[Content note: a topic that’s been discussed to hell and back and yet is being discussed back to hell again because this is my blog and I get to]
It’s happened again. Again. It’s always going to happen, and it’s always going to spur debate: A couple brought a kid to a restaurant, the kid was noisy, there was an exchange of some level of vehemence between the restaurant owner and the parents, and everyone has flipped out. The specifics? Here are the specifics, but it doesn’t really matter, in the end, because no matter the incident, public reactions are always the same: Kids shouldn’t be in public! No, kids should be everywhere! No, kids should be in some places, and now I will list those places! No, kids should be in all places except for the ones I’m about to list! We can all agree that kids suck though, right? No, you suck! I don’t think kids suck, I just don’t like them. How can you say that you don’t like a group of people?! Etc. ad nauseam. Much interesting. Such novel. So not done to death at Feministe already.
To end the debate once and for all, I have taken it upon my (entirely unqualified, self-satisfied) self to compose a comprehensive, binding list of Official Rules for Everyone When Kids Are Out in the World.
Rules for Diners
1. Kids are people. They’re very short people, and they’re people whose brains haven’t finished developing, and they’re people who haven’t entirely learned how to People yet, but they’re people. You don’t get to live in a world free of a particular kind of person. It might be cool, in some certain cases — I would love to live in a world where no one ever wants a car horn that plays “Dixie” — but, in the words of the prophet, you can’t always get what you want.
2. As not-entirely-trained people, kids need the experience of being out in public in order to learn how to People. This is probably, on occasion, going to involve a restaurant that you like. A kid isn’t going to learn how to behave at Applebee’s if they never eat anywhere but McDonald’s. So recognize that, to a reasonable extent, the fussiness you encounter is in the service of having not-fussy dining experiences with this person in the future. Cut them some slack.
3. Have some compassion for parents. (I say “parents,” and I do mean both parents, but who takes the vast majority of the shit when a kid acts up in public? Mom. So especially have some compassion for Mom.) You think it’s bad hearing a screaming baby? Try sitting in the echo chamber that is a vinyl-padded booth with the cuddly little noisemaker. Yes, sometimes parents ignore squalling kids because they want to pretend it isn’t happening, and sometimes they let kids run around and/or make messes because they can’t be bothered to intervene or because, God help me, they think it’s cute. This is not all parents. This is not even most parents. You don’t know if they’re dealing with a kid who wants attention or a kid who has Tourette’s, so don’t give them the immediate shit-eye just because you think they should be able to instantly silence their unhappy child through sheer force of will. Also, don’t start giving them the shit-eye the moment they walk through the door with a kid. You have no way of knowing whether or not the kid is going to be disruptive; for all you know, the kid could be better behaved than you.
4. If you’re going to get pissy about a child’s behavior in a restaurant, yours had better be on freaking point the entire time. You’d better take your cell phone conversations outside, use your Inside Voice, keep your crumbs on the table, and be polite to the waiter. No demanding perfect behavior from a kid if you’re not going to do much better. At least the kid has the excuse that they’re not experienced at being a person yet; you’re supposed to have mastered it by now.
5. Do not, under any circumstances, gripe if you see a parent pulling out a coloring book, an iPad, and/or a bag of Cheerios for their kid. You know what’s happening there? A child is being made happy. And when the child is happy and entertained, your evening is better. You want to demand that a child be quiet and entertained and then gripe about the way it’s done? Really? Go eat at home.
6. Don’t dump someone in a restaurant. Okay, this one has nothing to do with kids, but seriously — I once had a guy take me to a restaurant to break up with me because he figured I’d be less likely to make a noisy scene in public. He was right, because I’m cool, but everyone isn’t as cool as me, and if you want to make an adult have a toddler-style sobbing fit, end a four-year relationship in a room full of strangers and steak.
Rules for Parents
1. If your kid is fussy and can’t be un-fussed within a couple of minutes or so, remove them. Take them to a bathroom, a sidewalk, sit in the car with them for a few minutes, whatever’s convenient (recognizing that nothing is ever actually convenient when you’re dealing with young kids). Bring them back when they’re once again non-fussy. Kids get fussy — it happens. But you’ve signed up to deal with the fuss; your fellow diners haven’t.
2. If you want a night off when you don’t have to actively parent, get a babysitter. Don’t take your kids to a restaurant and let them run all over the place because you want a little bit of Me/Us Time. Running around is for a PlayPlace; sitting quietly (or at least not running around and not kicking people’s seats) is for a grownup restaurant. If your kid doesn’t have enough experience with nicer restaurants — or bars, or hipster coffee shops, or whatever — to be able to follow social norms, you’re not chained to your house, but you are on the clock supervising them and helping them behave appropriately for the setting.
3. You do what you need to do (within reason, of course) to keep your kids occupied and happy. Video games and iPads are perfectly acceptable ways of doing that — with headphones. Diners aren’t complaining about the sounds of squalling kids because they’d rather hear the dulcet tones of Juno’s Piano.
4. If you’re asked to remove your child until they’ve calmed down, do so. It sucks, and it might not be fair, but do it. Even voice your displeasure, calmly and at a low volume, with the manager while you do it, if that’s what you’re feeling, but do it. You can shit-talk that restaurant owner at length later, you can make an angry phone call, you can tear them apart on social media and let Yelp know that the restaurant isn’t! Child! Friendly! and should be boycotted, but again: Everyone wants a pleasant dining environment, and your screaming fit isn’t part of that, any more than your kid’s was.
5. The behavioral standards for kids in a restaurant are the same as the standards for adults in that same restaurant. No shouting. No running around. No spilling food on the floor. No taking food from other people’s plates. No coloring on the walls. No tripping waiters carrying heavy trays. There’s no letting it pass just because they’re a kid — they’re either meeting standards, or they’re learning to meet standards.
6. Your kid is not a person with a disability (exception: kids who have disabilities); they’re a person who hasn’t learned to Person yet. Saying, “What if a deaf person was in here talking really loudly?” as a reason not to teach your kid to modify their volume is not on. A person who can’t help engaging in some non-societally-sanctioned behavior, and one who is able to and is in the process of learning not to do that? Those are two different kinds of people. Think about what you’re saying here: “An autistic person having a negative reaction to the stimuli in their environment is the exact same thing as my kid flipping out because their iPad died, so I’m just going to sit here and finish my cocktail.”
7. As great as it would be, you can’t expect the people around you to automatically help out. It seriously would be nice if we all lived in that kind of a society, and some of us actually do, but it’s not universal. Messages are mixed: Sometimes, we get yelled at for not helping out in some nonspecific way when a kid is upset. Sometimes, we get yelled at for trying to help, because we’re never supposed to speak to or make eye contact with someone else’s kid. Sometimes, the safest thing is to just not engage. If you need help, say so out loud, and chances are there will be someone around willing to help you out. (Be sure to thank them.)
Rules for Restaurant Owners
1. As a restaurateur, you have the responsibility for providing a dining experience that’s pleasant for your guests. That almost always, in a non-Chuck E. Cheese environment, doesn’t include kid-type noisiness. The parent of a noisy kid is a paying customer — as are all of your other paying customers. If someone was talking on a cell phone or playing music loudly, you’d speak to them about being quieter (or should, at least; see Rule 2). Do everyone the courtesy of speaking — politely — to the parent of the noisy chid. And when your staff does it, back them up and don’t throw them under the bus just to appease the customer.
2. Hold adults and kids to the same standards. If your restaurant is quiet enough that a loud-talking toddler is ruining the mood, then be sure to also address the guy talking on his cell phone at the same volume. If your pub is so noisy that the drunks have to yell over each other to be heard, it’s likely that no one will notice a crying kid anyway, except to wonder why the baby is in a loud bar and why their bottle appears to be full of Guinness.
3. Have a coloring page and a handful of crayons, or something, to hand to kids. Seriously, if you have high chairs, you should have something to entertain the kids who sit in them. Maybe it detracts from your image as a super-high-class eatery, but it also improves your chances of having a super-high-class ambiance, and that’s really what matters. Bonus: You get parents saying, “They even had crayons for my kid! They’re so thoughtful,” and if you have to speak with parents about noise, you can say, “Listen, we tried to entertain your kid. What else are we supposed to do?”
4. Be polite. I mean, seriously. I’ve got friends in service, I’ve got friends in restaurants, I’ve worked in customer service, and I know how much of a pain it can be to take customers’ shit and not get to retaliate. Unfortunately, that’s part of the deal. You have the authority, in your own restaurant, to ask a parent to quiet a noisy kid or even, under extreme circumstances, to compel them to leave. Do so calmly and respectfully — even if you don’t feel they deserve your respect. Then go back to your office, close the door, and scream and knock over a chair or something. Think of it this way: You deal politely with the parent of a squalling kid, and you’re the hero who preserved the pleasant dining experience. You get into a shouting match with said parent, and now you’re just contributing to an environment that’s way more unpleasant than one crying kid.
5. Ideally, everyone taking part in the exchange will be a grownup (with the exception, of course, of the kid). But if there’s only one person there who’s going to be a grownup? That’s you. This calls back to Rule 4: Don’t be insulting, don’t be passive aggressive, don’t try to hit back on social media. Calmly explain your side of things when the opportunity arises, no matter how much you want to call someone obscene, all-caps names on Facebook. And then go back to your office and knock over another chair.
The Biggest Rule for Everyone
Remember that at the center of this is a small person who is, at best, semi-responsible for the way they interact with the world. Be a good model for that small person of how a responsible, sensible, compassionate human being behaves. On a plane, realize that the baby doesn’t know how to pop their ears and doesn’t exactly want to cry, and be a little sympathetic. In a restaurant, recognize that your kid might be crying because they’re really, really uncomfortable or unhappy and that the kind thing to do would be to take them home. Remember that the world doesn’t revolve around you — the diner who feels entitled to a silent meal; the parent who wants to go wherever, whenever, under whatever circumstances at all; or even, for that matter, the baby, who is one of 630 million like it in the world and is definitely more important to you than to anyone else around you. You don’t have to be a saint, or a martyr, or some kind of other religious imagery implying patience, since I seem to be on a roll here. Just… don’t be an asshole.