3 Aug 2023

Child's Play

It’s the school holidays and children are everywhere: in shops, trains, museums, gardens, restaurants, pubs. August is the great month for family days out and a good time to observe how both parents and non-parents deal with the challenge of children in public spaces.

British society is often condemned as being child-unfriendly, immured in its Victorian “children should be seen and not heard” notions, intolerant of the joyous noise and chaos that children trail in their wake. But increasingly, the pendulum has swung, and there is a greater willingness to embrace public parenthood, take children out and about, and to eschew the repressive, disciplinarian behaviour of our ancestors.

Undoubtedly, there are occasions when this new libertarian attitude can go too far. There are certain places and contexts when letting children run free and unbridled is just rude. The quiet coach of a train, for example, has a clearly stated purpose and people opt to sit in it for a reason, so that they can work, read or snooze uninterrupted. Importing children into this environment, unless they are docile and compliant, will inevitably cause resentment.

Similarly, visitors to art galleries, certain museums, cathedrals, stately homes etc may expect a certain quiet decorum, so that they can commune with the art or admire the architecture in comparative peace. Of course, there is no sanction on children in these places, simply an expectation that children will behave well, and visitors may experience feelings of irritation when they do not do so.

Many restaurants and cafés are child friendly. They do their utmost to accommodate children, providing highchairs, colouring books and toys. Waiting staff are welcoming, happy to interact with children, tolerant of their behaviour. As a result, there is generally a happy, noisy buzz, a few examples of rambunctious behaviour, the occasional tantrum. While many pubs and restaurants cater for families and encourage children it is reasonable to expect them to be adult-only spaces after 8pm. At the other end of the scale are the hushed and hallowed shrines to gastronomy, where the food and drink is revered, the waiting staff are unctuous and attentive, and voices are never raised. It is a brave parent who imports their children into such a space, and it is questionable whether such a restaurant would be the best choice for a family meal.

Many parents feel that there should be no limitations on where there they can take their children, and it is their right to take them into any environment they choose. They argue that no child will learn how to behave in public without some exposure to a great variety of places and they are therefore entitled to take children wherever they please. Some people without children contend that they have a right to child-free spaces where they can enjoy grown up pursuits, free of disruption and disturbance. It is a real challenge to steer an acceptable path between these two opposing views.

Ultimately, it is all about the parents. Children do not know how they should behave in a fancy restaurant or a quiet art gallery, and it would be ridiculous to expect them to understand the strictures of the adult world. Parents must be responsible for their children, balancing easy tolerance and the embrace of new experiences with an awareness of other people’s expectations and frustrations. They must be willing to take a rational view, to assess the situation, and to concede that sometimes their children are smashing the social norms.

Inevitably, there will be occasions and situations where it is the disapproving onlookers who are transgressing – reproachful looks in a child-filled restaurant or tut tutting in a child-friendly museum that is packed with intriguing dinosaur displays are clearly beyond the pale.  If you feel that other people are being unreasonably censorious about your children, perhaps try and mitigate the situation by audibly saying something like “Try and play a little more quietly Toby – we don’t want to upset the other people.” A remark like this might well assuage their antagonism and make them feel that they are being a little intolerant.

None of us wants to go back to the Victoria era, when children were excluded, repressed, disciplined and required to behave like mini adults. We understand so much more these days about how children grow and develop, and we’re all aware that they learn experientially ­– every adventure, accident and interaction is a step on the road towards adulthood and nobody would want to deny them these experiences.

No child is going to learn how to behave well in a restaurant, for example, if they are never taken to eat out. In many European cultures the notion of eating out in family groups with small children is much more ingrained, children are accustomed to the restaurant experience from earliest infancy and other customers are completely accepting of young children.

Always bear in mind that children who behave “badly” are generally feeling under-stimulated, ignored or bored. Do your best to counteract this by always travelling well-equipped with toys, colouring books, crayons, playing cards and so on. Listen to what they have to say and react promptly. Remember, zoning out and entering an adult world where kids are merely an irritating distraction, is always perilous. Understandably, children will react with fury and frustration and that’s where the trouble begins. You should not take your children out and about if you are not prepared to monitor them and attend to them.

As always, good manners dictate that you are both self-aware and observant on these occasions, and that you are alert to any signs that you (or your children) are impinging on other people’s space in a way that is unreasonable. Obviously, the notion of what is “reasonable” is subjective, for both sides of the argument, but it should be possible – in a spirit of good grace and tolerance – to reach a mutually acceptable compromise. 


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