This is a story about a seven-year-old girl--a girl who had recently taken a knitting class and happened to spot, on a street corner of the pretty town where she was vacationing with her family, a little yarn and crafts shop that had beautiful things in the windows. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and the shop was closed, and the girl had to accept her parents' reassurances that she could return some other day.
When this other day arrived, the girl bounded into the shop with her mother, and with great enjoyment began working her way around the shop's perimeter. She looked at many things, asked her mother some questions, and gently caressed a few skeins of gorgeous hand-spun yarn, as did her mother. The girl had spending money, and she noticed a glass bowl full of decorative pewter buttons. She told her mother she thought they were beautiful, that she could use them for some projects, and that she wanted to look at the different designs to see which ones she liked best.
At this point, the girl's mother left her to look at the buttons, and walked about ten feet away to select some yarn for herself. She looked back at her daughter several times, the last time just as the shop owner walked up to the girl and said, "I must ask that you not handle anything!" in a rather severe voice. The girl quickly dropped the buttons back into the dish and walked over to her mother, reaching her just in time to release a torrent of tears.
After escorting the girl outside to the car where her father and brothers were waiting, and comforting the girl, and reassuring her that she hadn't done anything wrong, the mother went back inside and had a talk with the shop owner.
The conversation went like this:
Mother: Are you the owner?
Mother: I believe you said something to my daughter.
Owner: Oh--um, yes. I just asked her not to touch anything.
Mother: She was handling metal buttons, correct?
Mother: And they were in no way breakable or fragile?
Owner: Well, that's true. But I have a lot of kids who come in here and aren't supervised.
Mother: I was watching her carefully the whole time, taking responsibility for her. You could see that I was with her. If you had a concern about anything she was doing, you could have addressed it to me.
Owner: I'm glad you're responsible for her, but I can't tell which parents are going to be responsible for their kids and which ones aren't.
Mother: Can you remember what it felt like to be seven years old, and how scary it was when an adult who wasn't your parent scolded you, especially when you weren't even doing anything wrong?
Mother: Did you know that my daughter is learning to knit, and that she was going to spend money here? That she spotted this store the other day when you were closed, and that we made a special trip back so she could shop here? Now she's out in the car, sobbing.
Owner: Well, I'm sorry I upset her. I had no way of knowing all that. And if everyone handles things, then they aren't so nice to sell.
Mother: I understand your concerns as a business owner, and how frustrating it must be when people aren't respectful with your merchandise. But my daughter wasn't being disrespectful. There was no way to see the different designs on the buttons without picking them up. And I noticed that the other customers who were in here were handling things as well, and you didn't say anything to them.
Mother: Well, you've lost two customers. I was going to buy some things as well. I do hope I've given you something to think about.
* * *
There's a sort of happy ending to this story. A week later, in a different town on our vacation, we found another yarn shop. Understandably, my daughter was nervous about going inside. I suggested that I hold her hand the whole time, and that before we started browsing we tell the person behind the counter that she and I were both new knitters. The person at the counter introduced us to the owner, who was friendly and gracious. She actually urged us to touch all the yarns, and she told my daughter she'd learned to knit at age seven, too. We bought some yarn.
I shared the story about the first shop with a relative, who went on to tell me about how she'd broken a candle holder in a store, and how the store employee had come over and starting scolding her daughter, assuming she'd been the one who had broken the item. As soon as the employee learned the mother was responsible, she changed her tone completely, and starting assuring the mother that she wouldn't have to pay for the item.
I have more to say in an upcoming post about prejudice against children, though I'm aware that the mere assertion that such a thing exists seems to infuriate some people. Stay tuned.