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VOICES

Opinion Child-free restaurants? That's just insulting, we were all kids once

Niamh O’Reilly looks at the phenomenon of restaurants banning children.

RECENTLY, THERE HAVE been conversations in the ether about some restaurants sticking a ‘no kids allowed’ sign out front, much to the delight of some and the dismay of others (mostly exhausted parents, let’s be honest). 

Those in favour say it’s a relief that they don’t have to listen to two-year-olds’ tantrums or reruns of Peppa Pig on full volume, and shouldn’t they have the right to eat with friends in peace? For those against, this is just a strange move, given that restaurants are public places, and we were all children once, weren’t we?

Let’s call banning small children and babies from restaurants and cafés, what it is. It’s exclusionism, plain and simple, and it’s rarely ever a good road to go down. It wouldn’t be deemed acceptable for establishments to declare they don’t welcome old people for example, because their Zimmer frames might get in the way, or they might fall asleep into their soup.

And what about overweight people? They couldn’t be let in because they might not fit in the chairs properly and pose a health and safety risk.

It’s ludicrous. Yet because children are minors, it’s completely legitimate if eateries decide to ban them from their premises. Of course, there’s nothing enshrined in law to prevent them from doing so. Yes, we set laws for minors in other aspects of society, but have things really gotten so bad that there’s a need to stop infants and toddlers from being allowed into a coffee shop with their parents during the day or out for an early evening meal with their family?

A lovely looking new restaurant opened in my area recently. I Googled the menu and thought it sounded like a nice spot for an early dinner with the kids one weekend. But the restaurant in question does not welcome children under 10. Surely that wouldn’t apply to an early dinner at 5 pm, I thought? We’d most likely be gone by 6.30 pm. But I was wrong. Day or night children under 10 are not welcome. Anecdotally, I’ve also heard of coffee shops declaring themselves child free and restaurants not allowing children in during lunchtime hours.

adults-only-in-liverpool-merseyside-uk-22nd-july-2014-children-denied-access-to-al-fresco-summer-eating-_hot-weather-dining-alfresco-except-for-kids-sorry-no-children-outside-or-inside-sign-at Adults only in Liverpool, Merseyside, UK. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

I get that adults want spaces for grown up chat and food. I get that adults, including parents, don’t want to listen to Bluey on full volume as they tuck into their steak and wine. And let’s face it, nobody wants to have toddlers doing the fandango between the tables while servers desperately try not to drop trays of hot food on their heads. As a parent of a four- and seven-year-old, I fully appreciate the bliss of being out in a restaurant in the evening time after my kids are in bed — 8 or 9 pm. The sheer luxury of eating a meal I haven’t cooked is so rare these days, I appreciate it even more.

But in the same vein, I don’t enjoy listening to a loud, obnoxious, or inebriated table of grown adults next to me, or people taking selfies of their nosh or loudly live streaming their entire meal on their phone, but then there’s not too much I can do about them is there? It’s not like I can ban annoying or loud adults from restaurants and cafés, just for being loud or annoying, is it?

Balance

To be clear, I think small children under the age of six shouldn’t be in restaurants past 9 pm, but most small children that age are in bed by that time anyway, so it’s a redundant argument. No, it’s almost as if there’s something more unpalatable going on behind this undercurrent of anti-child and anti-family sentiment. It’s as if there’s this idea that children are something to be tolerated. A scourge or blight we have to endure, rather than understanding that children are people; people we all were once.

Yes, even you who hate the idea of sharing an eating space with a toddler. You too were a toddler once. You too had meltdowns over insignificant things like the wrong colour Sippy cup, broke your parent’s heart in the process, and cried when out and about. The world didn’t stop turning and people still managed to enjoy their food.

asianlittlegirlisplayingipadtabletinvintagecolor Shutterstock / A3pfamily Shutterstock / A3pfamily / A3pfamily

I fully accept that sometimes babies and toddlers can be noisy (adults can too, by the way). And look, I’ve been that soldier. There was a short period when my first son was around 20 months old that we simply did not go out to eateries, even for lunch or coffee, because him sitting in a highchair for more than 15 minutes was like torture for him. On the rare occasions we chanced a lunch or very early dinner, we ate in shifts, gave ourselves indigestion and sometimes just had to get the bill and high tail it out of there. It was a rocky phase that passed, and we all learned from it.

These days we bring activity books and colours and try to use family meals out as a time to chat with the kids, rather than plonk a tablet in front of them and hope for the best. We don’t and have never allowed them to run around a restaurant like it was a playground.

Parents are people, too

I’d argue most parents of babies and toddlers are trying their best and they deserve to be able to eat out as much as anyone else. Yes, there are often better ways to entertain children than sticking a tablet in their faces, but sometimes chucking on cartoons is a necessary evil to simply get through a tough few minutes until things calm down.

What cannot be denied is that exposing children to socialising in restaurants and cafés is important for their development. They learn what’s acceptable and what’s not. They learn about small talk and get exposed to different foods, people, and the hustle and bustle of life. Thanks to Covid, my youngest didn’t get to sit in a high chair in a café until he was almost two and that was outdoors. Although small in the grand scheme of things, little regular interactions like this help to make up the building blocks of children’s life experiences.

childrenarenotpermittedbeyondthispointsignona Shutterstock / Look4What Shutterstock / Look4What / Look4What

As it stands, with nothing enshrined in law about children in restaurants or cafés, whether or not they are welcomed remains at the discretion of the owner. I don’t think pubs are ever places for young kids, but we do have clear legislation that children under 15 must be off the premises by 9 pm (10 pm from May to September). Instead of bans, would something similar work for eateries? Having children under the age of 10 off the premises by 9 pm doesn’t sound hugely unreasonable, but of course, what happens if there were family occasions or special events?

Like most things in life, this whole question comes down to two simple things. First is responsibility. Parents must take responsibility. It’s not okay to let your small children run around a restaurant or café as if they are limbering up for the Paris Olympics. The booths and couches aren’t slides at a play centre and running into servers carrying hot food and drinks is a one-way ticket to the hospital.

Common sense is the second requirement. You’re not going to roll up to McDonald’s and expect an atmospheric romantic meal for two, just like you’re not going to bring your smallies to Chapter One at 8 pm and expect them to sit down quietly like an adult, while you chow down on Michelin star grub.

Common sense often gets lost in this argument. But I’d also argue that children running in restaurants is few and far between. And if the sound of an infant crying or a toddler getting bored by the confines of their highchair or their tired parents trying their best to placate them bothers you that much that you can’t drink your coffee or eat your brunch without tut-tutting about how your experience has been ruined, I’d argue the problem lies with you and not the kids.

Niamh O’Reilly is a freelance writer and wrangler of two small boys, who is winging her way through motherhood, her forties and her eyeliner.

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