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Kids in Public: And Thus Have I Provided You a Definitive List of Rules

[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.

30 thoughts on Kids in Public: And Thus Have I Provided You a Definitive List of Rules

  1. 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.

    How lucky he was dumping you instead of me, because yes, it’s obvious what he’s doing, and yes, I would absolutely embarrass the douchecanoe in public.

    I have a question for parents (I am not one): obviously, a stranger yelling at a small child is fucking terrible. How would you feel if a stranger politely asked your kid to quiet down? Is that intrusive?

    1. Speaking as a parent, I’d like to think I was already be on top of things, and attempting to quiet them down. But I’m not always perfect at gauging when my kids are (or I should say were) being disruptive rather than just being kids.

      I’d probably be okay with it, depending on how I was approached ( someone telling me to “shut my f*ckin kid up” is not going to fly). I will be polite to someone who approaches me politely.

    2. I think it would depend on the situation? If I’m already trying to quiet my kid, then I wouldn’t see the point (but I don’t think this would fall under the politely asking parameters of your questions). If my kid was being unruly and I didn’t know about it (as in, your kid is being a jerk in the bathroom), I’d thank the person for bringing it to my attention. If it’s a matter of different standards (I think kid is being fine, but someone else doesn’t like how he’s doing x), I think I might get a little irritable if the person is not affected by it (like if my kid is blowing bubbles in his milk?) but if the person was affected and I didn’t realize it, then I wouldn’t find it to be too intrusive.

      I was on a train once in Israel with my one year old, and he was tired and crying. I was trying to quiet him, and some guy across the aisle yelled at me. I don’t speak Hebrew, so I didn’t know what he said, but my husband told me that he said something like “let him cry, I don’t care! Your shushing is more annoying than the baby!” It was pretty late and everyone was really tired.

  2. I’ve read about 250 blog posts on this subject and of them all, this one was On. Point. Amazing how many people seem to get it wrong, given that 99% of it is basically a variation of “don’t be a raging asshole,” but still; absolutely nailed it.

    Incidentally, FWIW I’ve broken up with people in public when I didn’t feel safe doing it in private. Not that a fancy restaurant is the right place for it or that this is the same thing as the situation you were put into by that jerk, but just something to consider when you see the crying/screaming woman/man and think “Jesus, keep your shit private.” Again, this is in no way a rebuttal or criticism, just something that occurred to me reading your (awesome!) piece.

  3. A lot of this brought up memories of my parents’ stories, especially the part about babies on planes who can’t pop their ears. When I was a baby, I had colic and chronic ear infections. One time my parents took me to visit my dad’s family for the first time, and I couldn’t pop my ears as the plane was descending. I bit into my mom’s shoulder to the point of drawing blood and she sat in stoic silence with tears rolling down her face just so that people wouldn’t complain about a baby crying.

    My dad actually used to describe kids as “learning to people” when I would get irritated with them, and it’s always stuck with me. I’m childfree and I really don’t enjoy spending time around children, but kids are going to be kids. They’re supposed to! Yeah, it might be annoying to me, but if they’re just doing what kids do, that’s my own damn problem.

  4. This post was excellent. I loved this “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… 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.”

    When I first flew with my kid, he was really good and slept in my husband’s lap the whole time. Except for when my husband had to go to the bathroom and passed him off to me. He cried for a few seconds then fell back asleep. The guy behind me said to another passenger something about how have I heard of Benadryl. Meanwhile he was punching my seat throughout the flight trying to get his broken monitor to work and spoke too loudly to allow for those near him to sleep. He knew better. He had a choice in his behavior. My one year old didn’t.

      1. I can’t even imagine the mindset where I’d feel comfortable telling someone else how to fucking medicate their baby.

        IANAD, but if it actually is useful info, what matters is mostly weight. Children under about 12 kilos shouldn’t be taking the chewables (though they can take a small dose of the liquid version). That said, aside from extreme cases (newborns, high dosages), the side effects are mostly just prolonged drowsiness and light-headedness. Source: partially raised a much younger sibling with allergies.

      2. I think we actually had children’s Benadryl (leftover from when I flew with my cat but didn’t Benadryl him) and considered maybe using it if there had been a problem and discussed it with his doctor. So I think it’s safe. But, kind of like Ludlow said, the idea of medicating my baby for no reason (he was fine on the flight. not being fine on the flight would be a reason) didn’t make me feel comfortable.

        A friend of mine once made a comment about how parents should medicate their kids for a flight. It made me uncomfortable. She didn’t have kids. What did she know? The bad person in me wonders if she, now a mom and living far away from her family, still feels the same way.

      3. Emily, I don’t think it makes you a bad person to wonder if someone changed after having different life experiences. I REALLY hope she did, because it makes me sad that she could be drugging her kid for convenience.

    1. “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… 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.”

      This doesn’t work for me. Maybe “If you’re going to get pissy, your behavior had better meet all the standards to the best of your ability.” Because, really, disability. Among other things.

      1. Eh, I’m a disabled person with several of these problems, and I don’t agree. I can’t calibrate my voice volume a lot of the time when I’m stressed/ill/happy (although I will concede I don’t scream aimlessly in the way badly behaved children sometimes do), and I tremble and spasm and drop crumbs all over the place, spill water glasses, etc. I have difficulty with social cues and sometimes can’t talk to waiters/forget pleasantries because I’m anxious, although I’m not impolite. I choke easily, which triggers horrific coughing for a while afterwards. I know whereof I speak about disability impeding the fine dining experience, believe me.

        However, I think it’s still reasonable that Person X who can’t help but spill crumbs should understand that Person Y who also can’t help but spill crumbs can’t, well, help but spill crumbs. Disability isn’t a get-out-of-jail card for understanding that other humans also have issues and physical incapacities, and kids are physically incapable/only poorly capable of the fine coordination and social cues. I would call it not only rude but colossally hypocritical if I were to turn around and get pissed at a 3y0 for having exactly the same issues I have in a society that’s pretty unaccommodating and hostile towards both of us. Are you kidding me?

  5. Woot! Fucking on point, yo. I’m frankly delighted. 😀 😀

    And THANK YOU for making the point that having kids = / = having disabilities. Not only can I not casually arrange for a babysitter to watch my fibro and anxiety disorder for an evening so I can go do a triathlon, I find the idea of considering my kid to be a sort of disability-inducer (as opposed to a real little person with needs, the caring of whom requires me to make petty changes to my social schedule) to be pretty effin’ offensive as a parent. I can’t imagine how offensive and/or hurtful it would be to people who actually were/are rendered temporarily or permanently disabled by their pregnancies to hear such an argument, like there’s any comparison to be made between “I acquired crippling bone degeneration during my pregnancy and had to re-learn how to stand and walk while trying to mother an infant and toddler” and “A stranger shushed my toddler at Olive Garden and gave him a sadz for like ten seconds before I distracted him with a shiny crayon”. O.O I just…people. PEOPLE.

    1. Yeah, I actually read some of those old threads (because I’m clearly a masochist) and the people arguing that using a stroller to push your kids around is equivalent to having to use a wheelchair to be mobile… Holy shit.

      1. The only circumstances in which I can see that being even 10% of an argument are when the parent(s) themselves are physically disabled. E.G.: I couldn’t carry a toddler for more than a couple of minutes, and I’ve basically never ever held a baby while standing because my grip could fail at any point and HOSHIT do I not want to drop one on its soft squishy little head. If I had a baby, I’d consider a stroller to be accessibility equipment for myself. But that wouldn’t be because baby, that’d be because of constant muscle spasms in my arms, stabby nerve pains and random loss/tightening/loosing of grip that I’ve lived with for decades. You know. An actual disability need.

        OTOH stuff like the Vividcon wank where women were screaming oppression about not being allowed to bring toddlers into NC-17 fanvid panels “for breastfeeding purposes”? That, I got nothing for.

      2. The only circumstances in which I can see that being even 10% of an argument are when the parent(s) themselves are physically disabled.

        Oh, absolutely on the same page there.

      3. I dunno, I carried my friend’s 25 lb 9 month old 10 feet and I was like, OMG WHERE IS THE STROLLER (and I go to the gym too ;_;)

      4. Team Athenia, for the record. I have zero upper body strength (but no kids), and I don’t know that I’d have the ability to tug a kid around all day without a stroller, haha.

      5. Sure, strollers are useful. That doesn’t meaning owning/using one makes you disabled, and it doesn’t make you the same as someone who needs a wheelchair to move around.

      6. I mean, I prefer roller bags to suitcases because they’re easier to move around an airport.

      7. I think there are a lot of similarities although obviously the two aren’t *exactly* the same. For example, the number of elevators in the NYC subway system is absolutely atrocious. Increasing their number would help both wheelchair peeps, people with strollers and others.

      8. Yeah – sorry. It’s not to say parents are the equivalent of disabled, but I think it’s completely fine to say they could use special accommodations to function in public when with a small child (including ramps, for ex). I’ve also seen strangers on the subway help parents get their kid’s stroller down the stairs, but that’s probably not possible with a wheelchair (and also, probably super infantilizing). Not the same, but strollers definitely aid in mobility of children and it would be cool if we did something to help out parents in that vein too.

      9. Val and I were talking about this, and I think the parental-health-and-access-needs thing is a social-model disability issue (i.e. “I am disabled by society’s unwillingness to accommodate my physical needs in a way that permits me to function in everyday life), but not a disease-model disability issue (i.e. “I am disabled by my body’s inability to do what I need it to, that lies within the spectrum of statistically normal human ability”). Speaking as a socially disabled person (hello neuroatypicalities!) and a disease-disabled person (hello fibromyalgia!) I’d say that parenting-related physical needs are in fact an accessibility need on par with many other accessibility needs. However – and I don’t know, maybe I’m incorrect – the idea of referring to kids as a disability, instead of the necessities of childcare as disabling puts my hackles up like whoa.

      10. the idea of referring to kids as a disability,

        Yup, totally feel this. That’s super, super shitty. Words mean things. Disabilities are disabilities, and kids are kids.

  6. The [redacted]* who object to parenting in public are probably the same cadre who think that old people should be banned from stores, and that all WalMart shoppers should wear designer duds and diet because their aesthetic feelings get hurt by working-class sweat.

    Hey everyone, motorcycle earplugs do an amazing (and cheap!) job of improving quality of life in many circumstances. So now the a$$holes of the world can quit redefining normal and get comfy.

    I actually lived on Old Dixie Highway during the worst of the Dixie car horn craze. Sold out and moved to the dead end of a dirt road just to get rid of Those Horns, y’know.

    * Moderator note: some words trip our autobot moderation filter because of Reasons that belong on #spillover if you want to ask. When those words get one's comment placed in the moderation queue, the word in question will be replaced by [redacted] so you know what words to avoid in future if you don't want it to happen again.

    1. I don’t know many who object to parenting in public. I know a lot of people who object to the failure to parent in public.

  7. You know, I never had ANYONE ask me to leave because of my kids – but then, I actually followed these rules – BEFORE they were “rules” because they just seem to me to be common sense. I took my kids to restaurants (although not to “really” high class places because that’s not fair to them – but to places like Chili’s) to teach them manners in public. This is how you do that. And you come prepared to do so (Back in my day, it was coloring books, crayons and quiet toys – and making sure the kids had been rested and non-fussy beforehand too). My kids were not hellions and they behaved and if they didn’t, they were taken outside or to the restroom and dealt with. Although, I can only recall – even with my very AD/HD kids, having to do that once or twice – and that’s with ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER WITH HYPERACTIVITY. You’d think that parents with normal kids could do the same huh? *smdh*
    But I’ve seen the parents with kids who are out of control – while my kids are sitting there behaving relatively nicely – and had my kids ask me why those kids are behaving so badly. That’s always a tough one to answer. I usually used to say that perhaps they’re just having a rough day BUT NEVER EVER did I publicly dump on the parents. I’ve been dumped on too often as a parent at this point that I wouldn’t. I know when I was younger, I was less than charitable but as I grew older and realized how hard it can be, I gained more charity. So, with all that being said, I think these are really really good rules – really, if more people – parents, other diners, and restaurants would follow these “rules”, it would make life more pleasant for everyone…

  8. The only time I’ve ever been annoyed at a kid was when I was on the public bus and the kid was screaming its heart out. I’m not sure what the parent could have done since we were all on a moving bus.

    Other than that, I don’t think I’ve ever really had a problem with kids in public because they are kids, you know and we can’t lock parents in the house 24/7.

    I hate getting sucked into this stuff. I just feel like it’s just an extension of the patriarchy–that women and children should stay in the private sphere because making accommodations of them are oh-so-horrible and against nature.

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