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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.
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.
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.