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Should Children Be Seen and Not Heard? Or Not Even Seen?

You’re in a nice restaurant, trying to enjoy your meal on a long-awaited night out with your sweetie. At the next table over, someone’s toddler has just spilled her fourth cup of water and started howling.

We’ve all been there: in the library, on a bus, at a restaurant, or perhaps worst of all on an airplane. A child starts misbehaving and getting all up in our space, and those lazy, neglectful parents do absolutely nothing to stop it.

If you’re a mom, you’ve probably been on the other side, too. Getting stared down by vexed strangers who seem to believe that you should know where the off switch is on this screaming monster that has suddenly replaced your kid.

On Feministe, one mom has taken up arms with a manifesto about how kids are people too. Jezebel hit back with some low blows about punctuation and some good points about child-free spaces.

My two cents on this: Feministe’s blogger, Maia, is right. In North America, people often seem to feel entitled to treat kids like they’re a public nuisance, an expensive hobby their parents took up. That’s wrong. Kids are people.

They’re people with needs very different from those of adults. And while it makes my blood boil to have someone be rude to my kids for making a little noise on an airplane, I think it’s quite reasonable to keep children out of bars and other clearly adult spaces.

As I said after causing a minor Internet ruckus about kids and air travel last winter:

I am one of those mothers. I’m a mom who believes that the well-being of our children is a shared responsibility of everyone. My kids are not an exotic hobby, or a bizarre lifestyle choice. They are little people with all the rights and privileges people are entitled to. Their emotional and physical well-being is in your interest as well as mine.

One of the most important points to be made here about kids being people is that their parents, particularly their mothers, are not their puppetmasters. If my kid starts wailing and throwing boxes of cereal in Aisle 7, I can’t just apologize and turn the volume off the way I can if my cell phone goes off in a crowded theater.

I can do my best to help her behave well; keep her well-rested and fed and entertained. But if she’s losing it, she’s just like any other person with a problem. What she needs is help. You’d never go up to a 25-year-old sobbing two tables away from you at a restaurant and tell them to be quiet; you’d either stay out of it or offer help. Kids deserve to be treated the same way.

Similarly, if a kid crosses a line with you, the thing to do is to gently hold the kid accountable. Politely ask her to quiet down, return your toy or get off your foot.

Generating a culture of fear around moms in public, that they’d better get those kids to shut up and act sweet or else, only serves to make us more fearful as parents. Frightened moms are stricter, less flexible and ultimately less able to handle stressful situations that crop up with their kids. Ease up a little, and the kids will have fewer meltdowns to begin with. Everyone wins.

The point is not that you should not have adults only space. Go ahead and rock the age limits on nightclubs, bars, what have you. But genuinely public spaces: shopping areas, public transportation, city streets, most restaurants – these spaces are for everyone. The kids in them deserve to be treated with respect.

Photo: Hassan and Mariko

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