Today I was taking Elli on the subway and we had a strange and unsettling experience. A man dragging a chair and a bunch of large handmade signs with him got on the subway and proceeded to scream and yell at everyone about how women should not wear tights or spandex because it showed off their monkeys. (I have never heard monkey be used as a term for female genitalia before, but this guy was really insistent on that point.) He then set up his chair right near Elli and I, put his signs on the floor, and proceeded to yell at the world in general about how everyone should be suspicious of the father of any child in tights or spandex as the father was likely sexually abusing his daughter. This was especially an issue because Elli was wearing tights, and she was clearly aware that he was talking about her.... and me, by extension.
I really wasn't sure what to do. If he had seemed physically aggressive or gone after Elli in any way directly with his rants I would have had to do something but I didn't feel like getting in his face to tell him he was wrong was a good idea with her there and I did not want to be chased away. I don't know how he would have reacted in either case and I certainly had no interest in getting in a physical altercation especially with her right there potentially in harm's way.
If she hadn't been there my plan would have been to try to talk to the guy calmly, to discuss his opinions, and to attempt to convince him that he was wrong and that perhaps he should just stop shouting about it. I don't have any good reason to think I could have changed his mind really, but maybe I could have shut down the situation and at least made him think twice about delivering such a rant in future.
What I ended up doing was just sitting there watching Elli to see how she reacted. She didn't seem to get upset, but she did say quietly that she thought he was wrong and that she thought that everyone should be allowed to wear whatever they want. I agreed with her, and told her that if that man has a problem with how she chooses to dress, it is his problem to deal with and not hers. I also explained that while we could try to talk to him about how we saw the issue and why what he said was wrong I didn't think it would change his mind and he might not react well. I think it is important that people step in to try to personally change minds when possible, but no one is ever obligated to do so, and I tried to make sure she understood that.
I think I was successful in passing on my values, but it isn't entirely clear to me. She reacted really well though and made the right choice of disagreeing without getting herself in a situation that could have been dangerous. It is difficult to watch someone be such a shitbag like that to her and everyone else on the train and not do anything about it but I would feel far worse if I ended up with her in real danger due to me tossing a match into an explosive situation.
This is the sort of stuff that parenting books and advice really don't teach you, and I think it is these sorts of difficult snap decisions that really come back to haunt you later. I want to protect her from much of the awful in the world and I know tonight I will dream of all the devastating critiques I could have delivered with a withering stare. However, in the real world I can't even keep her safe from a random angry man on the subway.