surrounding conversations, but he did extraordinarily well compared to other social environments. In my experience, people involved in effective altruism seem to be fairly good at handling children, even ones with special needs. That being said, the difference between an infant and an 11 year old is considerable.

I'm very glad you made the bullet point list at the end, it is very useful. It applies fairly well to most age groups for kids.

Thanks very much for this article Julia. I'm really grateful for the specific advice on making events more inclusive. It's useful to know which things are considered useful and helpful (pointing out space they can use) and which troublesome (giving the child something to play with) - having not come into contact with young children much, it's hard to have good intuitions on this. It's great that you're forging the way for other parents, by being the first to bring a child to events. I don't know how welcome you felt Lily was at eg the EA conference, but my perception was that everyone was very happy to have her there. That's made me much happier about the idea of some day having a family and integrating them into my work/EA social life - in part just by showing how it would work. This seems very useful in a movement currently dominated by people in their early 20s, which needs to diversify.

We were worried about her distracting people during talks at the EA conference, but we tried to take her out of the room when her noise got beyond a minimum. It was reassuring that somebody else brought his five-year-old for a session or two, and someone else told me she had brought her baby to conferences in the past.

Julia, thank you so much for this!

I'm seconding your recommendations. I often wished I had help when my daughter was smaller (now that she is older people offer it a lot more). It always made me extremely uncomfortable when she was fussy and I felt like I was bothering everyone else.

Great post!

It is very important to have spaces that are comfortable for everyone, but there is a related point which IMO is even more important.

The EA movement is currently dominated by young people, which is natural for a new ideology. However, in order to make the transition from ideology to community and surviving in the long run, it is essential to start attracting and/or creating EA families. The family is the core unit of any community and the best way to ensure transmission of values to the next generation.

It's certainly true that lots of groups transmit their ideas largely through families, but others don't rely primarily on families (vegetarianism, or political parties, or academic departments). I wouldn't want to put too strong a pressure on children to adhere to my ideas, particularly since that might backfire and cause them to reject the ideas entirely.

Hi Julia, thx for replying!

I don't know enough about the vegetarian community but I think that it grew so much recently that it might be considered a young movement, like EA (it is also a related movement, obviously). Political opinions definitely seem to be transmitted from parent to child, at least from my experience. It is true that there are "teenage rebellions" but I think that the opposite is more common. Academic ideas are often very narrow-field and of little interest to the wide public so a different approach is natural.

I'm not planning to put pressure on my son either. But I'm definitely planning to expose him to my own worldview. My hope is that if I provide him with the requisite intellectual tools and expose him to knowledge, there is a good chance he will adopt a large part of my worldview. After all, in a sufficiently rational mind truth should triumph over falsehood and if my ideas are not truth then let them perish.

If there's a quiet space (like a bedroom or a sofa in another room) that you're okay with them using, offer to let the parent use it for feeding or hanging out with a fussy child.

Thanks for this useful advise; I wouldn't have realised this would be helpful.

"But I think supporting the continuation of humanity and the socialization of the next generation can be considered a pretty basic part of human life."

Maybe it's a good thing at the margins, but we have more than enough people breeding at this point. There's nothing particularly noble about it, anymore than it's noble for an EA to become a sanitation worker. Sure, society would fall apart without sanitation workers, but still...

You're entitled to do what you want with your life, but there's no reason to be smug about it.

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The post doesn't claim that having children makes you "good" or "particularly noble", and there's no moral connotation inherent in something being "a pretty basic part of human life".

You're entitled to think what you like, but there's no reason to be nasty about it.