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Why We're So Worked Up Over Kids in Restaurants

Who lets their toddlers cry in a restaurant? And what kind of business owner yells at a baby? Since the story of Marcy's Diner owner Darla Neugeberger screaming at a 2-year-old girl broke last Tuesday, the incident has been a topic of Facebook feuds among people who don't even know the family or the restauranteur.

I'm not surprised. It seems that every few years, a news story involving young children in restaurants stirs the slowly simmering argument over whether toddlers should be allowed to dine out. Five years ago, I wrote a blog post in reaction to an article on Salon debating whether parents should take small kids out to eat. Titled, "I Have a Double Stroller and I'm Not Afraid to Eat Out," I explained why moms with young babies need to eat, too. My occasional sushi lunches with a mom friend were rare moments of sunshine during the bleary newborn days of spit up and diaper changes. It drew many comments, including readers saying they were afraid of people like me.

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Early last year, the news story about a couple who brought a crying 8-month-old to exclusive (and expensive) Chicago restaurant Alinea sparked lots of debates about the limits of dining out with children. But nothing has sparked the level of bile generated by this latest incident in Maine.

While it might be easy to assume that the two sides of this argument align along the lines of parents vs. non-parents, that's not what I've seen. Many of the people cheering on the diner owner are parents themselves. My kids would never do that, their stance seems to imply. I'd get a sitter and leave my babies at home, they say. Of course the restaurant should serve my kids, we're paying customers, others may say. But Marcy's Diner is not Alinea, and if the family was on vacation, wouldn't it make sense that they'd need to take their 2-year-old out to breakfast, too?

Whatever your beliefs, parenting and meals are extremely personal, and when other people don't agree with our mores, it can feel like our way of life is being criticized.

The restaurant industry has changed a lot since my childhood. My mother-in-law likes to tell the story of entertaining her oldest son with sugar packets the first time they brought him out to dinner. He was 1 year old. People ate out less frequently then, and when they did, it was more of a luxury.

Fast forward 40 years and most families have two working parents—even stay-at-home moms are expected to drive carpool, serve on the PTA and volunteer in the classroom—making restaurant dinners a convenience. While some parents might have the extended family or the budget to pay for a babysitter every time they want to eat out, not everybody does. By the time my kids were born, I didn't know anyone who waited a full year to take their babies out to dinner. The lines between fine dining and fast food had blurred, and the family-friendly options continue to multiply. Strollers fill the lobby of casual restaurants, which serve buttered gluten-free pasta with broccoli florets.

Maybe all this debate about whether toddlers should eat at restaurants is really just another way society is trying to figure out what constitutes a "good" parent and who gets to define that. I sense a yearning for the days when parents weren't afraid to discipline their children, and kids weren't entitled brats.

The whole idea of leaving youngsters at home reminds me of the saying that children should be seen and not heard, a notion that seems to be most common in upper-class European traditions, something not everyone shares. For some parents, dining out is a way to teach kids manners and expose them to different cuisines and traditions. In many Asian cultures, it's very normal for families to take their children out to eat. There is more of a culture of casual fare and also the belief that the energy (and even the noise) of youngsters is unbridled innocence and brings joy to others. Whatever your beliefs, parenting and meals are extremely personal, and when other people don't agree with our mores, it can feel like our way of life is being criticized.

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There's some room to try to see things from different perspectives. After all, we are imperfect, human, still learning. And so are our children. A few weeks after I wrote my blog post in support of eating out with kids, my then-4-year-old had one of those public meltdowns that made me want to slink out of the restaurant unnoticed. Actually, my husband did take our son outside, while I shoveled our mostly uneaten lunches into Styrofoam clamshells and settled the tab.

So, should babies go to restaurants? There's not always an easy answer, but the question isn't going to go away.

Image via Grace Hwang Lynch

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