Sybil at Bitch PhD is right on the money with this post — the “I hate kids” line is pretty ridiculous, and it’s unfair to expect that kids will never be allowed out in public spaces. Hostility towards children is also, in practice, largely sexist — it’s moms who largely bear the burden of caring for children; it’s moms and female care-givers who are largely stuck inside when children aren’t welcomed in public spaces; and at least in my experience, it’s moms who are disproportionately glared at if their child isn’t perfectly behaved (dads, on the other hand, are considered sweet just for taking the kid out in public).
But that said — and this wasn’t really the topic of Sybil’s post, and the rest of this post isn’t a response to what she’s written — I do think it’s fair to say that some public spaces are, and should be, adult-oriented (again, Sybil isn’t saying otherwise). I live in a part of New York that is very, very kid-friendly, and that is home to a large number of young families. Kids in restaurants are common-place. I’m constantly walking in the street to bypass double-wide strollers on the sidewalk. There are a lot of parks, and those parks are full of children. I used to live in a part of New York (the East Village) that was essentially the opposite — seeing kids was relatively rare, and the population of the neighborhood was much more young-and-single than yuppie-and-parenting. I chose to live where I currently reside for a lot of reasons, and I knew that kids came with the deal. I like kids, and kids are part of society too, so, great. And in my experience, at least in my neighborhood, parents are largely respectful, and kids are so used to being out in public that they generally behave appropriately and accordingly.
However, my neighborhood and those adjacent to it do have a reputation for housing entitled parents who think that kids belong everywhere. I largely think that stereotype is unwarranted. I also think that it’s appropriate to bring kids most places — almost all places, even, as a general rule. But that depends on the kid and the situation. And you know, I may be a curmudgeon, but if I’m paying more than $100 to eat at Cafe Boloud (or any restaurant, really — not everyone can afford $100 meals, and we still deserve to eat out in relative peace) and the people at the table next to me have a toddler who makes a game of repeatedly dropping her silverware on the floor and making the waiter pick it up, I’m going to be really annoyed. And I’m also going to think that they’re incredibly rude — not just to the other diners, but to the wait staff who have a whole room to take care of but who are forced to devote disproportionate time, attention and effort to the family that thinks it’s a-ok to make waiters bend down and pick up dropped fork after dropped fork because the baby likes it. Which isn’t to say that no one under the age of 18 should ever eat at a fancy restaurant, or that families with kids should be relegated to McDonalds or Chuck E Cheese. I think it’s really important, if you can, to expose your child to a variety of situations, experiences and cuisines. And since all of us have to share public space, tolerance and patience is also incredibly important. It’s ridiculous to expect that parents should have to pay for a babysitter or not go out; it’s ridiculous to think that public space is adults-only; it’s ridiculous to expect that every child allowed in public is going to be 100% well-behaved at all times. Sometimes a kid is going to screech or do something naughty or annoying; sometimes an adult is going to be an asshole and is going to talk loudly on his cell phone, or get drunk and do something stupid. The deal with public space is that sometimes we have to tolerate certain annoyances.
But there are also lines, and just like I’m going to give a withering death-stare to the dude yelling into his Bluetooth in the middle of a restaurant, I’m probably also not going to be thrilled with the parent who lets his kid repeatedly race around the tables instead of staying put. Just like I get really annoyed at the people who feel the need to show up with a group of 8 to a busy brunch spot where there’s a two-hour wait because they can’t possibly have a meal without everyone they know and they can’t be bothered to go to a place where large parties are easy accommodated, I’m annoyed at the family who shows up to a tiny trendy restaurant where the wait is already two hours long and asks for a table for 8, because they have half of the local soccer team with them. Just like if a patron makes a big stink about not being able to find something they like off the menu and insist that they get something specially-made to their tastes I think to myself, “Go somewhere else! Menus are available online and you can pretty much see if there’s something you can/want to eat,” if a parent is indignant because a restaurant doesn’t offer a kid’s menu, I think to myself, “Go somewhere else.” It’s one thing to ask for plain spaghetti at an Italian restaurant that serves spaghetti anyway and just has to not put sauce on it; it’s another to show up at a nice sushi place and be just shocked that there isn’t mac n cheese on the menu.
Again, jerks and rude people of any stripe are in the minority; and just like some individuals are rude and thoughtless, some of those rude and thoughtless people are going to have kids and are going to be rude and thoughtless parents. So I’m not very into “rules” when it comes to what you can and can’t do with a kid, because those rules too often just seem like criticizing parents (and moms in particular) for having the audacity to think that they can go out in public with a kid, but this piece at Salon is pretty good. When you share public space, you have to do certain things to make sure that other people are also comfortable in that space. Reigning in your kids is one of those things. Not yelling on your cell phone is one of those things. Not showing up to a small restaurant with a huge group is one of those things.
I have a feeling that this issue also resonates in a very particular way in New York, where there is very little private space (at least for the majority of us who are not exceptionally wealthy). New Yorkers live in close proximity to each other; we ride public transportation and are literally squished into one and other; we are rarely totally alone on the street; even inside our own homes we can often hear what’s going on outside, or from the people living above, below or next to us. We share the hallways and the entrances to our homes; we go to restaurants with tiny tables and narrow spaces between; we go to grocery stores, drug stores and bodegas with tiny aisles where the merchandise is limited and stacked high. I’m not from New York originally, but I moved here at 18, and whenever I go to other parts of the country I’m surprised at how much space there is, everywhere. And with so many people in such a small area, people here take their social rules of engagement pretty seriously — and those rules are unique to the place. You don’t chat with people in line at the grocery store; you don’t talk to strangers on the subway; you don’t interrupt or disturb other diners in restaurants. We spend so much time in public, surrounded by so many people, that even in public people feel a strong necessity to maintain hard boundaries when it comes to personal space. You have to carve out a little bit of privacy, even in public settings. When I moved here from Seattle, I thought it was weird that I could make eye contact with someone on the street and they wouldn’t smile; now I think it’s weird when I go anywhere else and a stranger starts talking to me while we’re waiting in line for something. Because, yeah, we’re in public — but what public space means to me is very much shaped by the fact that where I live, truly private space is incredibly limited.
Which is why The Kids In Public Thing seems like it plays out slightly differently here than elsewhere. First of all, there are just more kids in New York City than there were a decade ago. Increasing numbers of families are forgoing the move to the suburbs and are instead choosing to raise their kids in the city. And more of these families are upper-middle-class — whereas a decade ago, parents who raised their kids in New York City were more likely to be lower-income (with the very rich also having their families here). Of course upper-middle-class people have always had kids in New York, but now there’s a critical mass of them — and they’re well-educated and entitled. And in this context, I mean “entitled” as a good thing — they feel entitled to raise their kids comfortably in a city that has long been able to make child-rearing exceptionally uncomfortable, except for the very rich. The Park Slope Mommy — Park Slope being the most notoriously strollered neighborhood in Brooklyn — pisses off a lot of people because The Park Slope Mommy thinks it’s just fine that she take her kids into the Tea Lounge with her, or even to a local bar during happy hour. She wants her local yoga studio to provide mommy-and-me classes. She wants the local restaurant to offer food her kids can eat. She wants people to move into the car and make room when she brings her stroller onto the subway. And she wants to be able to go out to a nice dinner with the kids in tow. And I say God bless her. There’s obviously a lot of class-privilege inherent to that kind of entitlement, and the ability to bring your kids places and access public transportation is obviously something that should extend to all women, but I think it’s great that parents don’t feel as if they have to leave urban environments just because they have children. I think it’s great that they’re taking action to re-shape urban environments to be more child-friendly. But the Park Slope Mommy (and people will say “parents,” but they’re really talking about mothers) is the target of incredible scorn, and a lot of the hatred is very much tied to misogyny, and disgust at women feeling entitled to do anything.
At the same time, though, there is a very real tension between the desire to have your kids go everywhere with you and the social norms of a place where public space is treated like it is in New York. Children are part of the community, and deserve to partake in what people within the community do; also, with so much of your life lived out in public in New York, it’s unfathomable to suggest that kids should just stay home, or that there is somehow a “kid zone” and an “adult zone.” But children also do not have the same understandings of social norms and rules as adults. They don’t have the same abilities when it comes to self-control and rational decision-making. That’s part of the reason why we restrict certain activities (voting, drinking, driving) by age; it’s part of the reason why we expect children to be supervised, and consider it annoying at best and illegally neglectful at worst when they aren’t. When parents make supervision of children a community responsibility, it feels particularly like an affront in a place like New York where public space is also private space, to some degree. So while I actually really like kids, I definitely sympathize with feeling incredibly annoyed or frustrated when you’re in public — on the subway, in a restaurant — and parents are letting their kids race around, or don’t do anything about a screaming child. It’s the same frustration I feel when I’m trying to walk to work and there’s a gaggle of tourists strolling five-across down the sidewalk, looking up at all the tall buildings and blocking anyone from passing — basically, the New York equivalent of going 40 in the far-left lane on the highway. More than just being annoying, it violates the basic social rules that keep a particular place functioning fairly smoothly.
None of which should have anything to do with hating kids. And I am not a big fan of the “I hate kids line,” but I do understand it as short-hand, the way that I say “I hate tourists.” I don’t actually hate all tourists, and I’ve been a tourist myself in enough places to know that they aren’t intentionally being assholes, and that most of them aren’t even acting like assholes. But I’ll still seek out places where tourists are few and far between (although I’ll also realize that if I choose to have dinner at the Olive Garden in Times Square, I can’t really be salty about all the tourists around). It’s a similar thing with kids. I don’t really feel a need to seek out kid-free places the way I do avoid tourist-traps because kids don’t bother me, but there are a few restaurants in the neighborhood that I know are kid- and family-oriented; there are also at least one place I can think of off the top of my head that seems to be populated disproportionately by people over the age of 75. Neither of those scenes are really my bag, so I don’t tend to go to those places. If I do go to those places and a kid is being a kid, I suck it up. No harm done. Also, if kids are acting like kids generally out in public? Again, suck it up. Children are part of society, and it’s unreasonable to expect that you’re never going to have to interact with them, or that they should have to behave perfectly at all times. Parents cannot control 100% of what kids do, and parents are people, too — people who get tired and frustrated and maybe just don’t have the energy to deal with this particular tantrum right now. But if I go to a nice restaurant? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that a crying kid or toddler throwing things should be removed, the same way an adult behaving wildly inappropriately should be removed. If I go to a bar? I’m not going to be mad when someone gets a little yelly at their table. And parents don’t really have the right to be annoyed if they take their kid to a bar and another patron is using the F-word. It’s a bar. And while I don’t think that kids should be categorically barred from restaurants (and even small children from certain types of bars at reasonable hours), I do think that parents have a responsibility to evaluate their own child’s behavior and mood that day and decide whether it makes sense to go to a particular place at a particular time; and parents, ultimately — not everyone else out in public — should bear the burden of making sure that children behave according to the behavioral standard of a particular place, whatever that may be.
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