Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Kids, cafes, restaurants and other social occasions

A friend of mine had one of those experiences the other day... She was at a cafe, doing some work, and was startled by a shrill whistle that made everyone jump. She turned and yelled,"QUIET!" - one of those involuntary reactions due to the shock of the sudden noise. The perpetrator was a two year old child with a toy whistle, and the mother of said child then appealed to the rest of the patrons, complaining that someone had ticked off her child. My friend's quiet comment that perhaps noisy toys weren't the most appropriate toys for that environment brought on a barrage from the mother, who took the comment to mean that she was a bad parent and then went on to accuse my friend of having something wrong with her before storming out with her child. The incident, understandably, left my friend pretty rattled, despite being supported by the cafe owner. She later posted about it on Facebook, including in her post comments and queries about why things are so different now to when she (and I for that matter, given I'm older than she is) were small children, and the thread has grown to some 60-odd comments at the time of writing. 

Predictably, the comments range from support for my friend to those suggesting any number of reasons why that child could have been noisy, or why the parent allowed noisy behaviour in a cafe environment. One went so far as to suggest that by yelling, my friend had 'assaulted' the child. There were comments that spoke to special needs, the inability of very young children to conform to social norms, the sense of 'entitlement' that mothers of young children have that lead to incidents like this, and so on. 

Some way into the thread was a link to an article about a cafe owner in Newcastle, a regional city north of Sydney, who, in response to a recent negative review of her cafe, posted the following on her business Facebook page:
Are we child friendly? If you are looking for a cafe with a children’s menu, baby chinos, a play area, lounges for your children to jump on, vast space for your prams, an area for your children to run rampant, and annoy other customers, while you are oblivious to them — then the short answer is No, we are not child friendly. HOWEVER, if you would like to bring your children here and they are happy to sit at a table with you, while you enjoy a coffee, and are well behaved, please come in. Otherwise, there are plenty of places that are specifically designed to entertain your children.
 Again, predictably, there was a huge response, much of it accusing the cafe owner of arrogance and attacking of parents. But there was also huge support for the owner, herself a sole parent, who has put everything she can into creating the cafe, which is in a business precinct of Newcastle, to support her family. In response she is quoted as saying,
I have been subjected to children emptying salt and pepper shakers into my fireplaces, parents changing nappies on my lounges, kids grinding their own food into my carpet, parents sitting babies in nappies in the middle of dining tables, kids running around the cafe like it’s a formula 1 track [sic], jumping on the furniture, screaming - just for fun - not pain, and encouraged by their parents, upsetting the rest of the customers and I’d really just had enough.
When I have to stand there and watch people disrespect and damage MY belongings and property, it breaks a piece of my heart every time. Some will agree with my stance, some will not, but it’s my stance for my business.
The original post has since been deleted from the cafe's Facebook page, but there is a huge slew of comments at the end of the newspaper article, in which the balance comes down heavily on the side of the cafe owner. 

And then, there's the other side of the situation - the parents of small children. There were a range of comments on both threads, and the comments from the reviewer of the Newcastle cafe. There were the predictable anecdotes of different people's experiences with their own children, and also the cry that parents should be able to have cafe time like everyone else when their children were small... 

My experiences with my own children were completely different with each of them. No.1 was one of those easy kids who learned early to do things neatly and properly. He had his days, of course, when nothing was going to happen the way I needed it to, but from a very early age, he could be taken to cafes and restaurants and be sat up at the table with everyone else. He ate quietly and neatly, and was happy to settle with a book or his blanky while the adults around him went on with their meals. I don't know how much the fact that he was the first baby in our circle of friends had to do with it, so that he was the only small child present at these odd occasions, or that it was largely just his disposition. 

One thing that having more than one child teaches you in a big hurry is to not assume that you have it all sorted when the next one comes along! No.2 was completely different. He was a busy baby. He didn't have the long relaxed feeds that No.1 had indulged in. He didn't sleep for hours between. He wanted to be up and in the middle of things. Once he was mobile, he didn't stay in one spot for long, ever. He broke several baby plates by tipping them off the tray of his high chair the instant he'd had enough of what was in them - whether the food was finished or not. And then, he wanted down - immediately. I have nightmare memories of a trip away when he'd been given chocolate prior to a nap - the sweet little three year old I'd put to sleep woke up a hyperactive monster with all that caffeine and sugar in his system. The worst of it was that we were scheduled to be at a dinner that evening with the rest of the group we were travelling with. It was an appalling evening. He was climbing the walls, and the only thing we could do in the end was take him back to the hotel. It was years before he was prepared to sit still in cafes, and we rarely took him out to eat, because I wasn't prepared to put anyone through the stress of an outing - myself, him, or other people in venues.

My view - which I didn't have to think through very hard - was that unless my children were capable of sitting quietly at a table to eat, they weren't ready to be doing that away from home, and that it was my job to teach them that. Cafes and restaurants are public places, and there are acceptable codes of behaviour for being in them that apply to everyone, and children shouldn't be exempted from that. It's not their right, as small children, to run amok as they might at home, when it means disturbing other people who are attending the venue. At home, if they misbehaved at the table, mine were sent to their rooms, and their meal was forfeit. It was about a time and a place for things. Mealtimes were for sitting still, learning to be part of a conversation, learning about different foods (there's a whole other post there, so I won't digress now!) and practicing manners that would eventually take them into adulthood. Conversely, picnics in the park were for gobbling down a quick sandwich before roaring off to play on the swings. 

One thing that came through loud and clear in many of the pro-kids comments on my friend's thread and the newspaper article was the sense that young children can't control their behaviour, that it's wrong to expect them to be able to, and that it's everyone's right - theirs included - to be able to be in those environments and other people should just understand that. I have to say, from my own experience, that that's a load of bollocks. 

WHY should a cafe owner or other patrons have to put up with a child rampaging around what is, essentially, a dining space? Apart from anything else, there are safety aspects that no one seems to have picked up on. What if, due to the whistle incident at my friend's cafe, it had been one of the wait staff who'd jumped while carrying hot coffees...? They could have gone everywhere. I've nearly tripped over small kids who've appeared under my feet unexpectedly while I've been wending my way to a table. If I could pack quiet activities that my children had learned were part and parcel of an expected package of behaviour so that they had something quiet to occupy them, why can't other people? If I could teach my children in the first place that public venues like cafes required them to be considerate of the other patrons, why can't everyone else? It's not rocket science. Neither is it imposing something unreasonable on the child. 

I don't think that parents of small children shouldn't go to cafes. As the owner of the Newcastle cafe stated - she had no issue with having children in her cafe if they could stay seated, and not make a horrendous noise or mess. I'm with her. If you stop to think for a moment about how you'd feel if someone else's child was in your house and started upending salt and pepper shakers all over your table, or squashing food into your chairs, then the parallel becomes pretty obvious. It's not about the venue, or even about the other patrons. It's about what we teach our children. They're only little and at home with us for a very short time, after which they have to go out into the world and survive on their own. That means they have to be able to behave appropriately in a plethora of situations, and the earlier they start learning that, the kinder it is for them. Cafe trips - which can be short bites, after all - can be an enormously useful learning tool that don't have to turn into nightmares for parents, children, cafe owners or bystanders. Letting kids run rampant and unsupervised anywhere is just lazy, on the part of the parents, and not useful for anyone, particularly the children.

I had to come back to add a quick update - the story is growing. An English journalist has taken the story up in The Guardian - read the article HERE. The article is pretty straightforward. It's the comments - huge - that make for some very interesting reading. A lot of them seemed to me to be pretty extreme - and, more importantly, miss the basic point that the issue at the bottom of it all (as it appears to me) is the lack of consideration for others and basic manners that are absent in the case of some of the incidents that prompted me to write this post. NO ONE is talking about that - it's just lots of seemingly righteous indignation about the lack, or excess, of rights of today's parents of small children... Something is a bit out of balance there, methinks.