Wandering Kids at a Exhibition
November 6, 2013 5:30 PM   Subscribe

A recent AskMe thread and this answer in particular has me re-examining an experience I had a while back, when exhibiting at a show. One of the other exhibitors had her four-year-old child along. I'm sure that if she had any other choice she would have left her child at home. But I kept feeling like her attitude about her child and their impact on the rest of the show and the other exhibitors was....lax? And I'm trying to figure out if I'm being an unfair childless jerk. In part because I hope to have my own kids someday, and if I do, I may very well be in her same position.

The child seemed better-than-average able to entertain themselves, and she would read to or play with her child when she could, particular when business was slow. She would also take her child on bathroom breaks or to lunch, obviously. But for much of the rest of the time, her four-year-old just...wandered around the show, essentially left to their own devices. Usually the child stayed within her sight, but sometimes not so much. Usually the child would leave the other exhibitors alone, sometimes...not so much. I had the child grab things from my table and wasn't sure what to do other than just keep taking the items back -- I didn't feel comfortable disciplining someone else's kid!

In the end, the child made friends with a group of exhibitors who didn't have much to do, and they played together for several hours each day while the mom worked. I liked the idea of the community coming together to help her out when she was in a tough spot...but I also felt kind of resentful that she set her kid loose and expected us to manage, when all of us were also working.

MeFi, give me some perspective here. Am I a jerk for being irritated? Is there something I should have done, or done differently? How should I handle the semi-unsupervised children of fellow professionals in the future?

If it's relevant, this was an explicitly kid-friendly show that was open to the general public, but absolutely not a "drop your kids off in the morning" kind of event. It was also indoors.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're not a jerk. If the kid is being a disruption in some way other than existing, talk to the mother about it. See if some sort of peaceful solution can be hammered out.

But consider this: No one takes their four-year-old to work because they want to.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 5:43 PM on November 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

If a child is grabbing stuff that ought not be touched, it's quite all right to take that stuff back and issue a mild-to-semi-stern "Oh, let's not touch these things any more, OK?" You're not disciplining as much as simply setting a boundary, and people are allowed to do that.

Crossing the boundary is what calls for discipline. So if that doesn't work, mention to the parent that you'd rather not have the child handling things in your area. That really ought to do it. It would for me, for whatever that's worth. You're absolutely within reason - there's safety and liability, to say nothing of your feelings on the matter.
posted by jquinby at 5:52 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

When our league has roller derby bouts, we need a megaton of volunteers in a variety of positions. Many volunteers bring their children (of varied ages), myself included.

There was one kid at our last bout whose parents were volunteering...somewhere, I don't know where - and a woman who was in charge of another section came up to me and said "PLEASE TAKE THIS KID OFF MY HANDS". He was probably about eight or nine.

He was thoroughly obnoxious - asking me stupid questions when I was trying to do work; running around with other kids around the fans who were trying to purchase tickets; messing around with a bunch of different displays I had.

The next day, at our post-bout production meeting, I said to our bout production manager "we need to tell the volunteers THAT WE ARE NOT BABYSITTERS." He agreed, and said he would let our volunteers know.

(I constantly worry that my son falls into that category, but I've been told that he's actually very helpful and people like having him around, so that's good.)
posted by Lucinda at 5:54 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

No you are definitely not a jerk. You are also well within your rights to say "don't take things from my table" or a nice version of "I'm working kid, off you go." I raised my two on my own & can't imagine letting them (as preschoolers) roam free among strangers at a work event for hours at a time.
posted by headnsouth at 5:56 PM on November 6, 2013

No one takes their four-year-old to work because they want to.

Not true. The world is full of inconsiderate jerks who think everyone finds their children delightful. When "it takes a village to raise a child" forms the basis for requiring others to put up with irritating brats who aren't behaving appropriately or violate other people's space (including by making unexpected/unsanctioned noise), we all suffer. "It takes a village to raise a child" also means setting boundaries for both kids and their parents, who also need to learn from the elders what is acceptable.

In this case, since the event was intended to include children, it's a slightly fuzzier situation. Nonetheless, you were well within your rights and your irritation is legitimate.
posted by carmicha at 6:01 PM on November 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

Here's my two cents:

There is enormous cultural variation in expectations around children and their role in the larger community. I don't know your gender, ethnicity, or cultural background but I bet whatever it is, it influences your reaction to this situation.

In white, WASP, upper and middle class communities, children are expected to be seen not heard and are not integrated into community events. Children are frequently excluded from important gatherings such as weddings and other parties. In these contexts, it is often jarring to see children, and people from these cultural backgrounds often have negative reactions to children in public spaces (airplanes, restaurants, etc).

In many immigrant communities, African American communities, and spaces where women are predominant, children are a more integrated part of the community. They are underfoot at important events, and the community interacts with them more freely and participates more broadly in their discipline and entertainment.

(In my experience, I have also found that middle and upper class white parents tend to allow their children to be more intrusive, demanding, loud, and disruptive than would be allowed in many other communities.) Perhaps for this reason, combined with their usual absence, children in middle class, mostly white spaces tend to be perceived as outsiders who are taking up space and being "rude" (Or the parents are perceived as rude for bringing them).

I come from a middle class white background, but I'm a single parent, and I also am part of a subculture that prioritizes kids and integrates them more into community events. If I want to be part of an event, I generally have to bring my kid, and also, I often want to bring my kid. She's part of my life and I don't think my life should have a kid half and an adult half that can't meet. I seek out communities where this is accepted and normal, but sometimes I have to be in contexts where kids aren't really welcome, and sometimes that's just the way it is. Sometimes I can't be totally on top of my kid because I'm dealing with other shit. Also, I think the fact that I'm helping create the future of humanity should afford me a little slack, and whether you're a "kid person" or not, I do think that you (the general you) does owe the next generation some attention. So I think it's OK to expect the larger community to look out a bit for my kid in a public space. I'd particularly like men to think about their responsibility for kids in general because women often take on the role of looking out for kids, and men who are especially put out by them seem to be ignoring the whole survival of our species aspect of children.

In conclusion, my opinion is that yes, you could take a different perspective on this by looking at some of the assumptions and cultural expectations you are bringing into this situation. Perhaps a reframe could be: "Hey, there are kids here, how fun!". That doesn't mean you have to babysit all day or let the kids walk all over you - having good and firm boundaries is a good lesson to kids too - but don't be so put out by your opportunity to influence the future of humanity.
posted by latkes at 6:08 PM on November 6, 2013 [39 favorites]

Mod note: Folks just answer the question asked, this is not an opportunity to chat about other people's bad parenting.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:21 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

i am also an unfair childless jerk, but i love kids, and if i were ever exhibiting professionally at a show, i would recruit any small, persistently unsupervised children as junior sales reps by having them don my company t-shirt "ask me about brucesoft, the way of the future!" and they would be instructed that if anyone asked them about brucesoft, they should just point to me.
posted by bruce at 6:34 PM on November 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

Twenty some odd years ago, when doing shows, I sometimes had no choice but to take three of my children. The older two presented no problem, they would sit in a corner and play games or read books. The youngest, ages 5-7 during this time, could have been a nightmare. A special needs child, I knew I had to keep a close eye on him -- and I did. I would give him things to do. Would reward him for holding on to my pants leg. Seriously. Like a penny or a star for five minutes. But two things I never did: make the older children watch out for him (way beyond their abilities at 2 and 4 years older than him, considering his disabilities), or let him loose. I only had to take the kids a handful of times, but man, I would not dream of letting others watch out for MY kids. Not even the well behaved low maintenance ones.

So, you are not being unreasonable. This mother should have contained her child, whatever that took. She may have not seen the need though, if the child was generally well behaved. At the very least, laying down the rules for your table is well within bounds, nicely but firmly. And if that doesn't do the job, then speaking to the mother.
posted by batikrose at 6:35 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think being irritated by children makes you a jerk, even remotely...but I'm also not quite comfortable with giving you the validation it sounds like you're looking for. It almost seems like you're asking for permission to be less polite, less gracious, and less forgiving than you actually were, and to come down harder on this mom for Doing it Wrong.

But why would you want to go in that direction?

Sure, you might find other childless people who will pipe up and say, "Hey! That would annoy me too!" or -worse- moms who will volunteer that they would never, ever allow their children to wander around unsupervised. So what? So what if that mom was completely in the wrong? What good will it do you to know that?

Just above the comment you cited was one by Capri I thought was much more insightful and really quite heartbreaking; so much so that I'm sort of astonished that this question is the one that came out of that thread. The lesson of that story was that sure, sometimes other people are going to impose on you and irritate you in a million ways, and sometimes parents completely drop the ball in ways that unfairly inflict their offspring on others -- but, especially when kids are involved, it's almost always better to err on the side of being kind.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:38 PM on November 6, 2013 [13 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Just to clarify:

I guess this basically boils down to an etiquette question. Am I unreasonable for being uncomfortable that a 4-year-old was wandering around a professional exhibition unsupervised, and if I'm not being unreasonable, what's the best, kindest and most polite way to handle myself?

I've been operating under the assumption that the answer is, "Assume the mom is doing the best that she can, prevent the child from doing actual damage to your merchandise, and participate in the group effort of trying to make sure the child doesn't wander off into the street or fall down a staircase."

But I have a tendency to be overly-accommodating and to err on the side of not bothering people, even when I should, so: this AskMe, as a reality check.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:49 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was under the impression that "it takes a village" also allowed the other members of said village to dole out discipline and punishment. Since most parents are justifiably uncomfortable with the latter, I'd argue the 'it takes a village' doesn't really apply.

More to the point, I don't think being irritated by children makes you a jerk. I don't think being uncomfortable with this situation is unreasonable in the least, and setting boundaries is certainly within your rights. You don't have to be mean or cruel about it, but you were there to do a job, and the child's actions were negatively impacting your ability to do so. Sure, maybe you could have incorporated the kid into helping you out, but it's not your responsibility to do so, and may not even be feasible for your exhibition. I don't think it's out of line to gently (but firmly) tell the kid no, and/or take him back to his mother. I would have.

Kids don't know any better. But the parents do (or should). And I don't think letting a kid that young wander about alone is that safe, either--that alone would lead me to take him back to his mother.
posted by Zelos at 6:51 PM on November 6, 2013 [10 favorites]

Am I unreasonable for being uncomfortable that a 4-year-old was wandering around a professional exhibition unsupervised, and if I'm not being unreasonable, what's the best, kindest and most polite way to handle myself?

No, you are not being unreasonable. It's not appropriate for a child of any age to be wandering in a professional environment unattended.

Unfortunately, people do what they think they have to do, or what they feel entitled to do, so you have to set firm boundaries. Particularly if you had to stop the child from touching your displays, it's appropriate to take the child back to their parent and explain the situation to make it clear that they should manage their child.

I have a different take on gender roles than some of the above posters- I think it's important for women not to permit themselves to be used as babysitters just because the assumption is that we will always take care of other people's children. It's extremely rude to expect other people to have to stop doing work to manage children that are not their own, particularly given that managing other people's children can result in very unpleasant confrontations with parents who think that no one else has the right to require their child to behave, even if they have chosen not to bother doing so.
posted by winna at 6:59 PM on November 6, 2013 [22 favorites]

I have had children-three children-and in years past we have had to take them to work (long story) and I can tell you I would NEVER have let a child that age wander around unsupervised, period. It's dangerous. It only takes a moment for a child to disappear. And not every adult is trustworthy.

I am sorry she had to bring her child, I understand sometimes it is unavoidable, I am fine with that, but under no circumstances should a child that age be wandering around without mom or dad or a responsible adult.

I would have been beyond annoyed, and I probably would have been rude enough to say something.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:25 PM on November 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think perhaps you could address the 'overly-accommodating' feeling you may be having by recognizing that there is a different way to respond if the kid is at your table, and if the kid is in the general area.

If the kid is at your table, touching stuff, etc., then treat them as you would anyone who is not behaving appropriately towards your merchandize. Tell them firmly to stop. That's your territory, and you have a responsibility to take care of your stuff. But that isn't really any different from any other person.

But the second one, the keeping an eye out for the child - that is an impulse, and a choice. One you can say no to. You do not have to 'keep an eye out', or notice how far the child is from her mother, or how close they are to the door, etc. That is not a role you were given. It is a role you took on. Every person in the community you are in makes a choice about whether they want to play that role - and some will and some won't. If it's going to make you resentful - then it's okay to leave it to others. It isn't easy for some people to do, particularly if you are prone to imaging the worse case scenario of things - like the child wandering off, or worse, being taken.

Finally, you do not know that this mother 'expects' other people to take care of her child. It won't feel good if you imagine this is what she is doing. It also won't feel any better if you imagine her incapable, and that you are somehow doing her a favor by keeping an eye out, that will make you resentful later. So, perhaps just focus on what you can control: that it is uncomfortable for you to see the child roaming around, but every person at that exhibition is making a decision - the mom to let her child roam, each vendor/participant, to watch out for the child or not, and you - in your case to decide that you're really not interested in watching out for this kid, so you aren't going to do it.

Let the universe unfold as it should - perhaps others are actually okay with watching out for the kid, and will. Perhaps others aren't okay with watching out for the kid, and don't. Both of those are okay choices. What isn't okay is watching out for the kid when you don't want to. Because that road leads to resentment.
posted by anitanita at 7:27 PM on November 6, 2013 [13 favorites]

Totally unsafe and in NO way alright.

I would have complained to the promoter, out of fear for the child's safety and wellbeing.

I love children and have a two year old. When I bring my son to work, I also bring a babysitter, BECAUSE I WANT MY CHILD TO STAY SAFE.

posted by jbenben at 8:31 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: more helpful less JudgeMe folks, you know the drill.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:33 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

OP recap: "I've been operating under the assumption that the answer is, "Assume the mom is doing the best that she can, prevent the child from doing actual damage to your merchandise, and participate in the group effort of trying to make sure the child doesn't wander off into the street or fall down a staircase."

I think that is the best and really only response you can make. You're well within your rights to feel annoyed about it, and it's really not reasonable -- I was all set to come in and be like, "It's not great, but it's fine ..." and I've had to take my kids to events where I would really rather not but sometimes your babysitter gets the flu and you have two hours' notice and an unmissable event, it happens -- but then I saw it was over multiple DAYS and, yo, work out your childcare arrangements, other lady! (I know, I know, it could still be just a really bad situation, I shouldn't get judgmental.) But I think beyond having your inside feelings and judginess, the only thing you could really do is speak to the event organizer about it if it's really disruptive, and otherwise reminding yourself to have sympathy and think the best of others' questionable decisions/actions is about all you can do.

OP original: "I had the child grab things from my table and wasn't sure what to do other than just keep taking the items back -- I didn't feel comfortable disciplining someone else's kid!"

Take the items back and say something like, "No, it's not okay to touch other people's things without asking." That doesn't use loaded language like "bad" or "grabbing" or whatever, and puts forth a pretty universal social rule that no halfway reasonable parent can object to. You can also say, "The rule in MY booth is that nobody can do X" or whatever -- kids are usually pretty clear on the idea that there are different rules in different people's houses/places, and very few parents object to you saying the rule in YOUR place is X because you're not telling the kid she can NEVER do whatever, just not in YOUR space.

If you wanted to go the extra mile, you could either walk her back to her mother and say, "Your daughter's so cute! She's so enthusiastic! [slight change of tone, to apologetic and friendly:] She's getting a little bit grabby with some of my decorative forks ..." and let it trail off suggestively and the mother will jump in with profuse apologies and remind the girl about no-touching and be a little more watchful of her going near your booth. OR you could say to the little girl, "It's not okay to touch someone else's things without asking, and you need to ask me first. If you would like to see them, I will show them to you and we can look at them together," and then show her some of your decorative forks and tell her a little about them and let her handle them carefully. When preschoolers are ALLOWED to handle something they're not usually supposed to touch, they often (not always!) follow the rules of handling it pretty carefully and remember what to do when they come back to it. Kids that age like to imitate adults and do things "right," but they're also very impulse-driven to explore and touch.

Those are both things that people with kids are probably more comfortable doing, but if it ever comes up again and you want a couple more responses in your arsenal, there you go.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:43 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents were heavily involved in a collecting hobby that meant they attended a bunch of exhibitions, hobby fairs, widget conventions, etc., which took up a lot of their weekend time. They had no choice but to take me, because all their friends were involved, too, so there were no available babysitters.

I remember being taken along to these from the age of about six and being bored out of my mind, wandering the halls unsupervised and hungry. It helped that a lot of the thingummies on sale were interesting to a kid (buttons, gadgets, pocket-money-type toys, etc.), so I got to talk to some of the other grownups selling the stuff, who were always very polite. But usually I sat in a chair or the back of the car and read and sulked. It was made very clear to me that I should be seen and not heard.

I got to know some of the other kids and hang out with them a bit, but it always felt hard on me that I had to spend my whole weekend (we're talking full daytime shows here) being around adults doing adult things.

I don't blame you for being irked that this kid (too young to roam free, in my opinion) was kind of left to her own devices, but maybe her mom really, really wanted to be at this show, and so she hoped it would turn out okay if she brought her kid, and she's willing to deal with the fact afterwards that some people probably didn't agree.
posted by vickyverky at 9:47 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

And in regards to how you deal with grabby hands from a kid:

In my forties now, I STILL walk around craft fairs, rummage sales, and stores with my hands clasped behind my back, because it sank in after being told over and over again that it wasn't okay to touch things, or being told (gently) that I could point to something I liked and they would show it to me.

So I think you were well within your rights to verbally show the kid some boundaries if she was getting touchy-feely.
posted by vickyverky at 9:50 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

The thing about kids is that they're usually accustomed to having random adults tell them what to do, and you're a lot more likely to get results if you act as if you have the authority to- well, to be the grownup.

Have you ever been someplace with an older lady and noticed the way they're totally confident in telling kids, in a mom-voice, "hey! That's enough! Now, you go be good" or whatever's appropriate, even if it's someone else's- some stranger's- kid running wild. And a lot of the time, the kid realises that this is a person that they can't run roughshod over, and they go fool around somewhere else. And typically, the kid's mom is so tired or busy that she's not at all upset by this. There are exceptions of course, but typically you're not going to offend anyone by telling a kid 'Stop! That's enough, go help your mom" in a stern voice.

So: it's totally ok to be annoyed by annoying kids, but it's also ok to act as if you have the authority to set personal boundaries with them. You're An Adult, you do have some degree of authority.
Don't be afraid of them, they smell fear. And if they don't respond, it's totally ok to go to their mom and say "hey, little help here please? Johnny's getting a bit wild over here". You'll find them less annoying when you're more confident.
posted by windykites at 9:51 PM on November 6, 2013 [11 favorites]

I probably would have gone up to the mother and said in a concerned way "Are you aware that your child is wondering around, and if so, are you OK with that?" Depending on the response, the conversation could go in various different directions from there.
posted by Dansaman at 10:58 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

You asked if you are being a jerk. Yes, you are. The child inconvenienced you in only the most minor way and it was not unreasonable for the mother to bring the kid along. Let it go.
posted by LarryC at 11:17 PM on November 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

If it's relevant, this was an explicitly kid-friendly show that was open to the general public, but absolutely not a "drop your kids off in the morning" kind of event. It was also indoors.

Of course it's relevant. This was a professional environment to you, but this was also a public, kid-friendly, enclosed event in which the mother was at the venue all day herself and knows/feels comfortable with the other people working there. Maybe I'm missing something, but why would the mother not bring her kid to something like that, let alone think it would be unsafe or an intrusion to bring her kid? From your description, I would expect people to bring their kids, and to see kids around.

I've been operating under the assumption that the answer is, "Assume the mom is doing the best that she can, prevent the child from doing actual damage to your merchandise, and participate in the group effort of trying to make sure the child doesn't wander off into the street or fall down a staircase."

I think your assumption is reasonable, but I suspect that my interpretation of "participate in the group effort" of protecting the kid is different. Just because a kid exists in the same space you're in doesn't mean you have to do anything about it. It sounds like in this case, the kid was fine, there weren't any emergencies. If at some point you see a kid who isn't fine (for example, someone is hassling her or she's hurt or milliseconds away from getting hurt), then sure, step in to help. However, that goes for dangerous/awful situations involving adults, too -- if you see someone who needs help, by all means help them! But it's not like a child existing in your vicinity is some kind of crisis situation all by itself. A child (or parent) isn't imposing on you by being around and sometimes interacting with you, that's just life in a world where other people exist.

I'm childless, too. I'm OK with kids, am used to being around them, but not especially interested in interacting with them. In your place, I wouldn't have made some effort to be friends with the kid or entertain the kid or rope the kid into being my shill. To be honest, I wouldn't really give a second thought to some four year old in a semi-public space wondering in the general line of sight of her mother, and wouldn't assume that I'd be interacting with her at all (or at least not more than any other person who's going from booth to booth). I also wouldn't assume she's in danger -- why wouldn't her mom bring her to a semi-public, child-friendly exhibition? And is she supposed to have one hand on the kid at all times?

Next time, a kid might again try to interact with you. Maybe you'll actually enjoy it and like the kid -- I wouldn't assume she's obnoxious or dull just because she's a child. But yeah, she also might be irritating. Lots of people are irritating. What do you do about other irritating people who come to your booth and touch stuff and interrupt you or are horrible conversationalists? If she comes to your booth and irritates you, then just be polite like you would to anybody coming to your booth, but instead of dropping hints like you would with an adult (who can better understand abstract thought) be very direct and tell her exactly how to fix her behavior. If she's touching your stuff, tell her she should look but not touch. If she's interrupting you when you're with a customer, tell her she should wait her turn. If she's asking too many questions or begging or complaining, or even just generally getting wild, tell her she should go talk to her mom about it. If she's getting really crazy (screaming/crying), that's when I would actually send someone to grab her mom (though more likely than not, her mom will show up once the kid gets to that decibel level anyway). You already know how to deal with people, just apply a kind, simplified version of the same to her; she's a person, she'll get it. And if she doesn't, just tell her to go get her mom and her mom can explain it to her.

I think you're over-thinking this. You're not the kid's parent, you don't have to correct the kid's parent, these are just other people who are also showing up at this exhibition like you are.

Just a guess, but do you live in the suburbs or a rural area? It sounds like you're not that used to sharing your space with a lot of other people, or being in common areas for longer periods of time. If that rings true to you, you might have felt uncomfortable because you're used to having more control over your physical surroundings than you did at this exhibition, and you might be focusing your discomfort on the kid because she was the biggest wildcard in terms of who you had to deal with in that uncontrollable, shared space. Just throwing that idea out there, because I think how used someone is to sharing her environment with a large mix of people she doesn't necessarily know is likely to inform her comfort level with the situation you've described here.
posted by rue72 at 12:06 AM on November 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

Protecting your boundaries is not parenting a child. It's what you do with every person, only with a kid you have to be really direct and assume that she isn't intentionally ignoring the rules of polite behaviour. "Don't touch my stuff, please. You can look, not touch." "I don't have time to chat with you, go and find your mom, please." Or whatever.

So yeah, a lot of your irritation seems based on the idea that you've been put on the spot and have no polite alternative to prevent some wandering kid from running roughshod over you. But you totally do. This could have been Not Your Problem after two minutes.
Was the mother wrong? Maybe, according to some people's norms. Does that automatically have to cause you irritation and discomfort? Not at all.

(Said as a mom who keeps an eye on her kid, but not necessarily a hand. I tend to assume everyone would find chatting with my kid delightful and that equally, as adults, they would know how to end the chat if they had enough.)
posted by Omnomnom at 12:53 AM on November 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Leaving a four year old to wander alone among strangers seems incredibly dangerous for the child.
posted by Cranberry at 12:55 AM on November 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

It really doesn't matter which culture this child and mother come from. Letting a child run amok and ruin the presentation tables at a professional event is inconsiderate and unprofessional. I understand if the mother didn't have a choice, but the way she allowed the kid to run off a lot makes me think it wasn't something she felt was a big deal. The least the mother could've done if she had to bring her child along is to designate someone she knew at the event as a babysitter at the start of work. But from what you've written it seems like this woman just let her child do whatever they wanted until some poor souls felt sorry for the kid and decided to distract him for a while. You are not a jerk for feeling this way, you're just a person with common sense. Having said that- I understand why you would feel uncomfortable disciplining the child and I think in a situation like that I would just very politely ask the mother how you can help make sure that little johnny stays occupied without ruining your exhibition. Depending on the type of event it is ideas can stem from setting a seperate table in view of the mother with a colleague who isn't busy or with one of the event's hostesses to play with little johnny to seeing if there is a children's gym nearby that johnny can stay at for the day that you can offer to chip in for.
posted by manderin at 1:18 AM on November 7, 2013

It doesn't matter that this was a kid-friendly event; it was a professional event, NOT a playground or leave-kids-unattended event, and OP was clearly not there to provide childcare. Maybe make sure the next event clearly states in the exhibitor's rules that no children under, say, age 10 are to be unattended, under penalty of that person not being permitted to bring any kids of any age to future events.

Good lord, how I HATE that "It takes a village to raise a child" thing; way, WAY too many people just assume it means the rest of us are automatically required to take help care of their kids. Don't get me wrong, I like most kids, but that doesn't mean I'm permanently willing to drop whatever I'm doing to play babysitter to strays, ESPECIALLY when the child's parent is in the room.

No, you were not a jerk: if anyone, that was the kid's mother.
posted by easily confused at 3:07 AM on November 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

If expected to "keep an eye out" for someone else's child, I simply don't. I have work to do.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:16 AM on November 7, 2013

But it doesn't sound like the OP was expected to keep an eye out, anyway. Nobody asked him or her to do any child care. The OP had to keep an eye on his or her stuff, but that was the case anyway.

So yes, you're overreacting. Nobody asked you to look after the child, and you didn't look after the child.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:19 AM on November 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't think you're overreacting. I do think however, that you should let this one go.

There's really too many things we don't know about this situation to tell you what the correct response here is. We don't know if the mom was in a bind and couldn't get a sitter, or regularly brings her kid places and expects the group to babysit for her. You say the kid was semi-unsupervised, but also that her mom was there, and that there were others who were caring for her. However, even a well-behaved, well-supervised four year old can be annoying and misbehave and doesn't belong in every environment.

In the end, the child made friends with a group of exhibitors who didn't have much to do, and they played together for several hours each day while the mom worked. I liked the idea of the community coming together to help her out when she was in a tough spot...but I also felt kind of resentful that she set her kid loose and expected us to manage, when all of us were also working.

Is it possible that this is an arrangement that the mom worked out with some of the other exhibitors to give her a hand with childcare?

If you plan on working with these people again in the future, and anticipate this being a problem, perhaps the exhibitors who are parents want to consider hiring a sitter to look after children during shows. When I was a teenager, my brother was a boy scout, and I used to volunteer to look after the small children during scout meetings when their parents and older siblings were busy doing whatever it is they did at scout meetings. I would usually have a table setup in the corner or in another room, parents didn't have to worry about leaving their small child with a complete stranger or about their small kids running around unsupervised.

Obviously, it's not your job to come up with a solution to this person's childcare issues. But if this becomes a problem in the future, maybe this is something the group could look into.
posted by inertia at 10:42 AM on November 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Am I unreasonable for being uncomfortable that a 4-year-old was wandering around a professional exhibition unsupervised, and if I'm not being unreasonable, what's the best, kindest and most polite way to handle myself?

I don't think you're unreasonable for being uncomfortable. Nor do I think you're a jerk. I also do not think you have any responsibility whatsoever for watching someone's child if you have no previous agreement to do so. Kid-friendly exhibitions could be a breeding ground for those ready to kidnap or harm children.

I agree with others that said you should firmly tell the child not to touch your things, but aside from that you have no job to do.

Many people have different views on what child raising and discipline are like. There are also different rules within cultures and different rules within families. If I had a child, I'm not sure I'd want someone else disciplining him/her or handling her/him in a way that I found disagreeable.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 7:34 AM on November 8, 2013

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