Baby not welcome at Akaroa B&B

COLIN ESPINER
Last updated 08:14 05/01/2014
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SUNDAY SERVE: Sunday Star-Times columnist Colin Espiner.
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CONTROVERSIAL: Babies are not always welcome.
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Colin Espiner

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OPINION: "You have a baby," the woman at the B&B we had booked said as we stood on her doorstep. Yes, we said. We do.

"You have a baby." The woman repeated herself doubtfully. We agreed. Yes. Our eight-month-old daughter was indeed a baby. And yes, we had her. With us. Was it a problem?

"I don't take babies," the woman added. "I never take babies here." This was news to us, since nowhere on the B&B's website did it mention anything about children not being welcome when we'd booked the place several months ago.

We tried to resurrect the conversation. She's a good baby, we assured her. Very good. Doesn't cry. Won't break anything. Can't crawl yet. Nothing to worry about.

It didn't do any good. "You didn't tell me you had a baby," she said. "Why didn't you tell me you had a baby? You never said you had a baby."

This was true. We hadn't mentioned our daughter in the booking, partly because we weren't sure at the time if she would be accompanying us to the wedding we were attending in Akaroa, but also because we hadn't thought it was necessary.

The accommodation was a self-contained old shearer's cottage on a farm. We'd brought a portable cot and everything else we needed. If we wanted to bring our baby with us, why shouldn't we?

"There's a creek," the woman said. She might fall in and drown. She can't crawl, let alone walk, we said. And we promise not to throw her in.

"I'm not insured for babies," she said. Insured for babies? We hadn't heard this one. Last time I read my travel insurance policy there was no mention of carrying babies as an excluded activity.

We all stood in silence for a moment, weighing our options. We had nowhere else to go. She had three nights booked at peak season rate.

"Well, I suppose there's nothing I can do about it now," she sighed, with all the enthusiasm of someone who's just chipped a tooth and has to go to the emergency dentist on a public holiday.

There was something we could do. We could walk out, climb in the car, and drive back to Christchurch rather than spend three nights in a cottage paying good money to be glared at by a woman who didn't like babies. So we did.

On the way back from our aborted holiday we replayed the conversation. Was it our fault?

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Just days earlier we'd read in the The Press of another couple with a seven month-old baby who had been asked to leave the Volstead bar in the Christchurch suburb of Riccarton because the bar had a ban on babies.

Should we have mentioned our baby when booking? Were we being over-sensitive? Do hosts have the right to refuse to take babies? Are we, as a society, as accepting of children in public as other countries? Who was in the right?

To answer this, we did what anyone taking the temperature on a social issue does in the 21st century. We asked Twitter. My post prompted online outrage, suggestions we take a complaint to Fair Go or even the Commerce Commission, and questions over whether the B&B's policy contravened the Human Rights Act.

We got several offers of alternative accommodation, some from other B&B providers concerned lest we think all providers in the district were similarly disinclined to accept young children.

Phil from Hawke's Bay posted that his homestay, Willow Lodge, was "good with babies and we also have cots".

Bronwyn from Akaroa offered us a bed in her "very basic batch". Boris from Auckland simply said: "well stuff them".

Enzedchik, also from Auckland, wrote: "Seriously? In 2013? I just don't get some people."

But SickBoyGrr, who seemed to have some inside knowledge, took the opposing view, saying we should have told the B&B about our child and that the only reason they didn't allow children was because of safety issues.

"Stream, verandah and visiting playful farm dog. They are very family friendly and great people," he wrote.

Yet since when did the presence of a stream, a verandah and a dog become grounds for excluding young children?

Would a hotel proprietor have grounds to turn away a family because their rooms contained open fires? Or electrical sockets without plug guards? Or even a bath? All of these things can be harmful if a parent is negligent. But is this really about safety? Or about what's easiest for the owner?

We portray ourselves to tourists as a family-friendly country but I'm not so sure. There are regular run-ins between parents and cafe owners, either due to noise issues or breastfeeding in public.

I've travelled pretty widely and in my experience most of Europe, America, and Asia, in particular, are more welcoming of children than New Zealand, sometimes to the point of being over the top.

Volstead appears to have had a change of heart on its baby ban, and now says it will accept anyone under the age of 18 up until 6pm. Yet a poll on The Press website found 70 per cent of respondents did not want babies in bars.

The argument comes down to two things: tolerance and safety. If there is a clear danger present to babies and children - be it physical, environmental, or emotional - then it's only right they should be elsewhere.

If there isn't, then it's up to the rest of us to show some tolerance. We were all young once.

The old adage "children should be seen and not heard" still has a ring of truth even if it is a bit old-fashioned.

Children should indeed be seen, and seen almost everywhere. It's up to parents to make sure they're not heard too much - in public anyway.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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