Once upon a time, a café in a trendy Chicago neighborhood posted a sign at child’s-eye level: “Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven.”
Offended local parents (apparently) boycotted. Other grown-ups (certainly) verbally spanked mothers who failed to control their precious little scone-hurling vilde chayas. Social warfare ensued.
Is this story a microcosm, a portrait of a world of Moms Gone Wild? Or is it a symptom of “child-free” people’s intolerance of children being children? Or is it merely a tempest in a grande no-fat no-foam half-caf latte?
The tale of A Taste of Heaven got much attention when it ran on the front page of The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, though the Chicago Tribune ran a similar piece back in September and Time Out Chicago ran an item on the controversy way back in May. (Predictably, The Times didn’t credit the earlier stories. But I understand they’ve been busy over there, throwing goodbye parties for Judith Miller and all.) The Times clearly wanted this story to represent A Big Trend, and (or perhaps “so”) it made some egregious mistakes about goings-on in the Andersonville neighborhood in the process. The estimable Chicago Reader, a local alternative weekly, did a great job detailing the errors and overstatements. The upshot: There’s no organized boycott against the café. The male clerk at a nearby feminist bookstore who supposedly kicked out a mother for breastfeeding did not, in fact, exist. (The store didn’t have any male employees at the time.) The bookstore does not, in truth, eject kids for standing or talking during story hour. It simply asks parents and caretakers of kids in full chaleria-meltdown mode to take the children out of the circle until they calm down. Two of the three moms quoted in the piece (the last has not weighed in since the piece appeared) actually said they support the right of the café owner, Dan McCauley, to post his sign. They agree that parents should teach their kids to have good restaurant manners and respect. One of the moms posted on a Chicago Tribune blog that all she’d said was she was scolded by a server when her baby cried for a few minutes.
So the story’s not much of a story. But the aftershocks of The Times piece were very real. People acted as though the moms quoted were the bearers of Satan’s own sippy cup. One received a multitude of threatening, insulting e-mails and phone messages. Someone told her she didn’t deserve to be a parent. Another ordered her and her “breeder friends” to go to hell. The article became the most e-mailed piece in The Times that week, and the Internet filled with spittle-flecked, furious posts about an epidemic of horrible parents and monstrous children.
Here is a printable comment: “Some snotty-nosed kid wiped his boogery [sic] hand on the counter of a coffee shop I was in, and did his Trixie-mom do anything about it? Clean it up? No. She was too busy yacking on her cell phone, guzzling her latte, all the while ignoring her bratty kid.” And: “I don’t have children, but I get sick and tired of going out to eat at a nice restaurant and having to deal with loud, unrully [sic] snotty-nosed brats running around like wild animals while I am trying to enjoy a nice, quiet meal…. We need to bring back the times when parents actually parented, and could spank some butts when they misbehaved.”
Ooh, the fury! Granted, there are plenty of kids running amok and plenty of annoying parents who turn a blind eye. My heart sinks when I walk into an R-rated movie at 9:15 p.m., after hiring a baby sitter, only to see little kids climbing over the backs of the seats and using their Outside Voices. I’ve seen far too many parents who won’t say “no” to their kids, who smile indulgently when their child hurls handfuls of Veggie Booty and runs headlong into waiters’ legs. On the other hand, I’ve gotten the fish eye in synagogue, on Purim (the most raucous and kid-friendly service of the year) when baby Josie cried at the grogger noise before I’d even had time to whisk her out of the sanctuary.
Besides, plenty of people who huff, “My children never behaved that way!” are delusional. (I’ve listened bemusedly as parents have explained their zero-tolerance policies while their child is methodically smearing melted Gruyere on a wall.) And even the most delightful kids lose it occasionally. All humans have a learning curve. A 6-year-old learns to behave in a restaurant by being taken to one as a 3-year-old. It’s like Driver’s Ed: You study the booklet at home, but you really learn to drive by getting out on the open road. (And when your wee one still has only a learner’s permit, you don’t let them drive on the autobahn; you don’t take a preschooler to Le Cirque.) But children
deserve to learn that eating out is a pleasure and a privilege. Dining only at Chuck E. Cheese’s won’t teach them that.
I actually think The New York Times’s story is only partly about real parents and real children. It’s also about gentrification and coexistence. Andersonville, said my Chicago pal, Staci, who lives nearby, is a very diverse place. It has a huge gay and lesbian population, and “its very being is predicated on open-mindedness and diversity,” she said. “It’s sad that this story has given an inclusive, wonderful area of Chicago a bad rap.” The narrative reminds me of what happened here in New York City’s Chelsea, where I lived in the early ’90s: Gay hipsters moved in and revitalized a slightly down-at-heel area, arty straight people followed, and then — let the breeding commence. It is a story of yuppification and its discontents, resentment over encroaching perceived-bourgeois values and increasingly expensive real estate, annoyance that people with kids don’t just move to the suburbs.
The café owner was hailed as a folk hero. Very few people commented on his dismissal of moms who objected to the sign as “former cheerleaders and beauty queens” with “a very strong sense of entitlement.” There’s something unnervingly misogynistic about that comment. The most permissive parents I know (gay and straight!) are crunchy hippies, not former homecoming princesses. As Staci (whose kid, I note, is beautifully behaved) said: “There’s something aggressive
about that sign. It immediately tells me that the expectation is that my kid is bad and I’m doing a bad job as a parent. He has a right to post it, but I have a right not to patronize a place that doesn’t want to make me feel comfortable.”
Hey, Josie certainly has been carried out of a few restaurants screaming in her day. But she’s learned (mostly) how to behave. And we all have to do our part. We parents can ease our kids’ way by going out early, before restaurants are crowded and kids are tired; by bringing a few small distractions like crayons and sticker books, and by making sure our kids aren’t bouncing off the walls with low-blood sugar before we leave the house. Other diners should make the distinction between normal-kid and monster-kid behavior, and show a modicum of tolerance. And when everything works, as when Josie tucked into her first fresh, homemade plate of tagliatelle at an East Village restaurant recently and her eyes widened with astonishment and delight, it’s a total shehechiyanu moment. Josie focused on that pasta like it was the Tanach and she was Rav Kook.
Food is sacred. Eating is a communal activity. And experiencing fresh, wonderful food that you can’t get at home (since I would no sooner make my own pasta dough than perform my own root canal) is a joy that kids should earn.
So I ask everyone: A little civility on all sides, please? If you see a mom doing her best, give her the benefit of the doubt. If you see your own kid fondling every calamari tentacle on the antipasto table, assert yourself as a parent and teacher. Hey, all the world’s a café.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.