Sounding off at kids

17:00, May 25 2013
Time and a place: Rangiora’s Artisan Cafe is purposefully child-friendly but even Auckland’s Soul Bar will try to serve children quickly because ‘‘you can’t expect a kid to sit in a seat for 30 minutes''.

At a table in a giant Auckland shopping mall, a small red-headed boy is finishing off his McDonald's lunch, a smile and a fair amount of chocolate sauce on his face. His name is Fraser. He is chattering about his intentions to go to Disneyland and to Chipmunks, and occasionally sings.

Fraser is nearly 5. Perhaps it's the sedative effect of those takeaway fats and sugars, but he seems an extremely well-behaved child.

It's not always been that way, says his mother Julia, who'd rather not give her last name. "When he was smaller we had complete meltdowns in KMart and Farmers, with him lying on the floor. Worse that that he was swearing - using language he'd acquired somewhere."

At their worst, the tantrums lasted up to 10 minutes, and Julia would sling Fraser under her arm like a rugby ball and get out of there.

"The tantrum would carry on in the car, but at least it was private and contained, without everybody staring. I was thinking of other people."

The sentiment wasn't reciprocated. No one ever offered help.


As all parents know, young children can be ghastly, liable to unleash deafening shrieks if their broccoli touches their mashed potato or if their socks feel funny. They also like to sprint down supermarket aisles, knock over adults' glasses of wine and ask why the lady over there is so fat. Babies scream.

Parents have to tolerate all this because they made the child. Strangers, however, aren't always so accepting. Which explains why last week, when pot-stirring British broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson took to Twitter to say babies on planes should travel in the baggage hold, his sentiment was re-tweeted 3000 times.

There's been a flurry of anti-child sentiment in the news of late. In February Mount Maunganui's Providores cafe ejected a mother and her four-month-old son because he was crying. A shopping mall in Sydney has posted signs saying screaming children will be asked to leave. Remember too that back in 2006, a submission on New Zealand's "anti-smacking" bill claimed children were "born with a sinful nature".

You've got to wonder. Is ours a society that just doesn't like children - and especially in public?

It's certainly seemed that way to Julia at times. Not long ago she was at the supermarket in the St Lukes mall with Fraser's younger twin brothers, and an old man said "It must be benefit day. All the single mums are out with the kids in prams." (It's hard to disentangle the child-phobia from the misogyny and bennie-bashing, but it was unfriendly whichever way you read it.)

Another elderly man banged into the twins' stroller then told Julia she needed a licence. Others - especially older folk - just give disgruntled looks. Younger people seem more tolerant, and the kindest strangers are other mums who've been there.

Despite the snarls, the mall's a great place to take kids, says Julia, especially when it's raining. There's a playground, there's a creche if you need it, and there's plenty of room for Fraser to run around.

Could it be, though, that those snarling strangers are on to something? Has childrens' behaviour gone to pot?

Peter Biggs, the Kiwi-born chief executive of Clemenger BBDO ad agency in Melbourne, would say so. Around the world, says Biggs, children are getting away with being "needlessly disruptive" in public places.

Biggs, who lives in Melbourne and Wellington, does a lot of business in cafes and restaurants and frequently visits museums and galleries - settings where an uncontrolled noisy child can be seriously irritating and disruptive.

"We've developed a culture since the psychobabble of the 1960s whereby as long as people feel OK, then everybody's OK," says Biggs, "And I don't think that's OK."

Which means you don't see young people giving up seats on trains. There's an absence of basic courtesies in young people, a lack of respect for older people.

It means that if you're at the Tate Gallery in London, or the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, or the National Gallery of Art in Washington, there'll be utterly bored young children running around screaming, and older children roaming in packs.

His advice for parents: "If they're bored, don't bring them."

Biggs has four grown-up children, but when they were younger, he and his wife were "extremely prudent" about where they took them. "Sometimes as a parent you have to sacrifice your own enjoyment and make the choice to not go."

As for planes, Biggs knows infants and toddlers can be tough to manage, "but there is a sensible way to travel with kids". You take enough books and toys, and you teach your children self-discipline.

"We live in a child-centred age," says Biggs. "Children are not little adults. Children are children, and need to be nurtured but also trained in social skills."

Veteran parenting educator Ian Grant agrees - up to to a point. Forty years ago, says Grant, kids were still cheeky, but there was a stronger sense of community, so your neighbours would get involved and dob you in to your parents.

Yes, some children are allowed to be noisier than in the past, but that might be because parents are rejecting the rules from their own childhood.

"A lot of modern families like freedom of expression, because their parents were strict. We swing from one cycle to the other. Those people who were told that around a meal you just shut up and eat - now they want to have their kids talk, which is so important."

Some parents pacify their child in public with an iPad or smartphone, but Grant doesn't like this approach - it's telling the child they're an isolated individual, rather than part of a community, and that's part of the problem.

Grant believes the cult of individualism helps explain the lack of sympathy cafe diners show a parent who's struggling with a noisy child.

Sometimes, though, it's the parent who's selfish. Consider the classic annoying-child scenario - a kid is kicking the back of your cinema or aeroplane seat, so you gently ask the parent to put a stop to it.

"Some parents will stop it straight away, but there are other people who'll say, ‘What right do you have to say that?"'


Childtren have always been ghastly. According to Cambridge scholar Kenneth John Freeman, writing in 1907, the Ancient Greeks despaired of the younger generation's "bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders and a love for chatter in place of exercise".

Worse still, "they no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs". Sound familiar?

Barbara Lambourn, of Unicef NZ, believes there is a Victorian flavour to modern disdain for children in New Zealand.

"Attitudes are shaped largely by our Anglo-Saxon Victorian settler history - the idea that ‘adults rights and needs are more important and little children should be seen and not heard'. When children behave like children, and make their presence obvious through noise or exuberant behaviour, some of us can get very offended."

It wasn't always so in Aotearoa. An account by Samuel Marsden, who arrived in New Zealand in 1814, suggests that before the colonials started waving the Bible at them, Maori treated their children with great gentleness, and tamariki were encouraged to speak their mind around their elders. "Their parents are very indulgent, and [the children] appear always happy and playful and very active," wrote Marsden.

In Argentina, meanwhile, children are warmly welcomed in places we might consider adult-only. According to the American book How Eskimos Keep their Babies Warm, a survey of parenting around the globe, Buenos Aires parents take children to restaurants at all hours, and when tantrums strike, strangers and wait-staff help out, rather than point angrily to the door.

Then again, Grant says that he frequently meets new immigrants from China, Korea, South Africa and elsewhere, who tell him they're shocked by the permissive parenting they see in New Zealand.

Whatever your standards, Grant argues there's something to be said for teaching manners. Not only is it pleasing when fellow diners congratulate you on your beautifully-behaved children, but researchers say there's a statistical association between the acquisition of socially condoned "manners" and avoidance of criminal behaviour in later life.

Grant presumes the connection between saying please and not robbing banks is that "good manners teaches you to be aware of other people". Dysfunctional (ie, criminal) behaviour is based on "I feel and I act". Functional behaviour is based on "I feel, think, act". Manners are a codified way of getting children to do that crucial thinking about other people's needs.

Of course, if your child is mid-tantrum at a supermarket or running amok in a five-star restaurant, you're not worrying about their criminal future. You just want the immediate horror to end. And for that, Grant has some tips, which are largely about paying your child attention.

Non-parents can do their bit, too. Judith Tabron, owner of Auckland's Soul Bar and Bistro, doesn't go out of her way to make her restaurant child-friendly - there are neither highchairs nor crayons on the tables - but they still have a bit of a child clientele.

They're welcome, but one persistent screamer can upset 50 other paying diners, and Tabron knows which she'd rather lose.

Ideally, parents will take a screaming baby outside to settle down, but Tabron has never had to ask anyone to do so. She'll ask parents to reign in roaming offspring, but that's a health and safety thing, as waiters bustle about with hot food and trays of drinks.

Even adult-oriented restaurants need to recognise that children are often horrid because they're hungry, bored or both, says Tabron. So she tries to take children's orders early, and get the food out fast. "You can't expect a kid to sit in a seat for 30 minutes waiting for food."

The safest option is to to choose somewhere frankly family-friendly, such as Artisan Cafe in Rangiora, where there's a glassed-off play area surrounded by couches so parents can drink coffee in comfort and keep an eye on their little monsters.

"Mums are a big part of Rangiora," says general manager Maxine Goodman. "A lot of us have been mums, so it's nice to have somewhere that is child friendly."

Goodman reckons New Zealand is a child-friendly country. She lived in Canada when her own children were very young, and people were horrified when she tried to breastfeed in public.

Welcoming children to the cafe is good business. Parents know they won't get grumped at, and the kids themselves are valuable customers.

"Fluffies are a big thing."

Even Artisan accepts not everyone enjoys children's joyous shrieks. The cafe has two floors and downstairs is child-free.

The good news for all parents is that as children get older they get easier to manage. When Fraser was younger Julia simply took a nine-month break from taking him out in public because of the tantrums. That's long past.

Just recently, the whole family - Fraser, twins, Julia and husband - went to a pizza restaurant in St Heliers, and it went brilliantly. They had a giant bag full of colouring books and Lego. No food was thrown. The family got compliments from other diners about their well-behaved kids.

It wasn't exactly an adult dining experience, though.

"We got the timing right," says Julia. We went there at 3.30 in the afternoon, ready for a ten past four meal. That had a lot to do with it."

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