What You Say About Children In Public

A few weeks ago Joshua, Dylan, and I ran an errand that involved a significant bit of driving. Sometimes this goes smoothly with Dylan, sometimes it brilliantly lines up with a nap, and then on the other hand, sometimes he gets really upset at being in the carseat for so long. This trip involved the latter. We were headed back from our errand, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to fall asleep and wasn’t going to make it home without a lot of crying. We needed to stop for awhile. Joshua and I were hungry, so it made sense to stop somewhere and eat. We were in a small town mostly unknown to us, so we didn’t really know where to look for food. We found a small restaurant and stopped.

The restaurant was dimly lit and nicely decorated. Fuck. NOT the kind of place I prefer to eat with a baby.

Every time I read or hear a conversation about children in public, there’s someone on hand to bitch about babies in restaurants. Babies who are spoiling your night out. Spoiling the meal you paid dearly for.

All those conversations and voices slammed into me as I attempted to help Dylan wait for our food to arrive. There – that little sound he made there – is that the “crying baby” people are always bitching about? Oh shit, he’s banging silverware on the table. Is he ruining those people’s meals? What he really needed was to run around. There was no one seated anywhere near us, but when I put him on the floor to let him walk around, I could imagine the protests about “letting her child run loose in the restaurant”.

I took him to the bathroom. I figured we couldn’t bother anyone there. But all he wanted to do was slam doors and lids, and I was sure it could be heard in the dining room. We went outside, instead. Never mind that it was too cold, and we weren’t really dressed for that.

Needless to say, it was a miserable meal for me, and wasn’t that great for Dylan or Joshua, either.

This morning I was at another restaurant with Dylan. A man approached me and told me that he was there from church, which was mostly older people. But he said that a few people with babies had started to come to church recently, and the babies often made noise during the service. He said, “Isn’t that a wonderful noise? Such a blessing.”

Several of the older people who seemed to be eating out here together stopped by the table to say hi to Dylan. I felt very welcome and not at all concerned that we might be messing up someone’s meal.

The next time I’m running imaginary commentary in my mind, maybe I can summon their voices instead of the other ones.

I encourage you to think about ways you welcome parents and their children in public or the ways you push them away. When you say things about children or parents, someone is listening.

Sometimes your future self is the one who’s listening.

When I used to work in a restaurant, oh, 14 years ago or so, I used to bitch about the mess that children left on the floor. I was completely dumbfounded how such an immense amount of food could end up on the floor, and weren’t those people so rude! Fast forward, and now I have a child who leaves a truly amazing amount of food on the floor sometimes. Sometimes I try to clean it up, because the critical voice in my head is mine, but it’s really kind of silly. It’s silly for me to pick up food crumbs by hand, when there’s an employee nearby who has a broom, has to sweep the place anyway, and gets paid for the time either way.

The truth is that children are messy sometimes. And loud sometimes. And they run around sometimes. And they bang on things and drop things. And they and their parents should still be welcome in public spaces.

To attempt to eradicate the noise and the mess and the motion is actually an attempt to eradicate the presence of parents and children from public life.

If that’s what you mean to do, then you’re an asshole, and I’m not really talking to you.

If that’s not what you mean to do, give your words a second thought the next time you’re talking about children in public. Are your words welcoming? Or are your words the ones that send us to hide in the bathroom and push us out in the cold?

Comments

  1. Yes! I never worked as a waitperson, but I always feel bad when we leave a restaurant now. I never minded the (reasonable) noises of children in casual restaurants. It was only the crying and wailing that I minded, and then my annoyance was more directed at the parents for not satisfying their child’s needs.
    BUT I know there are many people who DO mind, so I’m always self-conscious. Luckily I have an amazing and generally happy baby who “flirts” with strangers. ;-)
    I do feel that (most) young children do not belong in fancy restaurants, though. It’s pointless to take them.

    • Whether or not young children belong in fancy restaurants is, I think, up to the parents and children in question. Some young children appreciate fine dining. Some families are tired of driving and need a break and a fancy restaurant is all they can find. Some people disagree about what qualifies as fancy. No one says, “Let’s take our kids down and bother the people at that little fancy place tonight. You know, for fun.”

  2. I think the difference is that you care about the well being of the patrons in an establishment other than yourself and your son. You would like to know that everyone can enjoy their meal. I’m not saying that every parent with a fussy or energetic child needs to look physically worried about what everyone else thinks, but it’s the parents that clearly don’t give a flying fuck about anyone else that irks me. The same holds true for obnoxious adults who think that the restaurant is there for them and no one else. Non-parents must accept that children are an inherent part of public life and treat them as they themselves would want to be treated, and parents must do their best to ensure that their child is not overly invading the personal space of others (the same applies to adults without children in tow).

    • Mitsy,

      I assure you that Issa and I are judged to be “parents who don’t give a fuck” by other people in public who have much more stringent ideas about appropriate “discipline” than we do.

      FWIW.

    • Mitsy, I don’t want to berate you too harshly, because you did say that “children are an inherent part of public life” who should be treated well, and I appreciate that, but, honestly, your comment is part of the problem. The next time I’m in an unfamiliar restaurant, it’ll be hard to remember the qualifiers you and others have added to comments like yours, and instead what’s easy to remember is “CLEARLY DON’T GIVE A FLYING FUCK”. How will I know when I’ve crossed that line? How do I know which of the patrons are like me and which of the patrons are like you and exactly where you draw that line? I can’t know that. I can only do what feels right for me and my child and do my best to ignore all the comments like that that I’ve heard.

      The whole point of this post is asking you to think about the things that you say about parents and children. Is it really THAT important that you respond to this topic by talking about how some parents don’t care enough about you? Assuming that there are some real parents who don’t give a flying fuck (rare, I assure you), do you think they care what you’ve written here? They, by definition, don’t give a fuck.

      But some of the other 90% of parents who DO care a lot about what people think and how they and their children are treated in public ARE reading. And every time children in public comes up, what we read is how bothersome some children are. How can we possibly not know this? We do live with children. We know they’re obnoxious sometimes. What does constantly bringing it up accomplish except to drive us out of the public view or leave us nervous as hell when we’re in it?

      • I was going to address each part of your response, but then I realized that I am unable to put something coherent together that both conveys my feelings and won’t piss people off. My brain hurts. I avoid public places like the plague anyway, so that’s a win/win for everyone!

  3. My attitude about him leaving food on the floor is very straightforward.

    1. You want me to eat at your restaurant.
    2. You want me to eat at your restaurant FAR more often than I would if I had to get babysitting every time I ate there. Therefore, I come with my baby.
    3. My baby puts things on the floor and I don’t want to clean them up. Therefore, either you can clean up after my baby, or I can go eat at another restaurant who wants my business.

  4. I am apologetic to hear that you, someone whose work I have read with much respect over the years, went through such anguish while out to eat and trying to satisfy your basic need for food. Seeing this scenario through your point of view is an eye opening contrast from mine, which is that of a single, childless 20 something lady, who admittedly has been on the asshole, anti-loud-baby side of the spectrum plenty of times.

    I am also apologetic for the times which I have contributed to some other parent anxiety while out with their child by giving them dirty looks across the room or muttering comments to myself. Depending on my mood, I can be overjoyed by seeing a child goofing around or making noise, or I can become agitated and feel less able to enjoy myself fully. I realize that no one can really take away the choice of whether I am going to enjoy myself or not. And that families are a part of the public space, whether I feel like dealing with them and their ensuing noise or not.
    I could remove myself from their space, but of course the places I enjoy such as parks and the outdoors are places that families enjoy too. I am constantly trying to cope with my negative feelings towards family groups, and I feel like this is sort of a confessional wherein I try to sort out how to not be a jerk toward people who are living their lives differently than I am. I guess all I can justify it with is that I impede less onto other people, and wish they would do the same for me.

    • I appreciate you saying that this helped you see a different point of view.

      I’m rarely bothered by children. There are a gazillion other kinds of people who annoy me much more, but I do understand what it’s like to be out in public and struggle to fit in, find peace, enjoy myself, or just not want to strangle people. So, you have my sympathy, even though we don’t share the same complaint.

      I can tell you that dirty looks are never helpful. Either the parent doesn’t give a shit, or maybe even picks a fight with you in response. OR the parent does care and feels self-conscious and pressure… which makes it harder for the parent to alter the situation. If a kid is upset, an upset parent just exacerbates the mood.

      The best you can do is just take care of you, probably. Move further away if you can, pay attention at the park to when peak kid times are, that sort of thing.

    • I guess all I can justify it with is that I impede less onto other people, and wish they would do the same for me.

      I know what you mean when you say this, but I think it’s important to realize that this is framing the argument a certain way, and it’s not the only way. It’s easy to see a person who is making noise as intruding on the experience of a person who wants quiet. That’s only because we have pre-defined quiet as the default position, though. Consider that if you were on Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday, your desire for quiet would be the “intrusive” thing. So it all comes down to social mores and expectations. The issue that we are touching on here is that most public social mores and expectations are defined around adult behaviors, and that means that, by definition, kids and people with kids are always the intrusive ones. So it’s not compelling to say that kids are intruding on your space, just like it’s not compelling to say that there’s a rule against smoking on airplanes as an argument for why smoking on airplanes is not allowed. It’s circular logic.

  5. I have definitely tried my best to adapt, because likewise I do not go out with the intention of getting pissed off at people’s children out exploring and doing what children do. And I feel some guilt about my lack of leniency in their case, which indicates to me that there is a deeper issue to be resolved in my thinking about it.

    And you are so right that antagonistic actions or looks help absolutely no one, and I do not want to make myself the jerky spinster that goes around glaring and making the world an ugly place. Anyway thanks as always for the perspective, it has added fuel to my constant journey towards patience.

  6. Emily H. says:

    Restaurants are public places, filled with all kinds of people who others might find objectionable – drunks, loud kids, cigar smokers, teenage girls in too-tight clothing (this one really got under my grandmother’s skin). My attitude is: You don’t have to like it, but those people have just as much right to be there as anyone else, so suck it up. Unless management exercises their right to refuse service, then you might as well just get over it and enjoy your tasty meal.

    As far as wait staff goes, a polite, friendly customer demeanor and a generous tip will forgive all but the most heinous of sins. I’d rather wait on a table with messy kids than a table with rude adults. No contest.

  7. I waited tables for 7 years and was always very accommodating to families I was serving (of course I had kids at the time, so I’m sure that contributed to my level of compassion.) Even now as a fellow diner I’ll wave at a child or tell a parent how sweet their kid is, or at least shoot them a smile of sympathy if things aren’t going so well.

    One reason people eat in a restaurant is for the social aspect. We’re meant to live as a tribe, a tight community, and have our feasts and gatherings. Hardly any of us do that anymore. Eating in a restaurant feeds our social needs in this regard, even though it’s generally very superficial.

    I think it’s reasonable for diners to be connected with the group on some level, and part of this is for patrons to be aware of what’s going on around them and how everyone is contributing to the atmosphere of the gathering.

    I think when we’re in a restaurant, as a responsible community member we’re going to be plugged into the gathering enough to be aware of what people are doing, but I don’t think you need to be hyperaware of being judged by anyone. I think staying connected to the people at your own table is the basic expectation, and from your description it sounds like you absolutely are.

    • That’s a really interesting idea that we’re drawn to eating in restaurants for the social aspect.

      “… hyperaware of being judged by anyone”

      Haha. Now that there is just a darn accurate description of me.

      • It takes one to know one! :) When I lose myself is when I can actually enjoy myself in public. I first learned this waiting tables, whereas at first I was hyperaware of my appearance, how I carried myself, the sound of my voice, how many times I had to say, “I don’t know, let me go ask.” (It was a Chinese restaurant, after all, and it took me a while to learn the menu.) As soon as I decided to just fake the persona of a waitress and focus on the customer, the food, the ambiance, etc., then it all fell into place.

        The same thing happens now when I teach. Every once in a while I’m standing up there yapping and I become painfully conscious of how I’m standing, where my hair is falling, the words that just came out of my mouth, and panic wells up in my gut. But I just turn my focus back to words (I teach Spanish), my students and where they are at on that particular day, and the flow of the group. Then I’m so into it that there’s no longer a me to worry about.

        I think when we’re really connected (in a restaurant with children, that might entail being connected to who we’re eating with, the food, the general atmosphere, the server…), that’s our best chance of losing ourselves (our self-consciousness, anyway) and appreciating the here and now. I find there isn’t really room for the imaginary voices when our attention is fully focused on the sensory experience in front of us. I’m still practicing, but I’m getting the hang of it! ;)

  8. Whenever I hear someone complain about the near-mythical crying baby on an airplane who ruined his/her flight, I want to sit down with them very seriously and say, look, yes, I know it’s hard – flying is terrible, it’s uncomfortable, especially on a transoceanic flight and the baby is keeping you awake. I *get it*. But I want you to imagine something else – as annoying as your experience is, it’s just an annoyance, something you’ll forget the next day, sprawled out in your quiet and empty hotel room. But that mother? Holding the screaming baby? Yeah, her. She’s probably having one of the worst days of her entire life, because air travel with a bay is a never ending series of horrors, and now she’s stuck, also not sleeping, with a screaming baby three millimeters away from her face (and whose cries are biologically designed to bring her physical pain), desperate, ashamed, enraged, panicking about her baby ruining everybody else’s flight. So what’s an annoyance compared to that? Do you think you could spare a bit of compassion instead of the dirty look? It sounds melodramatic, but I have been brought to my metaphorical knees on a flight before, from the emotional-overload, exhaustion, and shame, and those feelings linger for a long time.

    (Oh, and I’m super thrilled [sarcasm] about this new “kids’ zone” on the airplane. Last time that happened to me, they stuck us in the back aisle on the late-night cross country flight, which meant that not only were my babies continually disturbed by the nonstop runs on the loo, but they had a perma-light shining in their eyes while the rest of the cabin was dimmed. Smart move, Air Canada! Way to help the kids sleep!)

    And word to Joshua’s comment upthread about intrusion and the default in all public spaces being oriented towards adults (able-bodied adults as well).

  9. Oh, yeah, it’s so hard having a baby, people wanting you to maintain a comparable level of politeness to what they maintain without children is such an unreasonable demand. Here’s the thing that parents like you, being obliviously self-centered, might not understand. Your life IS harder. It SHOULD BE harder, because you chose to have a BABY. In a world with a billion starving people and unprecedented environmental devastation, you decided that you ought to lay claim to a piece of the pie that the rest of us did not and created a person in your own image that you’ll still have after the restaurant or the plane ride or the, heaven forbid, movie the rest of us are trying to watch. That’s a choice you made, and no, YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO A CHILD AND ALL OF THE FREEDOMS OF A CHILDLESS ADULT AT THE SAME TIME. Nice for you that you find yourself surrounded by polite people who don’t mind their meals being disturbed, just as nice people often don’t mind if someone cuts in front of them in line or takes their parking space, but don’t congratulate yourself for the epiphany that you can get away with being inconsiderate in public.

    • Your comment is kind of an incoherent rambling yelling mess, so I’m not sure just how to reply other than to assume that you’ve got some weird issues about kids that I can’t really guess at. It sounds like you want to participate in public spaces without acknowledging that children exist. You don’t want to have a meal, a plane ride, or movie without any interruptions from children. OTHER people often interrupt these kinds of activities, and you are not complaining about them (at least not here. Perhaps you troll posts about people who talk too loud with “blah, blah, blah FREEDOM, blah” over there, too). But in the meantime, I’m going to say that you just appear to be a bigot. Children making noise, motion, and messes in public isn’t them being impolite; it’s just them existing. Wanting a class of person to not exist is bigotry.

      • HONYSAUCE says:

        I don’t think ‘Marc’ was incoherently rambling. Maybe, you can’t read well or possibly you’re just pretending to be snide for the sake of argument. You read his comment & understood what he was saying just fine. Attacking him doesn’t make any of his points less valid. Just because you disagree with them doesn’t make him a “troll” either. He didn’t address annoying adults because this article is about the trials & tribulations of a woman who has a loud annoying baby. You need to brush up on your internet jargon. Also, babies are not a “class” & he didn’t wish for their demise or extinction. You assume so much & make presuppositions that are such leaping attacks. It’s like a FOX news pundit.

        • Oh, come on! The starving millions-environmental devastation,-piece of the pie-FREEDOMS bit didn’t seem at all incoherent to you?

          Want to explain how children are NOT a class of person?

          I suppose you’re right that he didn’t wish for the demise of children… He just doesn’t want them to participate in public life. Still bigotry.

        • Also, babies are not a “class”

          “Class: a number of persons or things regarded as forming a group by reason of common attributes, characteristics, qualities, or traits; a group sharing the same economic or social status.”

          So, when you say that children are not a “class,” do you mean that they are not persons? Or do they not share common attributes, characteristics, qualities, and/or social status?

          he didn’t wish for their demise or extinction

          No. Just their total excision from public spaces.

  10. Sorry to bump an old topic, but this is one near and dear to my heart. Can’t the responsibility of a pleasurable dining experience belong to both the parent and to the community (the servers and the fellow diners)? Before my high-need twins were born, and before all three of my kids developed celiac disease, I used to really enjoy taking my infant/toddler daughter to restaurants. Not super-fancy ones (because of the $$ and because who can stay up that late). I was lucky to have a kid who came with a personality that made it easier than it could have been.

    She liked looking around at new surroundings and smiling at the other people there. Sure she made a mess and was loud or fussy or crying, but I always found that some *reasonable* gestures and efforts on my part went a long way towards creating goodwill. If she became upset, it was usually because she was overstimulated or bored–I’d take her outside for a few minutes to help her calm down and relax or pull out a couple of toys (or just hand her a spoon). Gestures that both helped *her* and that acknowledged to other patrons that a fussy baby is no one’s favorite dining soundtrack. When she made a mess, I’d swipe a napkin over the table when the meal was over or thank the server especially and always left a good tip. Gestures to indicate that I respected that the server would have to clean up after us. I never did anything that apologized for her behavior or presence in a restaurant, but I did show that I was aware and respectful that other people were there and were affected by our presence, just as we were affected by theirs. We had uniformly positive experiences–and we got to know our servers and other regulars. Sometimes I thought I caught a dirty look, but the great thing about passive-aggression is that you can just ignore it. Also, there was a good chance that the dirty looks were in the eye of the beholder–me in my fear of being judged–so I decided not to worry about them.

    Those days are long gone (serious food issues, twins whose needs make restaurant meals miserable for me and for them, lack of money), but my memories are all positive and I am happy to have done my part to make them so.

    • Can’t the responsibility of a pleasurable dining experience belong to both the parent and to the community (the servers and the fellow diners)?

      Absolutely! Like you mentioned, I try to clean up our space a bit, and I leave a big tip. I make an effort to go to places that are particularly kid-friendly, and I do the things that help Dylan have an easy-going time. And I really appreciate the people who make it clear to us that we’re welcome, even in little ways like offering a smile.

  11. I basically agree with everything you’re saying here, but I do feel really strongly about tipping well when I require any extra work from the server. You’ve waited tables, so I’m sure you know that while they’re paid, they’re not paid well and rely on tips. So when I make them work extra-hard, whether it’s a messy baby or running for tons of refills and order, I make sure I tip accordingly :)

Trackbacks

  1. [...] A lovely piece from Love Live Grow about how it feels to know about all that intolerance towards our children in public places. This effects me, too. We were headed back from our errand, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to fall asleep and wasn’t going to make it home without a lot of crying. We needed to stop for awhile. Joshua and I were hungry, so it made sense to stop somewhere and eat. We were in a small town mostly unknown to us, so we didn’t really know where to look for food. We found a small restaurant and stopped. [...]

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