Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Little Devils, Little Darlings and their Somewhat Silly Parents


The MomSquawk blog has just alerted me to a debate emerging in the USA about restaurants wanting to ban badly behaved children. It raises a raft of issues: the gradual colonisation of adult spaces by children, what actually constitutes bad behaviour, how complicit parents are, whether adults without children have the right to child-free zones, and what rights children have to be childish – even in a public, grown-up space.

This links up with the extreme actions taken by the villagers of Firhall in Scotland: they have created a completely child-free community. On its website, Firhall sells itself merely as a retirement village, but inhabitants have to be 45-plus with no live-in dependents and they must sign a contract agreeing not to sell on to anyone with children. Children may visit, but only for a maximum of three weeks. People who live there range from those whose children have grown up, those who couldn’t have children and don’t want their childlessness thrust daily in their faces, and those for whom children and their concomitant noise and mess and bad behaviour are pure aggravation. See The Guardian’s article on Firhall here.

While I find this an extraordinary over-reaction, I can understand all sides in the restaurant issue: restauranteurs don’t want to lose business but they don’t want people throwing tantrums (or peas) and spoiling the experience for others; adults, who are paying to be there and possibly also paying a babysitter to look after their own kids, don’t want their meals ruined; grown-ups with well-behaved children don’t want to be banned along with their kids. No-one’s too sure what children want in this arena, but I for one have never heard anyone under seven request a fine dining experience.

However, I do think adults with very young children who are prone to having wobblies, not particularly well children, tired children, children who don’t like to eat anything but Cheerios, or children who can’t entertain themselves with a book or some colouring-in, should have the insight to keep their kids home and get a babysitter.

There is some discussion on MomSquawk about whether children’s behaviour is getting worse and whether this generation of parents is too indulgent. I think children are probably much the same as they ever were, but are now far more in the public eye. Parents want to have quality time with their children at the weekend, while also enjoying a nice meal out or a visit to an art gallery. So children are out there, in “adult” places, being children and getting themselves noticed.

Another issue all this raises is what constitutes good and bad behaviour. I was raised in a family where manners were paramount and it was always important to be “good”. I would rather my kids were true to themselves than “good”, which means that they sometimes fall apart. However, it is also important to me that my children are likeable; I want my adult friends to enjoy their company and not run screaming when we appear. It’s a hard balance to strike, and even the most likeable kid is going to have an off day now and again.

However, and here comes the finger-wagging, I do think many parents are hopelessly indulgent. They love their kids, but somehow the love doesn’t extend to telling them how to behave. Children don’t arrive on the planet already civilised, they need guidance, and either their parents are too lazy to give it or don’t know that they need it. It’s hard work – and boring – being the voice of reason all the time. I’d far rather lie on the sofa and eat chocolate than constantly model and tell three people how to behave, but if I didn’t, all hell would break loose. Children are naturally catastrophic: emotions are big, actions are foolhardy, mood swings occur. They need to be directed.

I remember thinking, when I was pregnant with my first child, that there was no way I was going to let a baby change my life: I was still going to eat out, go places and have fun. Five days into her little life, Lily presented with major screaming colic, so there was no going out with her and having fun. I think that defined us as parents and still does. We never got into the habit of taking our first baby out to restaurants, and that stayed that the same for numbers two and three. Obviously we’ll go to a biergarten or somewhere casual with our kids, but we reserve the posh places for when it’s just us. Other friends who had more luck got into the habit of taking their kids along with them, and now have children who know how to behave in restaurants, after all, they’ve been going all their lives.

Unfortunately, I’ve now turned into one of those adults who, when going out somewhere nice for a special occasion, doesn’t particularly want to see children – even well-behaved ones. I don’t want to hear squeaky little voices or be party to the illogical conversation of anyone under twelve. I have that all day long. I’m one of those mean grown-ups who quite likes the idea of kid-free zones.

I’m really not against children in restaurants, but I am against parents being thoughtless. There ways to be sensible. Firstly, take your kids to child-friendly restaurants (this doesn’t mean nasty franchises only, but places where children are tolerated, like a local Italian for instance); if your children like to be in bed at 8pm don’t take them out for dinner at 7.30pm – they will fall apart; if you’re going somewhere special and absolutely cannot get a babysitter TAKE STUFF to entertain them and TAKE SNACKS because they might not like the food at your favourite Thai fusion joint; if they cry at the restaurant, comfort them, feed them or better still, take them outside.

If parents planned better and were less into their own instant gratification (after all, having children is supposed to teach us how to be the grown-ups: that alone is a hard lesson), children would have a better time in the public eye and perhaps there would be no need for places like Firhall. I agree with the writer of the Momsquawk blog: banning children is just sweeping the issue under the carpet. The issue is with the parents.

Edited to add: Following a misunderstanding with one reader, I would like to clarify a point. When I say I would rather my kids were true to themselves than “good”, which means that they sometimes fall apart, this I mean as a general comment on life itself, not a comment on their behaviour in restaurants. In restaurants, good behaviour is expected, and mostly achieved, otherwise we go home.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

10 thoughts on “Little Devils, Little Darlings and their Somewhat Silly Parents

  1. Our kids are reasonably well-behaved eating out, but we don’t test them by taking them to hushed, posh reastaurants with fine wine and dim lighting. Friendly family places with gardens or outside space to run around between courses are perfect and go out at lunch time or for early supper, then the evenings can be kid-free for the rest of the adult world.

  2. Hi Charlotte, I haven`t been reading your bloq for a while-the pc being in the basement- so it was a big pleasure to scan through quite a few of your entries tonight. When Leoni, our eldest daughter was little we even took her to the movies twice and to all parties and eating out options that were offered to us. Starting at the tender age of eight months we taught her good eating habits as we wanted to keep the fiendship with our childless friends. I found children toying with or throwing around their food quite ennoying. Two years later Tim arrived, a very easy going baby but as he was less eager to learn and we had less time to teach so his manners are worse. We still take them to restaurants and watch their behaviour closely as we want them to learn the rules of civilisation but it`s much easier to take one child out than two. Now Pauline our definitely last model started to crawl and she was a cry-baby and we`ve got less time to teach…so we might well stay out of restaurants for the next 12 years…

  3. A friend of mine (from Australia, as I am) moved to France, and said that you could always tell the Americans in restaurants because their kids were so badly behaved. I suspect Australians would be the same, just there weren’t enough of them to stereotype. I don’t think that’s about poor parenting in America and Australia, but just the way in which kids are treated in society – as not part of every day life, but in their own category outside things. That’s why in anglo-saxon countries, we have family restaurants (which are horrible mop clean places, with horrible food), because children are put in their own ghetto. In Italy and France, by contrast, normal every day restaurants have a children’s menu which is not just chicken nuggets, but real food, and everyone around them expects them to behave.

    My sense is (only having visited France, without children) that because children are taken to restaurants from an early age there, and also because its acceptable for other adults to chastise them if they misbehave (which isn’t acceptable here) children become integrated into polite society behaviour much younger.

    Anyway, since my friend made that comment, I’ve been determined that my kids won’t be in that category when we’re ready to brave the 24 hour flight to Europe, so we eat in cafes a lot. We’re sensible about evenings, though, and I agree with your point – it’s silly to pretend that a child who is a fussy eater and normally goes to bed at 7.30, is going to be able to sit quietly and eat the latest molecular food on offer at a fine dining restaurant if service starts at 7.

    Sorry, a bit of a ramble, but I think it’s not just about the parents, its also about how children are integrated (or not) into the wider society.

  4. I have a policy with my daughter that she is not allowed to be a nuisance to other people but she is allowed to be a child. If people look askance at her because she is madly running around shrieking in the park I think they can just suck it up. That’s a place for children. But I’d never allow the same behaviour in a posh restaurant. Have to admit though she’s never, in fact been out to dinner in the evening as she’s in bed by 7- but we do go out for bagels or to cafes for lunch at the weekends. And she’s actually always pretty good.

    Um–so I guess I don’t really have a point here except that I agree- there has to be reasonable accomodation for children but someplaces should be adultspaces.

  5. I wrote a long reply to this but somehow lost it. Hopefully this time it won’t be as rambling.

    I agree with you that parents should think about how their children are going to cope in the places they take them. But there is something about how society treats children as well.

    If you put children in a special children’s ghetto called family restaurants, and then give them license to misbehave there, then they are never going to know how to behave in a restaurant like my local italian.

    A friend of mine, who recently moved to France, said you can always tell the american children because they are the ones behaving badly in restaurants. I’m sure the Australian children (if there were enough of them) would be similar. I don’t think that’s just about anglo-saxon parenting being “bad”, I think it’s about society thinking of children as somehow “other”, so that they aren’t in the mainstream, and hence don’t know how to behave when they get there.

    Very occasionally, here in Australia, I come across a grown up restaurant (not Michelin 3 star, but not just a neighbourhood cafe, either) that treats children like people – has a children’s menu with real, simple food, not just chicken nuggets, the waiting staff talk to the children, instead of across them, and they do simple things like making sure the children’s food is served first, and having a couple of pencils and piece of paper ready if the children look like they need a bit of entertainment.

    In return, we give them our early evening custom, giving them the chance of turning over more tables during the evening, and our children behave nicely and want to go back there.

    Sorry, this ended up just as rambling as my first attempt! In summary, it’s not just parenting, but society not knowing how to deal with children as people.

  6. I agree you need to take things. I was brought up strictly to behave well in public and although I’m not as severe as my own mother, I do think children are much much nicer if they can be a credit out in a restaurant. However, the key is to recognise that however much you might want to consider a restaurant as an adult treat, if you have children with you, you’re first and foremost a mum. I can’t begin to count the number of games of noughts and crosses and hangman I’ve played with my son while waiting for food to be served. But it’s kept him entertained and he knows he needs to be good and quiet for the dull moments.

  7. C–What a sensible take you have on this subject. I enjoyed reading it and reflecting on my own efforts to make sure my children learn how to be pleasant people. But what struck me, for some reason, is how hard this work can be — it’s tedious to have to repeat yourself so often and it can be difficult having to model good behavior when you just want to behave, well, like a child! We don’t take our children to nice places often, but we do expect them to behave well at our table, the tables of our friends, and at restaurants. It certainly isn’t easy, and our nightly family dinners can sometimes be such work. In fact, every once in a while I just want to put my head in my hands and weep! Still, I can see that the eleven year old boys do actually have decent enough manners and the seven year old is right behind them.

  8. .. ok so here’s a pearl of wisdom from someone without her own kiddies.. 😉 At least, it actually comes from a friend who has almost grown children .. He says, ‘children are raised at home, not at the restaurant.’ Which kinda echos what Blogliy is saying… Now I’m off to take cover..

  9. My parents were super-strict about table manners when I was young. My brother and I used to joke: which would be the worse crime – going out and committing murder or behaving badly at the table? I remember frequently getting into trouble for laughing too much. I can see now the effort my parents put into showing us how to behave, and on the rare occasions we did go to restaurants there was no question of us playing up.

    I must say I will probably be as strict as my parents in bringing up my own child. I agree that while children are little and don’t yet know how to conduct themselves, a fancy restaurant is not the place to take them, although it is good to take them to cafes. My baby has his own self-appointed bedtime, 6pm, so we can’t do anything in the evenings. It is a pain but I’m glad we’ve got into this habit.

    I try to take him to family friendly places during the day to teach him how to behave in public but even the best behaved tiny people can have meltdowns. He is usually ever so good but today, in a cafe, I accidentally caught his finger in the pushchair harness catch. He bawled the place down and cleared the cafe of business people. I felt terrible.

    Firhall sounds so funny. I can just imagine the people who live there. I wonder if they would let stressed mammies go there for weekends and holidays?

  10. Thanks everyone for your interesting comments. I think as a summary, we are all saying that children learning how to behave at table (whether in restaurants, other’s homes or their own homes) is a question of consideration for others. This is hard work and boringly repetitive to teach, believe me, but worth it in the end, when you can spend a happy hour around a table with small children and have everyone enjoy themselves. The onus is on parents to do the teaching – children just do not arrive with this knowledge. And as Emma says, try to do the teaching at home so that when you do go out, it is a pleasant experience for everyone in hearing distance!

    I like Penguin Unearthed’s comment about certain types of restaurants being children’s ghettoes, and I have to say we avoid them – firstly the food is hideous and I don’t want to eat it or give it to my kids, but also fifty-odd children running around with chicken nuggets in their hands is a ghastly experience in my opinion. I’d rather never take my kids anywhere than go there … I agree, though, it’s great when children are treated like people, as long as children can learn to show similar consideration back.

    Also, she mentions the European model where children are considered part of society, including late-night restaurant dining, and know how to behave. I think Germany is further along towards this model than the Anglo-Saxon countries, but not as far along as Italy, Spain and France. I admire this level of civilization and hope that my family achieve it, say, in the next decade …

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