It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Kid-friendly world, or world-friendly kid?

“Is your restaurant child-friendly?”

A couple of weeks ago, my local paper published an article by a woman whose book (You’ve Been Served) I am sure to buy when it comes out.

I suspect I enjoy children more than Ms. Fox-Revett. “I like children as much as the next person,” she writes. “Which is to say, not very much.” Pfft. Speak for yourself, Ms. F-R. However, the headline — “No one thinks your child is as adorable as you” — had me nodding my head in agreement. Because I love children, yes, I do, but I am not pink-puffy-heart sentimental about them. And, like Ms. Fox-Revett (like most of us, I suspect) I have been held hostage by someone whose doting adoration of their child blinds them to the fact that, rather than being delighted by their child’s antics, I am in fact being harassed and annoyed.

It seems we are united, Ms. Fox-Revett and I, in our dislike of badly behaved children. Yes, yes, I know: it’s not the child, it’s the behaviour we don’t like. True. But when my dinner conversation is drowned out by the obstreperous children two tables over, or my chair jolted by the unruly one as she charges down the centre of the room, that distinction grows pretty fine. Whatever my feelings toward the child, you may be sure I’m not enamored of the parents.

Because my career is childcare, people often assume I love all children without reservation. I must be entirely accepting of such childish foibles, right? Honestly? No. Remember, I have made a career of civilizing children. I know that, barring genuine developmental delay, such behaviour is unnecessary. Parents who allow it are simply rude, and to expect other diners to tolerate it because “he’s only two” is insufferably self-absorbed and inconsiderate. Moreover, I’m the woman whose motto is “We’re not raising children, we’re raising adults.” The self-absorption that’s natural in a two-year-old is not so appealing in a twelve-year-old, and distinctly unpleasant in a twenty-two-year-old. When do you start your child in the process of learning that other people’s needs are as real as his/her own, if not as soon as possible?

“Is your restaurant child-friendly?”

Ms. Fox-Revett points out, rightly, that such a question is nonsensical, and the only appropriate reply (which it seems she bites back) is, “That depends. Is your child restaurant-friendly?”

I discussed the article with a neighbour, formerly in the food service industry, now happily employed in the quieter and arguably more civilized realm of government cubicles. His comment?

“Anyone who would ask that question, you don’t want in your restaurant.”

Indeed. What does the question mean, really? “Are you all right with children leaving their seats and wandering around on their own?” “Is it all right if little Simon crawls under the table, little Suzie sings the ABC song at top volume, wee Lina stands on her chair to comment on the shiny-ness of a fellow-diner’s balding head?” Or perhaps the question refers to the menu? “Do you serve nothing but processed foods heavily salted, laced with fats and devoid of vegetable matter?” (This is familiarly known as the “Children’s Menu”, as if it’s somehow appropriate — required, even — to serve children artery-clogging non-food utterly lacking the nutrition their growing brains and bodies require.)

I have been providing childcare for over a dozen years. I’ve been a parent for over twenty. In all those years there have been two children who, once they got to the age of two or so, I could not take to a restaurant and know that they would behave appropriately: stay seated, not be disruptively loud, and eat what was served without a fuss. (One had a developmental delay; one had an anxiety disorder, both diagnosed by professionals.)

How do I know we could do that? Because we do it at home. Dinners out are earned by consistently good manners at home; when a child knows how to eat nicely at home, we can try doing it in public. If “we” are having a bad day and it turns out we can’t manage it after all, we leave. Not in an angry, punitive way, but only stating something like, “I guess we need to go home now.” (Sometime we go home before we even get there…)

Do I worry about other diners ‘judging’ me? Not particularly. But I am a considerate person. I don’t expect my child to have adult-level good behaviour. Our meals are shorter — no two-hour lingering with a toddler in tow. They’re earlier — dinner at five or 5:30, not 6:30 or later. A certain amount of fidgeting is acceptable, so long as it stays in the chair. I expect to have to remind and coach on manners — chewing with the mouth closed, keeping the voice quiet, using your fork.

I do not, however, expect others to accept that my child has the right to run around the room, to talk to other diners, to shout, to sing, to throw fits about what’s on (or not on) their plate. If this happens, I don’t worry about being judged. I leave. I leave not because I’m afraid of other people’s bad opinion but because to stay, to continue to inflict my fragile, disruptive child on the other diners would be rude — and then, yes, I’d probably be being judged. Not for having an unruly child, but for my own rudeness. Fair enough.

“Is your restaurant child-friendly?” It’s the wrong question, weighted, as it is, with the expectation — unspoken demand, even — that the restaurant (and everyone in it!) adapt itself to the quirks of your particular child.

The best question is not “Is the world adequately accepting of my child?”

The best question is “Am I preparing my child to be functional and considerate in the world?”

May 18, 2010 Posted by | food, manners, parenting, Peeve me, socializing | , , , , | 13 Comments