Let's Talk About Children in Restaurants

In Depth

Well, I’m sure this won’t be a contentious discussion at all.

You may have heard that last weekend, what can only be described as an internet kerfuffle broke out as Portland, Maine diner owner Darla Neugebauer yelled at a child who wouldn’t stop screaming.* The kid’s mother, Tara Carson then went and posted an angry comment on the diner’s Facebook page, as wronged customers are wont to do. Neugebauer responded by leaving her own angry Facebook rant (which appears to have been removed, although images can still be found through the original link). Then the local news got involved** and Neugebauer refused to back down (and in so doing, came off about as balanced as an ibis with an inner-ear infection, which is generally par for the course for a diner manager/owner). Earlier today, Carson herself had a piece in the Washington Post about what happened.

The whole thing has basically become a referendum on kids in restaurants, so, sure, how about we dive right in?

Was Neugebauer justified? I honestly can’t say, because I wasn’t there. Accounts differ wildly (Neugebauer claims she asked Carson to take her daughter outside before actually yelling at the kid, Carson says that never happened, etc.), which tends to happen with stories like these. Here’s a better question, though, and one that it’s far easier to answer: is there ever a time when a restaurant employee is justified in saying something in that situation?

Yes. Yes, there is.

It’s important for us to examine why it is that this story went viral: it sits at a crossroads of a lot of intersecting points of societal contention. We know that any story about child-rearing is going to bring out strong feelings, and we generally love reading about any open, public conflict between restaurant owners and their customers. The largely-untapped vein here, however, is that restaurant employees often loathe children, and with good reason.

Children are frequently a nightmare for anyone having to work in a restaurant, because a significant number of parents appear to have no desire to actually corral their kids. Even if Neugebauer was in the wrong here, it’s easy to understand why her willingness to scream at the kid—something every server on the planet has fantasized about before—struck a chord. Restaurant employees (and servers and bartenders in particular) have to take so much shit on a daily basis without being able to respond that someone finally snapping and unleashing the hounds on a perceived deserving target is always going to resonate.

This isn’t to say all kids in restaurants are terrible, or that all parents are bad at taking their children to restaurants. Many parents are excellent at this, and servers genuinely love taking tables with well-behaved kids; it’s like a wild sighting of, if not a unicorn, then at least a narwhal. Similarly, restaurants should (and, it’s worth noting, mostly do) have infinite sympathy for parents who are actively trying to corral their kids. Many restaurant employees are parents themselves, and even more understand the fact that sometimes, it doesn’t matter what a parent does—their kid is just going to be a dick. It happens. Small children are fundamentally assholes. They’re really cute assholes, and sometimes they’re awesome assholes, but they’re still assholes. There’s a reason we assign them mandatory bedtimes and don’t let them vote (insert your own 2016 Republican primary voter joke here).

That’s really the key here: are the parents making an effort? Even if they’re not having much success in so doing, I can’t fault a parent who is clearly trying; anyone who expects perfection out of any parent or child isn’t being remotely reasonable. But the point at which a parent says ¯_(ツ)_/¯ and lets their kid scream and/or run around the restaurant knocking shit over and turning every attempt to run food into an obstacle course is the point at which all sympathy evaporates.*** If the parents truly and genuinely give no fucks about their child’s behavior, restaurant employees are well within their rights to tell said parents to get their shit together (even if they’re unlikely to listen).

One could argue, “well, it’s the restaurant’s own fault. If they didn’t want kids there, they should’ve disallowed kids from their establishment.” Sure, you could make that argument—while it doesn’t apply to a situation where a server snaps at a kid, it definitely does in the case of Neugebauer, who, as the owner, can set whatever policy she likes. But even when a restaurant actually goes ahead and says “yeah, we don’t want kids, please find somewhere else if you have to bring your kids along” there are people—people whose level of self-involvement is so massive it threatens to develop its own specific gravity—who utterly lose their minds. To these people, a private business setting their own policy is an affront to all that is good and right in the world. There are even people who describe rules like this as “discriminatory,” as if the acute, ongoing struggle for human dignity on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation is in any way equivalent to a snot-encrusted almost-human’s pathological need to compete in the Splenda shotput.

Think about that for a second. There are people so galactically self-absorbed that they think they have a right to take their kids anywhere and let them do anything, regardless of whether the business in question would rather just not accept their money. Think about the fact that many of them genuinely see it as an issue of discrimination. Think about the fact that these people exist, and you might understand why so many restaurant employees are so quick to believe Neugebauer’s version of events.

Now I’m sure we’ll all have a perfectly civil discussion about this without anyone descending into a fevered bloodrage.

* If you’re one of my readers, it’s safe to assume you’ve heard of this story, since I’m pretty sure every single one of you sent me a link to it. h/t everyone. A surprising number of these links were from Canadian outlets, and I’m not even sure what to make of that.

** This was somehow the “top story of the evening.” You’re adorable, Portland, Maine.

*** Unless the parents are subsequently cool with a server accidentally punting their kid. Those parents are fine.

Image via Ollyy/Shutterstock.

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