Acculturation

There was a thing in the news about another cafe banning kids. It’s one of those issues that crops up every few weeks, and you get some people saying “I’m a parent but I wouldn’t take my kids to a fine-dining restaurant, there are plenty of cafes that are more set up for kids” and other saying “kids should be allowed anywhere, they’re people too”, and other saying “kids are annoying and should just not be in public”. 

My family has experienced our share of all the following experiences when out at Wellington eateries with the little dude: 

  • he’s charming and his presence at the cafe is a non-issue;
  • he’s fine for a while but then starts to get over it, but we can distract him enough that his behaviour isn’t too disruptive;
  • he reaches his limit and we decide to bail;
  • he was grumpy at home but he’s fine once we’re out and about and there are things to see and do;
  • he was fine at home but he’s grumpy once there’s noise and bustle;
  • he is interested in being at the cafe but he’s not keen on sitting still in a high chair while mummy and daddy eat;
  • other patrons engage with him and think he’s cute;
  • other patrons give us dirty looks;
  • waitstaff give us free fluffies;
  • waitstaff tell us they don’t have fluffies on the menu but they could totally make a small cup of froth for a dollar, no worries. 

We like going to cafes for several reasons. First, they are a place that is not our house. A place that is not our house! Those are some of the best places! Second, it’s easier to meet up with friends at cafes than anywhere else, because no-one has to cook or host or clean up. Third, they serve food there. A place that is not our house, and you can buy food?! That is basically the ideal place to go! So yeah, we go to cafes for the same reasons that people without kids go to cafes. And now we’re back on two incomes, we have a bit more money and a bit less time, and sometimes going out is just the thing we need to perk us all up on a Saturday when there are too many chores and when we’ve both got job-work we need to do from home after the little dude goes down for his nap.

This weekend we went to Chocolate Fish, which is a 10/10 for child-friendliness, and because it is set up to welcome kids, it didn’t matter that the little dude fell over in a puddle and cried and needed a change of clothes, it didn’t matter that he wanted to explore and run about, it was all fine.  

The owner of the cafe that’s just banned kids in the story above was quoted as saying "We’re not child haters, we’re not anti-children. We just want those who can’t control their kids in a public setting to go elsewhere”.

That’s a telling turn of phrase, “can’t control their kids”. We’re not opposed to children per se, we just want them to be controlled. Like, can’t you train them better? Get them a muzzle perhaps? Don’t they come with an off switch? Are they always so noisy?!

The idea that children are unwelcome in some cafes bothers me only a small amount. At the end of the day I’d prefer to take my custom somewhere like the Goose Shack where the guy behind the grill plays peek-a-boo with the little dude and they provide blocks and colouring pencils.  You don’t want my kid, well, we don’t want to frequent your establishment. And we only go to cheapish low-key places anyway, and they’re mostly pretty ok with kids. If we went out to a fine dining restaurant by ourselves, would we want to be exposed to someone else’s screaming child? Hahahahaha, go out to a fine dining dining restaurant, that happened once ever on our honeymoon. And no-one takes kids to those places, duh, straw-man much?! 

Anyway… 

The justification bothers me a big amount. 

The owner of No Kid Cafe goes on to say "someone has to stand up to the parents who think it’s OK to have a kid running around screaming in a small space with other members of the public there".

Hmmm.

Look if he said “kids will be kids, and sometimes it’s nice for adults to have time away from them, and that’s the sort of restaurant we want to work in, and there’s a family-friendly cafe down the road”, I’d be “meh, yup, whatevs”. But that’s not what he said. He thinks that parents need to control their kids or not take them out into public places. There’s nothing in what he said that distinguishes between a 14 month old and a 5 year old, if the person is small and noisy the parents are being rude to other adults and overly permissive, which makes them a target of social opprobrium. 

When the little dude was a baby, I didn’t worry about being judged – I figured babies cry sometimes, and babies need to be fed and need their nappies changed, and parents need to leave the house, so if I’m trying to comfort or feed or change a baby in a public place I’ll meet any dirty look with a fierce look. I am more aware of the potential for social shaming now, because of the frequency with which sentiments like the above are expressed. Control your child. Make sure they don’t bother other people. Frown. Frown. Frown. 

He’s not even quite 17 months old, he’s very new to this whole social etiquette thing. He’s doing his very best to learn and we’re doing our very best to teach him, but could you maybe give us a fucking break? 

Because it’s not just about one cafe saying no kids, it’s about a culture that expects small children to be brought sharply into line, and to fit in with an adult world which doesn’t give them much space to be themselves. 

There were two stories in the news this week about children dying at the hands of their caregivers. A fourteen-month-old boy from Christchurch and a six-month-old girl from the Kapiti Coast. 

I reckon we live in a child abuse culture, the same way we live in a rape culture. This is a culture which talks about “controlling children” rather than “teaching” or “guiding” or “helping them to learn” or “engaging with them” or “responding to their needs” or “accommodating their developmental capabilities” or “making spaces work for them”. 

When I hear “controlling” children, I hear an implied threat of force. To control someone is to make them do something against their will. Inevitably, all parents have to play the Stronger Than You card sometimes, we have to hold their little bodies still while they get their vaccinations and we have to wrangle them into carseats and we have to pick them up and carry them when they’d rather climb the stairs slowly but we’re all running late. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the idea that children should be compliant all the time – the idea that their autonomy exists only to be broken. That’s the idea that comes through when someone says “We just want those who can’t control their kids in a public setting to go elsewhere”. 

That statement says to me, you actually are anti-children. And you’re anti-children in a way that is also strongly anti-parent, and that can make parents turn against their children. You’re endorsing the idea that parents should make their children act a certain way that  you think is better, even when the “offending” behaviour is exactly what kids that age and stage are supposed to do, even when they’re doing nothing really wrong, even when what they want and need is reasonable, even when all they’re doing is being a small human in a public place. You’re rolling together actual misbehaviour (like that older child who pushed my son over when he was trying to get into the whale heart at the level two discover centre at Te Papa) with just kid stuff (like a toddler being a bit rowdy).  

And it really matters, because child abuse, like any crime, exists in a broader social context. The uncompromising attitude towards small children doing their thing in public is part of that context.

Postscript:

So a few weeks after I posted this, a story hit the interwebs about a restaurant owner in the US who yelled at a toddler. Whose parents may or may not have misjudged the crucial call of “Fuck, should we bail? She’s crying. This is a disaster! Do we leave?” (Whatever, that is a very difficult call to make!) But who yells at a toddler for crying?! A stranger’s toddler! There’s a poll on the nzherald website and 48% of voters think that the restaurant owner was right to yell, 41% said she was right but probably went too far, and only 22% think yelling at a stranger’s toddler is a no-go. WHAT THE TOTAL FUCK?! 

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