A few weeks ago I received this tweet: “F*ck you parents for bringing your kids out to dinner.” Ouch! I pitied the poor phone that took the brunt of those angry fingers. Mind you, I suppose assaulting a keypad is slightly less awkward than bawling out a small child who’s stuck his Hot Wheels in your Confit of Duck.
I have no idea what really happened to prompt that tweet, but anyone who has dined out with children know it’s a situation that can test the mettle of the most Zen of parents. Let alone the patience of fellow diners whose entrée can often be accompanied by a side order of tantrum with a hint of dirty nappy.
The restaurant is just one place where children collide with the childless. According to numerous opinion pieces, planes, hotels and public transport are over-run with unruly ‘brats’ whose self-serving parents have no interest in disciplining their offspring. In her piece for the SMH, Fenella Souter bemoans, “flash mobs of yummy mummies” and parents who have “a sense of entitlement operating that’s nothing to do with the kids”. Souter throws her support behind a push to ban children in certain places because, well they’re “annoying.”
And it’s not only oldies peddling ‘in-my-day’ aphorisms. Jonno Seidler, a 24-year-old writer, says he notices the under tens are everywhere, “every time I get on a plane I manage to be sat next to a child who refuses to sit still or stop screaming and my cafe is teeming with them”. Parents may want to include their children in the community, but it seems the community doesn’t necessarily feel the same way.
To be fair Jonno has a point. If children are increasingly getting up your nose, it’s not just because modern parents have backbones with all the fortitude of jelly. Activities once reserved for the cashed-up have become infinitely cheaper. The rise of low cost carriers, airline industry deregulation and the explosion of fast food outlets mean more people are out and about enjoying cheap eats and thrifty flight prices. “More people” includes families with young children. The knock-on effect is an exponential increase in the number of small people kicking the back of your seat on the six-hour flight to Bali.
Yes they’re noisy, yes they’re messy but they’re also enormous fun and have the ability to make your day significantly brighter if you engage with them.
But is it true children are more badly behaved than ever before? That we’re living in the era of the Kindergarchy: a place ruled by teeny-tiny despots who oppress the grown-up masses with an insatiable desire for chocolate ice cream and the constant threat of a super-sized meltdown.
Clinical Psychologist, Mike MacDonald doesn’t think children are inherently worse, but he suggests that expectations around children’s behaviour need to be reasonable, “it’s important children learn how to behave in public spaces. It takes time and children won’t get it right at the first attempt.” Although difficult behaviour can be testing for parents and other patrons, MacDonald believes socialising in the community is a necessary part of a child’s development, “it’s how they learn what is acceptable. It provides the foundations for maturity and ensures they can behave appropriately as they grow older.”
If we want future adults to be well mannered, respectful creatures, a supportive coexistence with children is something we should view as an investment. So while nobody wants a two-year-old cannon balling peas at them in a Three Hat restaurant, is it too much to tolerate an excitable toddler for 20 minutes at your local coffee house? Unfortunately, plenty of people think it is and spend entire breakfasts fighting the urge to tip a plate of free-range eggs on a child’s head.
You see, intolerance is the natural default position here and parents know it. Walk into a crowded café with your kids and you might as well proclaim you’re about to spit in everyone’s orange juice. Heads bow, eyes roll and people cross their fingers, hoping against hope you won’t sit anywhere near them.
This reaction is more problematic than you might think. Negative body language from others immediately puts parents on edge. The meal is dogged by tension and stress before it’s even started. Jittery about the child’s possible behaviour, parents become overly fussy, anxious and impatient; conduct guaranteed to light the fuse of a preschooler who feeds off attention (good or bad) like a starving dog. You might not realise it, but that exasperated sigh could be the catalyst for a situation that may easily be avoided by a simple welcoming smile.
Despite widespread perception, parents aren’t narcissistic idiots. We simply want to do nice things with our kids. We don’t feel we have a right to bulldoze our way through your childfree existence with a mountain of day-glo toys, however it’s likely that doing things as a family will include sharing space with other people. Do you like going to to the park or the museum or riding on the train? So do we. If you opt to walk your sabre toothed pit-bull, ride your bike at 30km/h or swear loudly while we’re in the local park, guess what? We’re expected to suck it up.
We’re not masochists either. Funnily enough we don’t consider trying to contain a small child in a busy place a heap of fun. Most of us accept we have a responsibility to chose venues wisely and plan our travel sensibly. It would make such a difference if people ditched the misanthropy and accepted children as part and parcel of everyday life. Yes they’re noisy, yes they’re messy but they’re also enormous fun and have the ability to make your day significantly brighter if you engage with them.
As for banning them altogether? Okay, so where does the thin end of that particular wedge lead us? Locking the elderly out of supermarkets? Fining learner drivers for dithering at traffic lights? Whipping mobile phones out of the hands of braying executives? Instead, perhaps we could advocate a bit of tolerance. “Hell is other people” as Satre once said, but life would be a whole lot nicer if we opted for a positive sense of inclusion rather than a place where everyone that’s not you should be out of sight and out of mind.
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