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.