What Level of Toddler Cries Do We Allow?
I called child services this morning: my neighbours are neglecting their infant child.
It’s something I have thought about for a while and this morning enough was enough. I don’t know this child, or the circumstances of its suffering, or what is wrong with the family — but it doesn’t matter. Here’s why.
At 3 am, the cries woke me from my sleep, like it had so many times before. My bedroom window is diagonally below the room where the toddler sleeps — or “not sleeps” as it were. I swore, drowsily closed the window and all the other windows in the apartment. I then went back to bed: surely, this will fade and I will fall asleep once more.
Five minutes pass.
Ten minutes. The crying gets louder and more desperate.
Twenty minutes. Won’t the child eventually exhaust itself?
Even though I’m a full floor below and separated by thick walls, the crying is as loud as if it were in my kitchen. When the crying happens during the day — as it so often does — it cuts through my noise-cancelling ear-phones, through closed triple-glazed windows, right into the spine of my very being. On a still night, with windows open, it’s nigh impossible for anyone to sleep through.
This night, after half an hour of agonizing twisting and turning, I had had enough. I got dressed and stepped onto the balcony to gauge how loud the crying was from outside. It was unbearable. The night was still and perfectly quiet, and the toddler’s hysteric, uninterrupted yells blasted from the open window above, down onto the parking lot of my apartment complex. You would have heard it from across the street. God, probably from across town.
Curious, mad, frustrated, and confused, I stood there listening for any actions by the parents. Surely, if the cries wake me up through concrete walls thick enough to disrupt WiFi signals, the parents must be wide awake and busy soothing their inconsolably crying child. Food, kisses, physical touch — I don’t know: the stuff parents do.
Nothing. Not a peep. For a full twenty minutes I listened and looked for any kind of movement — lights flickering on or off, parents picking up the child, soothing it, hushing it, trying to feed it. For any interruption in the painful rhythm of the child. Nothing.
At this point the child had cried non-stop for almost an hour. And there seems to be no actions taken by the parents (or guardians) whatsoever. The toddler keeps crying very loudly for hours at a time. When I finally feel asleep around 5 am or so, I must have been as exhausted as the child; but I was wrong — he woke me again at 7.45, for another round of endless screams.
Several times a week, this child does this and nobody seems to do anything about it.
“Auw,” whines everyone I complain to, “poor kid — maybe they’re ill?” Maybe it’s suffering from colic?” And, really, sometimes the parents just can’t calm down their child, no matter what they do. (Colic isn’t even an answer: it’s just the medical term we use for children who cry incessantly and inconsolably without apparent reason. We don’t know why it happens).
Almost everyone who hears this story responds the same way: by start asking questions about the child.
Those are the completely wrong things to ask. It does. Not. Matter. You can’t blast noise from your apartment at 3 am, no matter the reason. Nobody would let it pass if I turned my loudspeakers to max in the middle of the night. And nobody would speculate about the reasons, or ask whether maybe I needed it for some reason, or wonder if perhaps there was no way for me to avoid it. It doesn’t matter: you’re bothering others around you at a time of day when it most certainly isn’t permissible to do so.
Last summer I published an article where I argued that some level of noise is the price we pay for living in close proximity to others. If we want lawns, or gardens, or clean homes, the people who live there must occasionally be mowing their lawns, cleaning their homes, or doing construction work on their house. Regardless of how much it annoys the neighbours, it is unavoidable.
But not all the time. And certainly not this much. If that same neighbour who is fully in his right to mow his lawn or vacuum his garage were to do so every single day for hours on end, this equation would certainly flip. It must be done, sure enough, but not that much. And it doesn’t matter what the reason is (maybe he has a gardening competition? Maybe he’s suffering from compulsive lawn-mowing disorder?).
He has to stop.
The fact that this noise-making comes from a living human being doesn’t matter much (what, would it be fine if I sang loudly at 3 am instead of playing music? Do I not have a right to sing? To express myself and my adorable creativity?). Here’s the uncomfortable truth about children, that also extends to anything else noise-producing under your control (dogs, cars, music, fans or heating systems): the sound they produce is on you. You are responsible for mitigating it, controlling it, or, when pushed too far, removing it.
“But we’re talking about a child! A human being! Who has rights and can’t control it!”
Sure. Nobody is disputing that. But those are, again, the wrong objections to raise. Having a right to exist, or not having agency merely transfers that responsibility to someone else — in the case of a child, the parent or guardian. A child may indeed exist, and may not control their actions. But you do; and you may not encroach on other’s similar such right to exist.
The price we pay for living in a civilized society is not to endure the endless cries of another’s child.
I’m not a parent; unlike them, I didn’t sign up to be kept awake hours on end, or suffering the guttural pain of their toddler’s cries over and over. If you, like my neighbours, are failing in your parental duties to limit noise pollution to those around you, it’s on you to fix it. That means figuring out what is wrong with your child and/or your parenting of him. That might include hospitalisation, moving somewhere its never-ending cries don’t bother other people or, most dramatically, giving it up for adoption. I don’t care.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent, the strains it puts on your emotions, the responsibility you have for another living creature. I don’t know how it rocks your world, how frustrating it must be and how powerless you must feel when there is nothing you can do about your toddler’s never-ending crying. Or whether you eventually give up, and just leave them to their endless cries. Take the car and drive all night, abdicating your parental responsibilities.
Still, I imagine I would do something. Take the child outside, sit with it, console it, feed it or go for a walk. I’ve never seen my neighbours do that.
In all earnest I wonder where all the externality people are. The ones who think climate change is a socially unjust prospect because it produces damages to people innocent to that transaction. The economists who are obsessed with drawing diverging social and private marginal cost curves. The Covid-version of that same question, where somebody’s hidden/unknown/or vaccinated disease invisibly causes infection with another.
Externality analysis is a package deal: you can’t just pick the ones you dislike and leave the others alone. If you think those topics are important and in need of addressing, you must also want to deal with my neighbours.
What my neighbours are doing — or not doing — is insane. Yes, this is child abuse and yes, that’s why I reported them to child services this morning. But that’s not really my main point, because even the parents who don’t abuse their kids like my neighbours do, let them inflict noise damage on innocent others.
The leeway we afford parents and their noisy toddlers is astonishing.