Waiting at a sandwich joint for a magazine interview, I was looking over my notes as a young mother with little blond twins – probably two years or less – took up residence at an adjacent table. Their two-seated stroller, piled high with jackets, provisions and blankets, only lacked a team of huskies to be ready for the Iditarod.
Ensconced in two high-chairs, the girls got to work. A small plush Elmo hit the floor under the table, along with a tiny pink plaid pillow, a Sesame Street board book, and a minute plastic toy bottle. A baby doll in its own pink plaid bed and miniature pacifier presided on the tabletop.
Mom left the table to pick up a salad, a bag of chips, and a piping-hot bowl of macaroni. She divided the chips and macaroni between the girls on two plates, and left again to grab a wad of napkins. My feature notes forgotten, I wondered what responsibility I bore as an adult bystander as one of the girls plunged a utensil into the macaroni and slowly maneuvered a massive, steaming spoonful toward her mouth.
The little girl spat out the scalding macaroni with remarkable calm, a soft splutter sending the creamy pasta rolling down her shirt and onto the restaurant carpet, where they splatted to rest beside Elmo. As Mom seated herself and dug into her salad, the girls scattered potato chips into a table-top archipelago. Soon, Mom produced a huge, candy-studded cookie and broke it in half. Instead of taking bites of the cookies, the girls pressed them vertically into their faces, the better to gnaw the embedded M&Ms off the tops. Crumbs peppered the table-top, the carpet, and the long-suffering Elmo.
It was all over surprisingly fast. Mom lifted the girls, who began to wail at the injustice, back into the stroller. As she strapped them in despite the protest and gathered their toys, a small, heretofore unseen black-and-white plush monkey hit the floor. I picked it up and handed it to her as she passed. She took it wordlessly, pushed the stroller through the door, and was gone.
I assume parents are still human, despite their responsibility for little beings who, while not noisome, are certainly noisy. I’m sure parents like to go out and have a tasty salad for lunch like anyone else. No doubt their children gain valuable socialization as well as sub-par nutrition through visiting restaurants.
We could have gone on indefinitely, quietly tolerating the noisy presence of youngsters almost everywhere, but for a stalwart restaurant owner near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Fed up with parents who will not remove their screaming kids, owner Mike Vuick of McDains restaurant and golf club banned all children under six. There are some who appreciated it: one article reports that his business has risen 20% since he instituted the rule. But he’s also raised a veritable firestorm in the world of parents, children and consumers who want to enjoy what they’ve purchased in peace.
I participated in a recent debate over the public presence of children when my former employer, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, considered reversing its policy banning all children under seven from the premises. The original policy was in place because the city apparently declared that the site would be hazardous to anyone under five, and museum staffers assumed many parents would disregard this warning and dissemble about their five and six-year-olds’ age. (The staffers were right: if they had set the policy at five years old, there would undoubtedly have been an epidemic of unusually small five-year-olds, instead of suspiciously young-looking seven-year-olds.)
I thought the original policy was nothing short of brilliant. As a tour guide, not only was I relatively free from questions on murder, incarceration, abuse or the death penalty from the under-five set, I also experienced remarkable peace of mind knowing that absent-minded parents’ toddlers did not have access to the broken windows, crumbling walls, rusty metal protrusions and flaking lead paint of the dilapidated 19th-century prison.
But then, possibly motivated by a desire to educate the world’s preschoolers on American penal history, or a growing sensitivity to the potential loss of revenue and visitor traffic occasioned by families who went elsewhere upon learning of the child ban, or parents’ general convenience, Eastern State Penitentiary reversed the policy to welcome all ages, even offering free admission to the littlest ones.
Some employees thought we were on the brink of an unprecedented form of workplace hell, with strollers, diaper bins and wailing babies added to the tours we gave in the dusty, un-climate-controlled, centipede-ridden prison, which was already crammed with avid fans of TV shows like “Ghost Adventures.”
Sure, I had the frequent joy of delivering midsummer tours about architecture over a chorus of sweaty three-year-olds’ miserable howls. And once young children were admitted to the site, I witnessed more explosive vomiting in a few months than I had in my entire previous life. But in truth, life went on with far fewer child-related crises than some of us had anticipated. I often skipped the death row segment on my elementary school tours, and we all seemed to adapt pretty well.
So I feel qualified to discuss the effects of barring or admitting children. I’ve recently spent time on a few progressive mommies’ blogs which denounce what they deem “child-hate” or “child-bigotry”. These writers claim that many traditional manners required of children, as well as complaints against the public presence of children, are the last bastion of a socially acceptable apartheid: innocent children, to whom we should strive to be friends as well as parents, suffer from adults’ intolerance.
I’m not on board with the children’s civil rights movement. Children are the only marginalized group I know of whose suffering is invariably solved simply by letting a few years go by (sometimes even less time than that, with good behavior).
A public service message I recently watched while waiting at an Amtrak station also comes to mind. In the film, spunky, authoritative canines sniffed suitcases, and upright citizens phoned security to report abandoned bags.
“Remember,” counseled the voice-over, “there are NO suspicious people. Only suspicious behaviors.” No racial profiling, I think Amtrak means to say: for someone to be considered a security risk, one must observe specific troublesome actions, not the rider’s apparent race, age, sex, nationality or religion.
Same goes for children. They’re not barred from certain establishments because of who they are, the way African Americans were barred from many businesses for decades. Children are barred because of how they often behave.
Child-free areas remind me of local efforts to control destructive non-native species. Do we bemoan the proliferation of stink bugs, European starlings or pine beetles because we bear natural hatred against these species? No. It’s because these and other imported species, having gotten in where they don’t belong, cause expensive crop damage, crowd out ecologically crucial native species, and can even destroy the landscape. I know, it’s probably a poor analogy, since the poor bugs, birds and beetles can’t improve their behavior, while growing children can, with time. And no squalling child ever felled the pine forests of the Rockies. But the fact still stands that some creatures aren’t welcome in some places, because of what they habitually do. Reporter Jim Durkin, for wxpi.com, quotes Vuick: there’s “nothing wrong with babies, but the fact is you can’t control their volume.”
I don’t resent children for their lack of ability to modulate their voices or stand still for thirty seconds at a time, or their penchant for wailing loudly without warning or apparent provocation (I was a child once, and so were you). I just want to be able to spend occasional leisure time out of earshot of children, if I so choose. I think that establishments – especially those with a bar, like McDains – have the right to delay the welcome for a few years, in order to cater to adults, their targeted customers. In the meantime, there are plenty of places which cater happily to young families. Parents who think their bundle of joy should be entitled to go anywhere, at any time, despite the amount of noise the kid is making, are being as childish as their poor screaming toddler.
Of course children should be able to act like children, and be loved prodigiously. But I think a few calm and quiet child-free spaces should be a privilege of adulthood, especially when customers pay a lot of money to enjoy a movie, a play or concert, or a nice dinner. Honestly, in some cases, a ban on young children is a favor to the child as much as the adults. Eastern State Penitentiary was well within its rights to exclude the youngsters – both for safety reasons and for the reason of catering to the customers who are most interested in architecture, penal history, and “hauntings”: adults. Are there really any Pennsylvania four-year-olds who are stricken by their inability to eat at McDain’s for two more years, when Chuck E. Cheese’s is open for business?