Toddlers in restaurants - a social battlefield
- 16 February 2011
- From the section Magazine
A new guide is aimed at parents who want to take their toddlers and babies to restaurants, but why is there such anxiety about little ones being in the same space as childless adults?
The continuous wail of two nearby infants, caterwauling at subtly different pitches, can be enough to disrupt the gastronomic experience of even the hardiest of diners.
And a similar level of stress can be suffered by parents with young children, as they garner irked looks from the childless group of adults two tables away.
Restaurants are refuges for many people, places where you spend money to be waited on and to enjoy a degree of relaxation. People without children go there to amuse themselves after a week of working hard. But at the same time people with young children don't stop wanting to have some sort of social life.
"Parents don't want to give up on going out. It's part of our culture. But there are times it does become stressful," says Katie O'Donovan, of parents website Mumsnet, who has two young boys.
Sensitive parents have a social sword of Damocles hanging over them. Many sit there aghast at the thought that the noise or behaviour of their children is about to spark upset at another table.
"There are people who don't want to sit next to families, particularly fashion conscious 20 and 30-somethings working off a hangover," says father-of-three Peter Harden, publisher of Harden's Eating Out With Babies And Toddlers, which was co-produced by parenting website gurgle.com.
The position of the non-child possessing diners is often based on the perception of some restaurants, at some times, as a fundamentally adult space.
"If I'm trying to have a nice dinner with an old friend, I will probably spend the extra money to get to a fine dining restaurant where I don't expect to see too many kids," says Laura Scott, author of Two is Enough: A Couples' Guide to Living Childless by Choice.
"If it's a pub garden I don't think anyone can take offence but in certain settings, particularly a high end fine dining restaurants you are taking a client or a date, you are paying that kind of money to have a peaceful dinner, there is less tolerance for the noise and chaos."
Comedian Arthur Smith feels much the same way.
"I don't think restaurants should bar children but if it's a classy joint, frankly, you pay to get away from them. You feel nervous saying it, but on the other hand, if the kid's chucking up over your pudding there are some limits."
Restaurant critic Giles Coren, who has just become a father, admits he may have been slightly intolerant of nearby noisy children during the past.
"It used to annoy me when I was sitting in cafes in the morning reading the papers."
Older children are usually fine, he says. The problem "is when they are three and they run around knocking down the waiters".
Whatever his previous stance, having had a child he now jokes that he will take her everywhere and expect that his role as a critic will give him protected status.
"My child will be going wherever she wants because no restaurant would dare to say anything."
The question of whether it's reasonable to take potentially noisy young children to an adult-oriented restaurant is a vexed one, says Liz Wyse, etiquette adviser at Debrett's.
"Traditionally it was considered bad form to do that, but we have got much more easy going about children and children going with you. The proviso is yes you can, but you have got to be hyper, hyper aware of the people around you and the social ambience. You have got to be on your mettle and ready to remove a child as soon as it starts causing disruption."
There are extremists on both sides. There are diners who don't want even quiet children in the vicinity. Then there are parents who are strongly averse to the idea their children ever need to be controlled.
"Some parents are under the impression that everything their children do is lovely and charming," says Wyse. "But if they are running around a restaurant knocking food off people's plates it isn't."
A survey of 8,000 people for Harden's and baby food firm Plum found 31% of parents with young children had been turned away from a restaurant or cafe.
The survey found that the best national chain restaurants for babies and toddlers were Giraffe and Pizza Express. Both have long-standing reputations as kid-friendly zones. But there are limits even in these places.
Juliette Joffe, founder and director of Giraffe, which now has 42 outlets across the UK, says the chain has always strived to accommodate families with young children.
"When we set Giraffe up there really wasn't anywhere at the time to take kids."
But the chain is now consciously trying to attract more adults in the evenings by allaying the classic fear expressed as: "Are there going to be a load of wailing kids there?"
"We are trying to make them more grown-up in the evenings," says Joffe. "We don't do balloons in the evening. The kids meal deal finishes at five. We don't get that many children in the evening. People perceive us as a kid-friendly restaurant, but we want to be a restaurant that is child friendly so the kids part doesn't come first."
It's mythology that other countries in Europe deal better with children, says Harden. Turkey is the only place Harden has been that seems to happily accommodate boisterous children in restaurants.
The setting up of sound-proofed rooms for those with babies and toddlers is probably a step too far.
In the end, the growth of both a consciously childless group wanting to have fun in peace and a class of parent who wants to continue with some form of social life means there have to be compromises.
For parents it's about making preparations, picking the right restaurant and then acting if the baby or toddler is causing excessive disruption.
"Most mumsnetters agree if a child is disrupting other diners its your responsibility to hoik them out," says O'Donovan.
"There are definitely examples of unfair treatment of parents, but mums are very cognisant that if they are taking their children to restaurants, they must get them to behave.
"Some even admit to getting annoyed by other people's children."