Children in public places (and as public goods)

So there’s been some discussion in various places of an article in the NY Times about a coffee shop in Chicago that put up a sign saying “children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven.” This dovetails with something else that I’ve been thinking about lately.

Not long ago I was flipping through Bitch Ph.D.‘s better rants and came across this post about children. Dr. B makes the argument that children are members of society, not public goods. I have to admit that I’m guilty of the “children are public goods” argument. Actually it’s my default argument when it comes to discussing public policy and children, particulary when my audience happens to be of the child-free crowd or libertarians arguing for the total privatization of education. This is not to say that I think children are only public goods. As Dr. B makes pretty clear, that would be distinctly anti-social of me. But people who hate children, or hate providing support for other people’s children, aren’t likely to be swayed by moral societal arguments. (Note, by the way, that I don’t mean to imply that all of the child-free folks hate children, but people who hate children are an important subset to whom policy arguments need to be addressed). I firmly believe that even if you hate children and think they are little embodiments of satan who have no place in society, that you are still obligated to provide support to them and their parents in the form of family-friendly public policy. Why? Sure, I suppose one could argue that there’s the moral obligation to deal with fellow humans in ethical ways. But more importantly, though utterly cliched, children are the future. Today’s children are tomorrow’s workforce and tomorrow’s criminals. There are lots of really good reasons to invest in children. And most of those reasons can be cast in terms of public goods, even if perhaps they shouldn’t be.

That aside, though, back to the question of children in public spaces. As someone who doesn’t have children, and who, at the present time, has no intention of having children, I find myself sometimes having a hard time figuring out what the appropriate societal and policy lines between children’s rights and adults’ rights are. Public space is a particularly vexing issue for me. I know that I should be supportive of children in public spaces. Socialization is good for children and, by my own public goods arguments, things that are good for children are ultimately good for society and me. And of course, besides that, children are people and should be treated as such.

This means that, for instance, I should be perfectly fine with well-behaved children in restaurants. Nonetheless, last spring I found myself at a table in a restaurant next to a table with two relatively well-behaved boys who were about eight to ten years old. They weren’t particularly loud, but they were loud enough for their conversation to easily carry to our table and somehow their voices were just grating enough that I wasn’t really able to cope and I ended up making a very snarky comment about their presence to my dinner companion. I said it in what was meant to be a whisper but was apparently loud enough for him to think the parents could have potentially heard. In my defense I was tired, overwhelmed, and dealing with a death in the family. Still, I was mortified by my hostility, and even more disturbed to find myself rather hostile to children present in other public spaces. I have become one of those adults who winces when I walk to my gate at the airport and note the presence of members of the pre-school set.

The truth is that though I recognize the right of children to be present in society, all too often I wish they weren’t. I have great respect for parents who have well-behaved children. I also have a great deal of sympathy for parents who want to spend time out in the world and can’t afford babysitters. But I also really like the idea of being able to go out for dinner without having to worry about whether there’ll be a temper tantrum two tables over (not that temper tantrums are absent among adults, but they’re less common).

In general I’m very supportive of policies that make life better for parents and children. I’m all for family leave. I’m all for employer (or public) subsidized child care. And I’m theoretically all for the right of children to participate in public places. But I do think that parents have a responsibility to make sure that their children behave in ways that are acceptable to the spaces their children are in. If we’re going to argue that children have a right to be in public space because they are people and we have to deal with people in public spaces then shouldn’t we also be willing to accept arguments that children should have to abide by similar rules to those followed by other people in the space? There’s the example of children running and throwing themselves at the display cases in the coffee shop. Wouldn’t an adult doing similar be asked to leave? What about the kid lying in the way of the coffee line? Wouldn’t we be perfectly justified in asking an adult blocking a line to at least move over? I honestly think we do a disservice to children by assuming that they are incapable of behaving in reasonable ways. Sure, everyone has bad days, kids included. But part of growing up is learning how to behave in ways that are consistent with the norms of the setting. Is someone really going to argue that that’s a bad thing?

I’m not sure what the balance is, really. On the one hand as an adult without children I think that I really ought to be able to go places and spend my money on food and coffee without having to deal with screaming. Let’s note that I’d be just as irate if the screaming came from adults (there is, after all, a reason I avoid sports bars). I like quiet. But I also firmly believe that we as a society need to integrate children better and be more supportive to parents. I suppose it makes me a hypocrite to wish that we could integrate children better somewhere else, doesn’t it?

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