The Illuminated Crowd

January 29, 2008

Here’s something that I feel strongly about: the right of parents to take their children pretty much anywhere in the public sphere that they see fit. I also feel strongly that this is a right that carries with it considerable responsibility – as do most rights – but there it is: I believe that if a parent needs or wants to take their children to the theater, to nice hotels, to restaurants that don’t use vinyl tablecloths or distribute crayons with their menus, that’s their right. Any perceived right by other members of the public to move about in public without exposure to children is just that: perceived. There can be no such right in a liberal human society, because children are members of such societies. They are not pets – a comparison that I once saw in a letter to the editor of a newspaper – they are people. Little ones, and ones that sometimes wear diapers and are prone to outbursts, but still. Those descriptions fit many members of our society who we don’t leash up outside of cafes and put in the baggage hold of airplanes.

So there. If I want to dine four-star with my two-year old, I will.

I said that I believe that this right comes with responsibility. It does. My right – and my child’s right – to eat at a public establishment of my choice is limited by responsibility to ensure that my child does not wreak havoc in that public space (just as it is my responsibilty, with myself, to not become drunk and disorderly in public spaces. And yes, toddlers can sometimes behave like very small, drunk and disorderly vagrants. We know this.) So I’m not claiming some right to be able to eat at Balthazar during the 8pm rush with a shrieking pre-schooler. I am claiming that I should be able to do so under reasonable circumstances, i.e. if and when I have some reasonable expectation of my child’s decent behaviour and am willing to adapt and/or retreat if things begin to go badly.

I’ve been lucky, in that I’ve rarely confronted what a close friend once called ‘child-haters’ in public; you know, the people who give you the stink-eye when you push your stroller into a cafe or buckle your child into the airplane seat next to theirs (though I once endured the latter for the duration of a 45 minute flight, my heart breaking as Wonderbaby endeavoured gamefully to catch the eye of the evil bitch sitting – stiff and miserable and plainly hostile – next to us, refusing to return Wonderbaby’s smiles.) And I didn’t really encounter any hostility during our recent trip to Montreal – a city that is, in parts, decidedly child-unfriendly, notwithstanding its candy-distributing elderly and shops full of cute sock-monkey hats. Not really.

I did encounter fear, though. And it was almost as discomfiting. Maybe it was more discomfiting, because I didn’t know how to respond. It was more discomfiting.

It was at breakfast, at the continental breakfast served, gratis, to hotel guests in the Hotel le Germain’s fine dining establishment. Wonderbaby and I were such guests, and we were determined to avail ourselves of the pain du chocolate and crepes and espresso drinks on offer. I knew, given the style of the hotel – this a hotel so hip that I mistook the bellhops, trendily scruffy and clad in black and leather, for members of my husband’s TV production crew – that we would encounter a dirty look or two from disgruntled patrons expecting to have their peaceful breakfast ruined by a manic toddler. But I didn’t care. Wonderbaby and I had every right to our breakfast, and were determined to have it. And I had every expectation of Wonderbaby’s good behaviour: she loves restaurants, and cafes, and is usually so pleased to be ‘having coffee like Mommy’ that she can be expected to sit, working, very seriously, a tiny espresso cup full of milk and a cookie or croissant, for extraordinary lengths of time.

But my confidence in her good behaviour did not change the fact that what the hostess saw, when we walked in the restaurant, was a three-foot tall potential menace, clutching a soft, odd-shaped lovey.

She was unflaggingly polite, I’ll give her that. But the fear coming off of her was palpable. Was this creature going to hurl croissant everywhere? Would it emit loud noises and pour milk on the floor? Did she, the hostess, have time to put away all the china before the creature moved into the room? I half-expected her to ask whether we wouldn’t prefer to eat in our room. And the truth of it was, I was so thrown by the look of panic on her face, felt so badly for her obvious terror, that had she indeed asked us that question, I very probably would have retreated. I recovered quickly enough, though, and took charge of getting ourselves seated and escorting Wonderbaby to the spread of food to select something more substantive and healthy than the pats of butter that she had expressed interest in having for breakfast, with a side of milk and sugar cubes. And as I did, I got angry. and frustrated, because the hostess’s fear had made me feel ashamed in way that no child-hater’s hostility ever could. I could feel her wide, worried eyes on our backs as we toted our latte and milk and croissant – Wonderbaby carrying the spoons – back to our table, and felt self-conscious in a way that I almost never, ever do with Wonderbaby. I could feel the weight of her expectation that some disaster was imminent; I could feel it outweighing my expectation that the worst that could happen was a little spilled milk, and was keenly and shamefully aware that her definition of disaster might very well include spilled milk.

I wanted to feel angry, but I was having trouble faulting her. She was, after all, remaining polite and helpful and as superficially welcoming as she could be under the circumstances. I can’t demand that someone be happy and comfortable in the presence of a toddler, any more than I could demand that others be happy and comfortable in the presence of any person who is different – less attractive, less able, less youthful – from themselves. I might wish it were so – I do wish it were so, in that optimistic, eutopian corner of my heart – but I can’t make anyone feel differently than they do. All that I can expect is that is they behave tolerantly. And on that front, she was impeccable. It was just, you know, the fear in her eyes.

How can one get angry about the look in someone’s eyes?

That experience stayed with me for the rest of the trip – even after a few more breakfasts in the dining room with charming waitstaff who cooed over Wonderbaby and who held not the slightest trace of fear in their eyes when she insisted upon carrying her own plate of croissant to the table. It stayed with me as we explored the city, causing me to hesitate in the doorways of art galleries and to avoid entering the swankier boutiques. And I hated that. I hated that I had absorbed some of that young woman’s fear, some of the belief that children can be fearsome (they can, of course. But only their parents truly understand the parameters of this fear, and know that whatever fear they can inspire should have very little bearing on the carrying forward of our lives and life in general, including life in nice shops and restaurants.) I hated that I was feeling – if only a very little bit – ashamed of my insistence upon bringing my toddler everywhere with me.

Wonderbaby can be a handful – she can be an army of handfuls – but she is, to put it politically incorrectly, a good girl. Not all children are this, I understand, but I choose to believe that most are. And I choose to believe that most parents are skilled at managing their children, and prudent enough to make wise decisions about how and when to escort them in the public spaces that – here’s the political philosopher in me – they need to participate in if they are to grow up with the social skills that underline good citizenship. They can’t learn how to behave in public – how to be meaningfully and positively social – if they are confined to daycares and playcentres and the company of other children exclusively. They need to spend time in the public sphere – in as many corners of it as possible – if they are to learn how to flourish there.


And, I suppose, they need to learn how to cope with the fears and intolerances of others. Wonderbaby seems to be doing better on this count than I am.

(Apropos of absolutely nothing that I’ve said here, except for, maybe issues concerning justice and mealtimes: have you seen what we’re up to over at the League of Maternal Justice this week? It’s meaty. Check it out.)

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    { 81 comments }

    heels January 29, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Sadly, it’s my HUSBAND who has this fear of our son in public places, even though our son is wonderful and charming and so well behaved. The problem is that, when my husband is around feeling so high-strung about all of this, my son somehow senses it, and is less and less his otherwise fabulous self. I’ve tried to explain to my husband that he is creating a problem from nothing, and that even if our son made a mess or was “too noisy,” we could fix it or leave and it’s NOT THAT BAD.

    And really, what’s the worst a kid could do? It’s not like he’s whipping off his diaper and crapping on the table.

    Sabrina January 29, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    I have that fear of taking my little one to certain places. It’s completely unjustified since she is a good baby. I think, for now, I’m allowed to be afraid of a potential meltdown (since I’m still fairly new). I’m getting better at it. I still cringe a little, but I’m beginning to have more faith in her ability to not freak out and my ability to parent.

    About the woman on the plane- I get it. There was a woman like that behind us when we were in line to see Santa. Eliana smiled so much and just wanted this woman to smile back, but she never did. In fact, she made mad, grumpy faces the whole time. I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s the mark of a bad person.

    Kate January 29, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    I’ve worked hard to raise portable, functional, presentable children, myself. It takes them only a short time, maybe a year and a half or so, to learn that while they can get away with certain lapses of behavior at home, their public behavior will not embarrass me. I’ve proven that I will actually leave, or whatever the appropriate response would be, because I’m a firm believer in natural consequences for behavior.

    For anyone’s behavior, really. You behave badly in a public place, you’re asked to leave. It’s just that when it’s with your mother, you run the risk of a permanent blog entry, too.

    kittenpie January 29, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    I say the same about children in the library – they should be able to come, I want them there, but their parents have a duty to teach them how to behave properly when they are there. There exist different codes of behaviour in different places and circumstances and, as you say, they need to learn those things to be able to be in those places and circumstances as grownups.

    Maddy January 29, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    I’m tempted not to comment, especially reading the other comments where all mums [and presumably dad's] are doing their very best to raise ‘portable, functional, presentable’ children [I just love that]

    I suppose all I would say is that on the whole, American people are much more accepting of children in public and in restaurants than they are in the UK.
    Best wishes

    ewe are here January 29, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    We had a flight attendant on our recent trip across the pond who took one look at our wee boys and just grimaced. Child Hater, without a doubt. And she continued to give us grimacing looks throughout the flight, even though our boys behaved beautifully, absolutely beautifully. It really ticked me off.

    Alisonian January 29, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Longtime lurker, first time commenter. I work in a restaurant; one that even has crayons and a kids’ menu. And even though I love children (longtime babysitter, former nanny, cousin to many, sister to one, aunt to one), sometimes I grimace when a child of WonderBaby’s age comes into the restaurant. More often than not (sadly), a child at one of my tables means more work for me (picking up the crayons/fork/food/etc. when the child drops it, sweeping the detritus of cheerio crumbs or spilled scrambled egg, or over the weekend, VOMIT), and it often means less tip since kids’ menu prices are dirt cheap and kids’ drinks are free. I’m far from a child hater, but there’s also a reason I don’t have children. I’m sorry that the hostess made you feel unwelcome, and I strive not to act that way at my job. But it wasn’t personal–some children ARE nightmares in restaurants. Thanks for raising one that isn’t.

    Ree January 29, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    How sad that people act this way. If I were to have a youngster next to me on a place, I would relish the time that I have to play with the child and share smiles rather than sit and worry about everyday things facing me.

    Jaelithe January 29, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    This reminds me a lot of this time my husband and I took our son to a very trendy sushi restaurant in the city. We had actually taken him there once before, but it had been as part of a large birthday party group with reservations, and I suppose under those circumstances he had gone mostly unnoticed.

    This second time we took him there, though, the waitresses did indeed look at us with terror in their eyes. And I found it so FRUSTRATING, because my son is quite seriously the best behaved three-year-old I have ever seen in a restaurant 90% of the time. (I mean, aside from the fact that he won’t eat anything unfamiliar, but that’s none of the wait staff’s concern.)

    When we’re out at a restaurant, my son sits without a booster seat. He doesn’t rock his chair. He doesn’t get up and try to run around the place.

    He orders his own food, politely, saying please and thank you. He uses napkins. He heeds requests to quiet down. He doesn’t break the dishes. He doesn’t scream or cry.

    And he acts like this BECAUSE we take him to restaurants. We take him to restaurants, therefore, he knows how to behave when at a restaurant. (And, he knows that if he doesn’t behave, I WILL take him out to the car and wait there until everyone else finishes their meal.)

    Anonymous January 29, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    I had an experience on the other end of the spectrum this past weekend. My friends and I, all in our twenties, unmarried and childless, went to a cafe for brunch. We knew before hand that it was a popular spot for young families and very kid friendly. The place was absolutely full of toddlers doing their thing, which was fine, but we were placed at the table next to the play area. I admit that I grimaced and commented to my friend that I thought we should give the table to a family with kids. I know one of the mothers heard me, she caught my eye and gave me a smile that was tinged with an apology and fear. I immediately wanted to retract my statement or explain or apologize for making her uncomfortable. Unfortunately you can’t adequately do that in a public place so I am doing it here.

    I wasn’t afraid of the kids. Nor were they bothering me in the least. I am just not used to children. It is not the children I fear but my own behaviour around them. They were at elbow height. I was drinking hot tea. I was terrified to move my chair for fear of hitting one of them.

    You say that children need to spend time in the public sphere to learn how to interact with society and I agree with you. Unfortunately not all the members of the public know how to interact with them either and the acceptable learning curve to pick up such skills is much kinder to the children than it is to the adults.

    I can understand why you are angry on your child’s behalf, but not all the childless are childhaters. Sometimes the fear in our eyes is for our own shortcomings not your shortstuff.

    Anonymous January 29, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    Ack, I am afraid that I may have been the “bitch” beside you on a flight…But in fairness to me (or if it was not you, I am now concerned someone else feels this way about me) however I was flying to my dying father and looking at a happy toddler was too painful for me.
    We all have our baggage to carry

    Laura January 29, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Your post has captured my feelings exactly. As a new mother to a ten-month old, I too feel that sense of right and responsibility. I don’t want to give up the things that I enjoy — going to museums and restaurants among them — and I want her to learn how to behave in these places and society in general. Thank you!

    slouching mom January 29, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Amen.

    Redneck Mommy January 29, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    I love fine dining. My grampa used to take me to swanky hotels and restaurants with the express purpose of teaching me etiquette and social skills, starting when I was a wee toddler.

    I loved it, and I have continued this tradition with my own children, even Bug who was happily oblivious to most of his surroundings.

    Sadly, I have received the stink eye you write about.

    But more often than not my children are complimented for their social graces and their manners.

    (What people don’t notice is I tie them to their chairs…Wink, wink.)

    Great post Catherine. As usual.

    motherhood uncensored January 29, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    People judge based on their own experiences. That’s not just when it comes to sweet little ones coming for breakfast.

    There are certain places I wouldn’t take my kids right now (mostly Drew who is a holy terror) because when it comes down to it, it’s not enjoyable for me at all.

    But I hate when people assume that when they see a kid get a little “rammy” that it’s due to bad parenting. Kudos to you for being able to control your one year old. Just because I can’t doesn’t mean I suck as a person and a parent.

    Roz January 29, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    I’m so sad to hear that you came away from Montreal feeling that it’s not terribly child-friendly. Only having lived here a year, I’ve been delighted by all the options we have here. Clearly, the hostess’ vibe really stuck with you. You so could have gone into whatever boutique or gallery you wanted. Old Montreal being the tourist trap that it is, is filled with polished shops, but had you come in the summer, you would’ve seen the place brimming with families.

    I must have to admit to feeling the fear for the wait staff myself, and embarrassment at bringing my toddler to a hip establishment. I shouldn’t, I know, but sometimes my girl is that messy kid that gives all the others a bad rep.

    I must give props to Restaurant L’Avenue in the Plateau though. It’s a hip and popular eatery especially busy at breakfast. I cringed going in there once, but the wait staff were so much cooler than I was, despite the greasy fingerprints on the high-backed black vinyl booth.

    I actually avoid restaurants somewhat because of these experiences, but by the sounds of some of the comments, I guess I should be trying all the harder to get out there.

    Hope you can come back again and find some of the family-friendly spots. Summer is especially fab.

    Her Bad Mother January 29, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    Alisonian – I totally get that children can create more work for waitstaff. Which is why we ALWAYS tip extra well when we’re out with the WB. Which is also why I couldn’t, in good conscience, get angry with the hostess in question. I was more angry at my shamed reaction, and the general state of things where children are more often than not unwelcome.

    I get that kids can make people uncomfortable in ways that don’t translate into child-hating. But I’m convinced that if more parents felt confident enough to move about in the grown-up world with their kids, so that more children spent more time in such public spaces, fewer people would be uncomfortable. And with good reason – because the more accustomed kids are to being in such spaces, the less reason there is for discomfort.

    Unless they hurl poo, in which case, all bets are off.

    moosh in indy. January 29, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    It seems to me that child haters forget that they too were once fit throwing menaces to society.
    Having been raised by a “child-hater” I am overly cautions about the moosh’s behavior in public. It has served me well for the most part but has caused a lot of useless anxiety.

    bubandpie January 29, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    My husband is very uncomfortable taking the children anyplace that is not clearly designated as family-friendly. He was horrified when I suggested we might bring the children along to an open house, for instance, but they loved it so much (their only transgression being some over-enthusiastic enjoyment of the echo effects in an empty attic) that I’ve been taking Bub through model homes every Saturday afternoon lately. You can’t convince hubby to do it, though – he stays home with Pie while she naps.

    Linda January 30, 2008 at 12:10 am

    But, with some children, that look of fear is justified. I have done everything humanly possible to help my four-year-old daughter learn how to behave in the public sphere, but there’s a disconnect there. She doesn’t listen, she doesn’t care if she’s disruptive and doesn’t want to please her parents (or her kindergarten teacher). As a result, we try not to take her out very often. It’s not fair to others, to us, or even to her. When we do go out, we plan for a quick errand and know that we may have leave promptly (and feeling embarrassed). WonderBaby sounds delightful; some children are not. I say this as a mother who fiercely loves her child, but knows that life with her — especially in the public’s glare — is very challenging.

    MommyTime January 30, 2008 at 12:39 am

    This is so articulately written that I almost just want to say, “yeah, what she said!” It can be tricky to find the right public places in which to help train one’s children how to behave in public — and for us right now this is particularly so with restaurants (though that doesn’t keep us from them). With two kids (ages 4 and not quite 2), it’s a lot to manage the behavior and volume and eating and manners AND do any eating ourselves. But we try it every weekend anyway because we want our kids to learn how to behave in restaurants, so we pick the very child-friendly, and we over tip to compensate for the mess on the floor, and we try to go out to lunch rather than dinner. You do the best you can, and if in general it’s obvious that you have strong standards and the kids are trying to learn to meet them, then you are doing good work.

    Gry January 30, 2008 at 1:36 am

    Urgh, I feel for you, I really do. I am personally awkward around children and didn’t really think I’d have any of my own. Now that I do it really stinks when people treat your child as something that’s contaminated.

    Luckily I haven’t had that happen in public, but last summer I had a friend over who brought her girlfriend along, and the girlfriend just wouldn’t pay any attention whatsoever to my daughter, no matter how much my daughter wanted to interact. No “Hi” even at the door when they arrived. That really pissed me off. I mean, she’s a member of this family too, you know? You don’t just walk into someone’s home and ignore a member of the family, do you?

    *sigh*

    Anonymous January 30, 2008 at 1:48 am

    Well said.

    Jozet at Halushki January 30, 2008 at 2:17 am

    Adults are far more capable of far more obnoxious behaviors. And that’s not even starting with their miserable cell phone etiquette. At least children come by it honestly.

    Oh to have put on my wedding invitation “no loud wives, no surly boyfriends who get drunk and more surly, no new girlfriends who wear fur, no cell phones, no husbands who tell offensive jokes, no bitchy dates who dis my mom’s dress, etc., etc., etc.”

    But no…we relegate children to miniaturized, sanitized, day-glo la-la worlds and wonder why they are so amped-up and fearsome to all when all we feed them as a society is junk culture.

    Anonymous January 30, 2008 at 6:18 am

    We all live life on different sides of a myriad looking glasses. Here’s my perspective, from someone who does not have children but really, really wants to have them.

    I admit that sometimes I don’t return a toddler’s smile on a plane or bus. Because it’s embarassing to sit on your own making silly faces; because their parents might think you inappropriate; because I don’t have children and frankly it makes me sad; or, I admit it, because once you start pulling the faces, small children don’t want to stop, however long the journey. Stopping = crying, and nobody wants to be the person who makes a child cry.

    Doesn’t make me an evil bitch.

    As for intolerance towards childen in public places… I think the presence of children enhances a place. But sometimes, on a bad day, I might grimace, though I’d always try to conceal it. The reason? Truthfully, I’m jealous.
    Sometimes parents with their lovely young children can seem smug (though I’m intelligent enough to know that they probably aren’t). And the fact that they have these beautiful children AND enjoy expensive/hip establishments… well, on some days, it seems they have so much- everything- and I resent them. The parents, not the children. This is totally my issue I know. But it’s a different perspective.

    Life can be tough and complex for those without children too.

    nomotherearth January 30, 2008 at 6:42 am

    I must admit I was surprised at the commenter who said that they just didn’ know how to act around children and so was uncomfortable. They’re people. You don’t have to ‘act’ any way around other than you would to other people. Except maybe they’re a better audience than most people – they smile and laugh more freely than adults. I’m not saying this as a mom. I felt this way before kids – and I didn’t grow up with any experience with kids other than the occasional babysitting gig.

    You can’t expect kids to behave in public if you never take them out of the house.

    landismom January 30, 2008 at 7:06 am

    Great post.

    Avalon January 30, 2008 at 10:01 am

    I love toddlers. If I could change my career, I’d probably become a pre-school teacher. I tried to raise my own daughter always to be well-behaved and polite in public as well as at home.

    However, if I decide to go out to a non-family style restaurant for a meal, I too grimace at the entrance of a family with a toddler. Not because I don’t love them, but because it seems that many, many families don’t seem to care about raising well-mannered children. Or about subjecting the innocent public to both their own and their children’s lack of self-control.

    They are probably the same people talking on their cell phones at the movies, and allowing their children to race around the store tearing items off the shelves.

    When I do have an opportunity to witness a really sweet, well-behaved child, I try always to compliment the parents on their efforts.

    Her Bad Mother January 30, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Just to be clear, the evil bitch on the plane wasn’t an evil bitch solely due to the fact that she wouldn’t return WonderBaby’s smile – she was giving us dirty looks and leaning away and just emanating irritation and hostility. It was made PLAINLY clear that she was well fussed at having a child next to her.

    Which to me is – or is experienced by me as – evil bitchiness. If she behaved that way toward an elderly or disabled or ethnically different person seated next to her, we’d all be appalled, wouldn’t we? Well, I was appalled on behalf of my child.

    Her Bad Mother January 30, 2008 at 10:11 am

    Also… Linda, I fully recognize that children can be holy terrors. Wonderbaby certainly can (read back a few posts to the day I burst into tears in a Zellers because she went hyper). A responsible parent, like yourself, like me (on good days ;) ), knows her child well enough to know when and if certain kinds of outings are possible. If they’re not, we don’t do them.

    What I wish is, that the default assumption with children and families would be ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Adults act appallingly, too – sometimes, I think, more often and to a worse extent than children do. But we generally – most of us, I think – assume that adults will behave themselves, until they don’t. Why don’t we view children in this way?

    Kate do Forno January 30, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Well said – as a young woman planning on having children in the near-ish future – as a young woman who is a part of a ridiculously loud family with many many children (believe me when I say many) your post encapsulates what I have been brought up to believe. It is our repsonsibility to socialize our children, it is our repsonsibility to ensure they become considerate, thoughtful, even generous citizens and your post speaks to everything I’ve been mulling around in this brain of mine while my husband and I plan for our future lovelies. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I was happy to read as I’m happy to read everything you post.

    Cheers….

    Mrs. Chicky January 30, 2008 at 10:37 am

    I’ve tried to make my daughter as portable as possible once she came out of her colicky phase, and some times during that phase. As good as she can be, and usually is, I’ve gotten dirty looks in family friendly restaurants… And I gave them right back. But I have to admit I’ve seen these looks enough to now be very cautious when I bring the little one out. It shouldn’t be that way.

    Hannah January 30, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Fantastic post and really interesting comments, too. I’m liking how respectful everyone is being as they express their opinions.

    Hubby and I do take Isaac to restaurants regularly, because we are big believers in exposing him to all kinds of experiences where he can learn how to behave under different circumstances. We do tend to take him to family-friendly restaurants (and we tip big, to compensate for the extra work for the servers) but this is mostly because when the budget will run to a fancier establishment, we want to be able to take our time over our meal and talk about adult things.

    Oddly enough I used to get the look of fear far more often when we’d go to a restaurant with a sleeping baby in the carseat carrier. Or I think I did. May have just been my perception because as a new mom I was so conscious of other people’s scrutiny (I’ve since gotten over that, thank you very much). I’ll be interested to see what happens when this baby arrives and we still go out to lunch or dinner as a family.

    Laural Dawn January 30, 2008 at 10:56 am

    This was an interesting post.
    I have an almost 4 year old, and what we do and where we go depends entirely on his mood.
    I have gotten the stink eye or the look of fear from people, and I really want to say “I’ll leave if he can’t handle this.”
    And I do. If we’re having a rough day we order pizza we don’t attempt a nice restaurant.
    And if we do go to a nicer restaurant (and by that I mean Jack Astors!), I have absolutely no problem getting up and walking out with my son to give him a “time out” if he is not behaving.
    Sometimes I think the attitude is not so much toward the child but pre-judging the parent.
    And, here’s the thing. If I’m on a date with my husband and I see a family with kids who are behaving I’ve occasionally gone over and said something because I think sometimes you need to hear it.

    Miss Britt January 30, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Well said!

    It is amazing to me this trend of child-hating that sees to be becoming so prevalent. I always think to myself, “YOU started off as a child once too, remember?”

    The Super Bongo January 30, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I’m wondering if your comments should be directed at those parents who have worn out every bit of good will from the public.

    I get so frustrated when I see parents NOT ONLY ignore their terrorist . . . but actually participate in the child’s meltdown. I literally have seen parents amuse themselves by teasing their children to the point of wailing while waiting for their very expensive meal to arrive.

    I always return smiles and flirtations from delightful children. . . and I smile and compliment parents in public nearly everyday . . . but by the same measure, when I enter a nice restaurant and can hear a child shrieking . . . I have asked to be seated “as far away from THAT as possible.”

    I think that if you are running into people who believe that you don’t have the right to bring your child anywhere you go have run into one too many parents who believe that they bear no responsibility for insuring that their children behave in such a way as to not annoy everyone within a 100 yard radius. Or they’ve run into too many parents who believe that they can control their child by publicly screaming at it or beating it.

    baby in the city January 30, 2008 at 11:09 am

    Well, you know how I feel about parenting in public….

    In all fairness, I wouldn’t be surprised if the young woman (let’s assume she is childless) saw you – a woman who is clearly pregnant, entering a restaurant with a little toddler, and unaccompanied by a husband/dad/partner or other type of reinforcement – as a frightful scenario. But not for her to wait on, but to possibly be in your shoes one day. I think loads of women give us others the stink-eye when the kids start to strobe because they feel embarrassed for us, and frankly that embarrassment is real, as a parent, you gotta power through it and kinda get your sea legs about it. But for childless people, I understand that they think it must be the most horrifying thing to be the parent of a toddler on a tear. The judgment is not of the kids, it is of the parents. Not better, I know, but….

    linda January 30, 2008 at 11:16 am

    “What I wish is, that the default assumption with children and families would be ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ “

    Oh, yes! I didn’t mean to sound like I was disagreeing with your post. I think it was well done. I was just sharing, er, venting, a bit about what it’s like to have a child who rarely “behaves nicely” and how disheartening and frustrating (and simply exhausting on every level) that is.

    Anonymous January 30, 2008 at 11:44 am

    catherine i am so sorry that that young woman made you feel so uncomfortable….and i can”t say it better than you how if we expect our children to behave in public we need to expose them to differnt places they can’t be expected to live their whole young years SEGRECATED to child freindly places only…and children are people too.LAVANDULA

    Her Bad Mother January 30, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Linda, I really do know all too well. When Wonderbaby is on a tear, we avoid public places. We call her Wonder Jeckyl and Baby Hyde – she’s either a complete angel, or a holy terror.

    That said, though, she’s pretty predictable with cafes and restaurants because she regards them as a treat. We’re very lucky for this, I know. ;)

    Jozet at Halushki January 30, 2008 at 11:52 am

    There is no excuse for forming one’s negative reaction or attitude or beliefs about an entire group of humans based upon an experience or multiple experiences with any other person who happens to bear some characteristic in common. There is a word for that. The soft word is “prejudice”. The harder words end in “ism”.

    Fill in the blanks in this sentence:

    I have met so many __________ ( group of people) who have behaved in this negative fashion, and so every ________ (individual from the same group of people) I meet from now on, I also expect to behave in the same negative way. My first reaction is always suspicion or fear or discomfort at the thought of being near that person. They must always now first prove themselves; it is each individuals job to make me less fearful of the entire group.

    Now fill in the blank: Spanish speaking immigrants, PTO moms, black teenage boys, mentally handicapped people, elderly women, Democrats, Born Again Christians, Muslims, rednecks, rich people, women, men, etc., etc., etc.

    Putting “toddlers” or “parents of small children” in that blank is hardly different.

    That we are human and understandably – though not justifiably – our first reaction is fear or anger or frustration or suspicion – even if based on experience – all still puts the ownership of the problem squarely in our own lap. In my humble opinion.

    Her Bad Mother January 30, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Jozet: DITTO. And, THANK YOU.

    baby in the city January 30, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Just to be clear, I am, of course, on your side. But I really don’t see it as so cut and dry as people being prejudicial. If it is, then I guess I’m prejudiced against myself and y own son because my face goes red and I am horrified (scared, frustrated, suspicious and angry) all the time at my little boy in public (like when he flings food across a restaurant) BUT! Instead of vowing never to go out again, I’ve learned how to apologize to strangers and then not feel bad about it.
    See, for me, when I read “they need to spend time in the public sphere – in as many corners of it as possible – if they are to learn how to flourish there”, what I add to that from my own point of view is that parents need that experience, too, and for the same reason.
    For me, that is what I read in your post – it takes practice and you need to build up a way of doing it: dealing with idiots, dealing with toddlers on a tear, travel, wrangling…it is all hard work, emotionally and physically.
    I think the only way to become good at it is through experience and that means – just like, say, exercise – that you gotta keep doing it.
    But it IS hard and I don’t think you can blame people (prejudging them all as childhaters, not that you are, but I think that is important to stress) for being a little taken aback by what children are capable of.

    mothergoosemouse January 30, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    After having a second child, I rarely notice the reactions of other people. I’m focused on ensuring that my children are behaving themselves.

    Considering that my own mother gets uptight over having to share space with children in restaurants and on airplanes, I’m not particularly concerned with whether my children are living up to others’ standards – merely Kyle’s and my own.

    Her Bad Mother January 30, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    BitC – I totally hear you: in fact, my closing comment was intended to communicate my feeling that I need to pay closer to the lessons to be learned having my child in the public sphere. Such as, don’t get tits in a knot at someone’s palpable fear of children.

    That said, I do still firmly believe that there’s something a bit wrong with prejudging all children as potential trouble. (Just as there is with prejudging all non-smiling adults as child-haters.) Adults can be even bigger trouble – I’ve been more embarassed by my stepfather in public than I ever could be with WB on her worst fit-pitching day, and probably more often. But if we all walked into certain restaurants together it’d be WB who’d cause the eyebrows to raise in the first instance.

    There’s no question that kids can sometimes be fearsome – you know that I know this too well – and that some parents can be negligent in wrangling. But as Jozet suggested, isn’t there something problematic in this being the default assumption made by society at large? We wouldn’t accept it if it were applied to any other group, would we?

    Jozet at Halushki January 30, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    Yes. I think that there is a difference between reacting to an actual action/behavior, and *assuming* a behavior/attitude will happen before it happens based upon some past experience with people who look “like that”, i.e. young, old, rich, female, etc. but before the behavior even happens.

    With the latter, of course, there is still room for misunderstanding and lack of compassion, as well as varying definitions of “acceptable behavior” based upon everything from cultural differences to personal whim.

    However, in layman’s terms, it’s “innocent until proven guilty.”

    On the other hand, I think that the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy is something to be considered both as a parent of a rapscallion and as, let’s say, a waitperson at Applebees. *Sometimes* just going into a situation thinking, “this is probably going to suck really bad” can affect whether the spilled milk looks like the 2 oz that it is or like Lake Superior; whether it seems like the whining toddler is an afraid, inexperienced human whose sleep schedule is off because of the trans-Atlantic flight, or a spawn of Satan who should be ditched over Greenland. Of course, with the latter, both could be true at the same time. Or maybe this kid really does turn out to be the spawn of Satan. Again, innocent until proven demonic.

    However, often I find, too, that with a little introspection and meditative or lateral thinking – and possibly a lot of caffeine/booze and thinking about new shoes – my emotions and comfort level as aren’t entirely at the mercy of someone’s else behavior as I first thought they were. I think Yogi Berra said that once. I still vent about bad behavior, sure. But I try – *try* – to extend the person a good long silken rope before I hang them. (Go me.) And so appreciate when that rope is extended to me.

    (Sorry, HBM, for writing novels in your comments. But this is a hot button issue for me, as well. I have to go iron laundry, now, so I’ll give you back your blog comments, lol.)

    AdventureDad January 30, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Good points. I believe strongly in this, we’ve flown across the world many times with our young kids and eaten at countless restaurants.

    The key, I believe, is to adapt to the environment. At McDonalds a child can make a small mess and scream a little while in the play house. It’s ok. But go to a nice place and you better make sure your toddler can behave. Eating in a nice place with misbehaving young kids is extremely rude and unpolite IMHO.

    Sometimes our kids have a bad day and don’t want to sit still. I then take them outside or somewhere else where they don’t disturb people who are enjoying a nice meal. I think that’s just common courtesy.

    Problem is many parents just let their kids sit there and scream without doing a thing. The amount of shit parenting today is just off the charts. That annoys the hell our of me and every other peron I know. If a parent tries hard to make the kids behave I’ve never seen anyone get upset about it. On the contrary, other childless people tend to be very helpful and understanding when they see someone trying.

    Summary: Be a responsible parent and adapt to the environemnt. I call it freedom with responsibility.

    Anonymous January 30, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    All this talk about not prejudicing the children and adults can be just as bad or worse encapsulates my worries about children in public. I admit to not being so afraid of the children as of their parents. On the whole children are a friendly, amusing, joyful bunch who want to interact with people. If they want to interact with me, I’m less concerned about what they’ll do than what I might do to upset the parents. For example you mentioned getting candy from passerbys in Montreal. I would definitely not have been one of those people. While you clearly took it in the kind spirit it was meant, many other parents would not. And this is no slight on anyone’s parenting skills. They are your kids and lord knows if I had kids I’d be so protective it would make their heads spin. I mean, it’s your precious cargo. I’ll confine myself to a smile and a bit of a grimace if the kid keeps trying to get my attention. Unfortunately I’ll be offending someone either way I go, but c’est la vie. Bottom line, it is an awkward situation for the childless as I’m sure it is for those with children. That’s not to say you should stop taking your kids in public. Maybe we should all learn to be a bit more comfortable and understanding of each other.

    Robbin January 30, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Ooooh. You and I are of a mind.

    Harry is bright and inquisitive. He is never destructive. I use my common sense regarding where I take him, but I remember when my parents took us out to a nice restaurant as a respite after Katrina, and we took him with us. He was TWO MONTHS old. He did nothing but sit in his carseat, and I couldn’t have taken him to a sitter, anyway. All of the sitters we knew were scattered across the country in evacuation. We still got some hostile stares, despite the fact that he slept the ENTIRE time.

    When we flew to Orlando, the woman who occupied the seat in front of Harry turned to me before she had even sat down and said, sharply “I realize he’s just a little boy, but PLEASE tell your son NOT to kick the seat.” Not only had he not been kicking the seat (she hadn’t even occupied it yet), but his legs were too short to have TOUCHED the seat.

    The joke was on her. Her seat companion offered to swap seats with her to take her away from my presumably rude child, which put her in front of my seven-foot tall husband. When she tried to lean her seat back, he leaned forward and very sharply said “Excuse me, please do not slam your back into my knees.”

    ByJane January 30, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    And I choose to believe that most parents are skilled at managing their children, and prudent enough to make wise decisions about how and when to escort them in the public spaces

    Would that this were so, the issue wouldn’t be such a hot button. But the fact is that some parents are not skilled at managing their kids and lack the desire/energy/prudence to make the requisite wise decisions. For me, the fact that children have personhood does not give them equal rights to adults. Parents love their kids, but that doesn’t mean they’re universally loveable. It’s a shame that the hostesses’ fear had such an impact on you. Consider, however, what experience went into creating that fear. Accord her the same consideration you’re asking for. Do the same for the woman on the plane who didn’t respond to your child. You’re asking the world to respond to your child as if life hadn’t happened to all of us. A little empathy would go a long way.

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