by Michael Kabel

    The following sign went up in a bakery nestled within the toney Chicago neighborhood of Andersonville: "Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices." The store's owner explained he was tired of children screaming, climbing the support columns, and smashing themselves into display cases. After he ejected one upwardly mobile young couple and their rambunctious brood, the restaurant's other patrons erupted in applause. 

    The menus at a bistro in Cambridge, Massachusetts include rules about children using indoor voices and remind parents that there's "no lifeguard on duty" - a subtle clue that moms and dads should take responsibility for their children's behavior. Meanwhile, an online petition to establish child-free dining sections in North Carolina restaurants drew hundreds of signatures.  

    Kids act up in public - it's part of being a kid. Now childless adults are getting fed up, and some are insisting restaurants take steps to police their dining areas for out of control "brats."But is mandating behavior while inside a public place taking the matter a step too far?

Blaming the Parents

    The owner of the Andersonville cafe says the mothers who objected to the "shape up or ship out" policy were "former cheerleaders and beauty queens" with an overgrown sense of entitlement. He went on to warn his clientele of an "epidemic" of antisocial behavior.

    If that sounds alarmist, it's not that far off the attitude of many childless adults who feel increasingly put upon to tolerate selfish public behavior from young, affluent families. Younger parents especially, some argue, have skewed perceptions about what's tolerable behavior while their kids are in a public place. 

    "It's almost taken for granted if we go out to eat on the weekends, there's going to be a screaming kid in the dining room," says Jonathan Edman, a software engineer in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw. "In the suburbs, you don't have a lot of choice except the chain restaurants. And that's where a lot of the starter families seem to congregate."

    "Celebration Station is right up the highway there, guys," he adds. 

Shifting Neighborhoods, Shifting Demographics

    The clash between the childless and the child-raising has flamed higher because of close proximity. Suburban areas and bedroom communities have been the domain of the nuclear family since their ascendancy sixty years ago. But in the last decade, younger adults are refusing to flee their chic, urban enclaves once the baby arrives. Many new families even seek such areas out as a means of avoiding suburban homogenization. 

The result? More families in more fashionable neighborhoods, rubbing against the young single or childless couples already there. For some, that's a source of growing annoyance. 

"The worst thing is that it's still considered rude to tell parents how to control their kids," says a Memphis-area book editor. "A kid screaming in public or running around a dining area obviously has no regular supervision, or they wouldn’t be so poorly behaved. But it's impolitic to tell someone, 'Lady, we're in public. Deal with your kids.'"

Parents Strike Back 

The Andersonville coffee shop found itself in danger of a neighborhood boycott as a result of its owner's efforts. Another restaurant across town that enacted a "family friendly room" was threatened by several lawsuits.  

Taking the kids along to a café or letting them behave while the parents relax is, for the moms and dad, a matter of freedom of choice. They say having kids shouldn't bar them from eating or spending time wherever they like. Businesses have a right to refuse service, but they have a right not to spend money there, too. Others complain that adults are often just as boisterous as children, though no one acts to remove them. 

Still, there's room for a happy medium. One parent explained she looks for high chairs as a sign of a restaurant's desired clientele. If there's only one high chair, it's a safe bet the establishment doesn't cater to families. 

Finding A Balance 

    Some childless men and women are nonetheless hesitant to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, when dealing with irresponsible parents and their run-amok kids. 

    "Kids will be kids," says David Wagner, an Athens, GA, church youth minister. "They can't learn to behave in a restaurant if they're not in a restaurant. They shouldn't be disruptive, but they can't be silenced, either. It's not good for their self-esteem." 

    Solutions, experts say, include gently disciplining the children the first time they act up, not keeping them out too late at night (past 9 PM for restaurants and stores) and leaving if their bad behavior continues. 

    "You can't sit and do nothing," Wagner explains. "Parents owe it to their kids to treat them responsibly." 

    Etiquette experts say the worst thing parents can do is ignore the bad behavior or let the child "cry it out." That makes sense in the privacy of the home, but in public it demands the entire restaurant participate in dealing with the child - something that's not their responsibility.

    Teaching children to respect others in a restaurant goes towards teaching them respect for others. Running around and playing around, while possibly a charming sight for parents or grandparents, etc, is also an imposition on strangers and poor public behavior besides. Getting them to behave while eating builds the public interaction skills needed for the rest of their lives.