Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Nutbag Parents & Owner Fight Over "Please Behave" Sign

This has been all over the news and the message boards, and so I'm adding my two cents. Here's the article, with my comments in red:

CHICAGO (Nov. 8) - Bridget Dehl shushed her 21-month-old son, Gavin, then clapped a hand over his mouth to squelch his tiny screams amid the Sunday brunch bustle. When Gavin kept yelping "yeah, yeah, yeah," Ms. Dehl whisked him from his highchair and out the door.

Right past the sign warning the cafe's customers that "children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven," and right into a nasty spat roiling the stroller set in Chicago's changing Andersonville neighborhood.

The owner of A Taste of Heaven, Dan McCauley, said he posted the sign - at child level, with playful handprints - in the hope of quieting his tin-ceilinged cafe, where toddlers have been known to sprawl between tables and hurl themselves at display cases for sport. I think this is a good idea on Mr. McCauley's part...although he could have worded the sign better. It's a bit...antagonistic, as it stands. I think we can all agree that it's annoying to hear children scream and fuss while you're trying to eat your dinner. And I shudder to think how many injuries are caused each year (to children and to servers) by children running around in restaurants, or "sprawling between tables"---or "hurling themselves at display cases." Now, my kids have never done this, and I've got to wonder...who does let their kids do that? Just fling themselves at display cases for fun? Yikes, buy a deck of Uno cards if your kids need a lesson in what's fun.

But many neighborhood mothers took umbrage at the implied criticism of how they handle their children. Umm...I don't think it was criticism. It was a reminder to kids---who, let's face it, sometimes do need to be reminded---that a restaurant is not a playground. If it doesn't apply to your kids, then ignore it. Soon, whispers of a boycott passed among the playgroups in this North Side neighborhood, once an outpost of avant-garde artists and hip gay couples but now a hot real estate market for young professional families shunning the suburbs. I don't see what good a boycott will do. If this cafe is the kind of establishment that really wants to court people without kids, or people with kids who DO behave...then the parents of kids who can't behave refusing to come to the restaurant really just gives the owner what he wants, doesn't it? I mean, who thought up this boycott idea? Did they not think this through? And really, why waste the effort? Why not spend that time, oh, I don't know...teaching your kids to behave in restaurants so the sign isn't needed???

"I love people who don't have children who tell you how to parent," said Alison Miller, 35, a psychologist, corporate coach and mother of two. "I'd love for him to be responsible for three children for the next year and see if he can control the volume of their voices every minute of the day." No one is asking you to "control their volume every minute of the day." They are asking you to teach your kids to not scream when they are inside a restaurant. Honestly, is it that big a chore? I have three kids, and I somehow have managed it. I'm not saying that my kids have never thrown a fit in a restaurant or store...but you know what we did? WE LEFT. We were not going to allow them to eat in the restaurant if they could not "control their voices" in the restaurant. I'm beginning to wonder if that solution is beyond some of these moms.

Mr. McCauley, 44, said the protesting parents were "former cheerleaders and beauty queens" who "have a very strong sense of entitlement." OK, I was on this guy's side until this. He's acting just as childish now as the kids he's trying to "educate." Is name-calling really necessary here? They don't agree with your sign. No matter what you do in business, you're going to have to deal with complaints...and a businessman who responds to customer complaints (however frivolous they might be) with potshots and armchair psychology is not the kind of person I would want to do business with...and I doubt many others would, either. It's just not professional, and it makes me wonder how he responds to more legitimate complaints. It also makes me wonder why he didn't simply attempt to re-word the sign, to make it more palatable to ALL his customers. He didn't seem willing to make an effort to address the complaints of an apparently large number of patrons...and that isn't good business at all. In an open letter he handed out at the bakery, he warned of an "epidemic" of antisocial behavior. OK, now he's just being ridiculous. Kids have been misbehaving since Adam and Eve had to first master parenting. Crying, tantrums and naughtiness are all part of the package. Now, a parent who doesn't teach a child proper manners and behavior and/or refuses to remove a child who is having a meltdown is going to have problems with that child and with the general public---but that doesn't make the child antisocial by any means. I think my previous statement about "armchair psychologists" may be right on the money.

"Part of parenting skills is teaching kids they behave differently in a restaurant than they do on the playground," Mr. McCauley said in an interview. I agree with him there. He's absolutely right. "If you send out positive energy, positive energy returns to you. If you send out energy that says I'm the only one that matters, it's going to be a pretty chaotic world." Oh, my---someone either spends a lot of time playing hacky sack or spent a lot of time in Dr. Leary's experiments in college. Kids don't understand "sending out positive energy." Has this guy ever had children...or even spent much time with them? I am beginning to wonder.

And so simmers another skirmish between the childless and the child-centered, a culture clash increasingly common in restaurants and other public spaces as a new generation of busy, older, well-off parents ferry little ones with them.

An online petition urging child-free sections in North Carolina restaurants drew hundreds of signers, including Janelle Funk, who wrote, "Whenever a hostess asks me 'smoking or non-smoking?' I respond, 'No kids!' " I don't see a problem with this, although in many states there already IS a "no kids" section---the bar. Here in Oregon, many nice restaurants have a seperate room or cocktail lounge, and it's strictly no minors allowed.

At Mendo Bistro in Fort Bragg, Calif., the owners declare "Well-behaved children and parents welcome" to try to stop unmonitored youngsters from tap-dancing on the 100-year-old wood floors. I think that sign is worded a bit better than the one above. More diplomatic, you might say...and likely to make parents and kids smile, rather than feel unwelcome. And were I the owners, I would not balk at placing a sign calling attention to the beautiful, century-old floors...and asking everyone to be mindful of them.

Menus at Zumbro Cafe in Minneapolis say: "We love children, especially when they're tucked into chairs and behaving," Once again, this could have been worded so much better. I think many of these owners should take notice of how the Mendo Bistro has worded their sign. Remember Mary Poppins..."a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down." which Barbara Daenzer said she read as an invitation to cease her weekly breakfast visits after her son was born.

Even at the Full Moon in Cambridge, Mass., a cafe created for families, with a train table, a dollhouse and a plastic kitchen in a carpeted play area, there are rules about inside voices and a "No lifeguard on duty" sign to remind parents to take responsibility. Now, that sign is inviting, diplomatic and even clever.

"You run the risk when you start monitoring behavior," said the Full Moon's owner, Sarah Wheaton. "You can say no cellphones to people, but you can't say your father speaks too loudly, he has to keep his voice down. And you can't really say your toddler is too loud when she's eating." Now, the cell phones thing is a big pet peeve to me. There is nothing worse than trying to eat a meal while some idiot is blathering to her friends about the mediocre sex she had the night before, and does her friend think it might be PMS to blame? Or a man loudly re-capping last night's big game. And these are, invariably, adults who absolutely should know better.

Here in Chicago, parents have denounced Toast, a popular Lincoln Park breakfast spot, as unwelcoming since a note about using inside voices appeared on the menu six months ago. The owner of John's Place, which resembles a kindergarten class at recess in early evening, established a separate "family friendly" room a year ago, only to face parental threats of lawsuits. Wow. I can't imagine wanting to sue someone for that. If anything, I would be grateful for it. A "family friendly room" sounds more like catering to families than excluding them!

Many of the Andersonville mothers who are boycotting Mr. McCauley's bakery also skip story time at Women and Children First, a feminist bookstore, because of the rules: children can be kicked out for standing, talking or sipping drinks. When a retail clerk at the bookstore asked a woman to stop breast-feeding last spring, "the neighborhood set him straight real fast," said Mary Ann Smith, the area's alderwoman. WOW. This one really, truly shocks me. Now, I can understand not wanting children to have beverages in a book store. That makes complete sense. But for a place called "Women and CHILDREN First," a FEMINIST bookstore, to be hostile to a breastfeeding mom? That's outrageous to me...not to mention, illegal. And come on...if you want a smaller child to be quiet, nursing is a very good way to ensure that. I know many times my little ones have been fussy in public because they were hungry, or tired, or whatnot--and calmed themselves down quite quickly at the breast. You would expect a WOMEN'S store to know this!

After a dozen years at one site, Mr. McCauley moved A Taste of Heaven six blocks away in May 2004, to a busy corner on Clark Street. But there, he said, teachers and writers seeking afternoon refuge were drowned out not just by children running amok but also by oblivious cellphone chatterers. I wonder...did he put up a sign for the annoying cellphone addicts, too? Just curious.

Children were climbing the cafe's poles. A couple were blithely reading the newspaper while their daughter lay on the floor blocking the line for coffee. Who are these parents, who let kids do this? Do they not realize the risk in allowing kids to climb poles, not to mention lying in the path of hot coffee? Do they just not care, or are they really that stupid? When the family whose children were running across the room to throw themselves against the display cases left after his admonishment, Mr. McCauley recalled, the restaurant erupted in applause.

So he put up the sign. Then things really got ugly.

"The looks I would get when I went in there made me so nervous that I would try to buy the food as fast as I could and get out," said Laura Brauer, 40, who has stopped visiting A Taste of Heaven with her two children. "I think that the mothers who allow their kids to run around and scream, that's wrong, but kids scream and there is nothing you can do about it. What are we supposed to do, not enjoy ourselves at a cafe?" OK, I was with Ms. Brauer at first...I would not want to patronize an establishment that made me feel uncomfortable every time I went in, and it does sound as if maybe the sign---and the owner's attitude---have created something of a hostile environment there for those with children. But she lost me after that. "Kids scream and there's nothing you can do about it"? Has she never heard the word "discipline" in all her life? How about the concept of just removing the child? You know, the whole "you are not allowed to behave like this in public, and we will not be coming back until you do learn how to behave"? And yes, if your kids cannot behave in a cafe...then YOU DO NOT GO THERE WITH THEM UNTIL THEY DO. You can still enjoy the cafe, of course...when your kids are not with you. Or when they do, finally, learn not to scream while there.

Ms. Miller said that one day when her son, then 4 months old, was fussing, a staff member rolled her eyes and announced for all to hear, "We've got a screamer!" I think I was dead-on about the hostile environment thing. This sort of rudeness is UNACCEPTABLE in a server. I say this, as someone who used to be a server and someone who used to be a manager. I would fire someone on the spot for treating a customer like that. In a heartbeat. I also think there is a world of difference between the kids who were old enough to hurl themselves against display cases, and a four month old infant. The former should know how to behave. The latter is a newborn. You cannot simply put up a sign and expect them to be able to follow it. For all we know, Ms. Miller might have been about to nurse the child, and the fussing would never have escalated to screaming. Or she may have needed to take the child for a diaper change. In any event, it's not a matter of discipline with a tiny baby. Babies will fuss, even for the best parents. That's how they communicate. Now, if a baby is screaming, and cannot be consoled with nursing/bottle or diaper change, then the parents should leave. Not only because the baby's fussing is bothering other customers, but because the baby is clearly unhappy and probably needs to be at home. Is this rocket science, that so few are getting it?

Kim Cavitt recalled having coffee and a cookie one afternoon with her boisterous 2-year-old when "someone came over and said you just need to keep her quiet or you need to leave." Once again, rude. I find it a bit ironic that some of these adults are up in arms about the lack of manners and good behavior in the children, when they themselves are behaving with less than sterling etiquette. Although I wish they would have specified whether or not the "someone" was a staff member or another customer...and just what Ms. Cavitt considers to be "boisterous."

"We left, and we haven't been back since," Ms. Cavitt said. "You go to a coffee shop or a bakery for a rest, to relax, and that you would have to worry the whole time about your child doing something that children do - really what they're saying is they don't welcome children, they want the child to behave like an adult." No..they are saying they want the child to behave, period. Some of these mothers are acting like that is an absolute impossibility, something completely out of reach for any child...and that just isn't so. And once again I am struck by the irony: Ms. Cavitt insisting that the coffee shop is for "rest and relaxation," but doesn't seem to "get" that if her child is screaming and misbehaving, there can be no rest and relaxation for the other patrons.

Why suffer such scorn, the mothers said, when clerks at the Swedish Bakery, a neighborhood institution, offer children - calm or crying - free cookies? A good way to handle the situation, and a good way to promote the bakery's cookies. Kills two birds with one stone. THIS is good business at work. Why confront such criticism when the recently opened Sweet Occasions, a five-minute walk down Clark Street, designed the restroom aisle to accommodate double strollers and offers a child-size ice cream cone for $1.50? (At A Taste of Heaven, the smallest is $3.75.) To that I say: if there are cafes ready and willing to accomodate and even welcome parents with small kids, why would the parents bother with a place that is clearly wanting to be more adult-oriented? Go to Sweet Occasions, and let them have the money A Taste of Heaven is losing. Why bother with a boycott? Just take your business to someone who will appreciate it.

"It's his business; he has the right to put whatever sign he wants on the door," Ms. Miller said. "And people have the right to respond to that sign however they want." I am beginning to suspect that the kids aren't the only ones with behavioral issues here---the owners, the parents, the staff---there's plenty of childishness and a good "sense of entitlement" to go around.

Mr. McCauley said he had received kudos from several restaurant owners in the area, though none had followed his lead. He has certainly lost customers because of the sign, but some parents say the offense is outweighed by their addiction to the scones, and others embrace the effort at etiquette. "offense is outweighed by their addiction to the scones"? Get a life, people. Seriously.

"The litmus test for me is if they have highchairs or not," said Ms. Dehl, the woman who scooped her screaming son from his seat during brunch, as she waited out his restlessness on a sidewalk bench. FINALLY! A parent who not only understands taking her business to child-friendly restaurants, but understands REMOVING her child if he can't behave there! Hallelujah! "The fact that they had one highchair, and the fact that he's the only child in the restaurant is an indication that it's an adult place, and if he's going to do his toddler thing, we should take him out and let him run around." My faith in mankind is (somewhat) restored!

Mr. McCauley said he would rather go out of business than back down. Stubborn, and would rather go under--and put his staff out of work during a recession---that try to act like an adult businessman and find a good solution that will work for everyone. I give him maybe a year, two tops...before he's wearing a paper cap and asking people if they "want fries with that." He likens this one small step toward good manners to his personal effort to decrease pollution by hiring only people who live close enough to walk to work. That, at least, I can respect.

"I can't change the situation in Iraq, I can't change the situation in New Orleans," he said. "But I can change this little corner of the world." Oh, for crying out loud. Forget "sense of entitlement." Talk about an overactive sense of self-importance!

In closing:

To Mr. McCauley: Get a clue. If you want to own a restaurant and actually turn a profit, you're going to have to learn a few things: 1) Noise is unavoidable. Kids are going to be fussy, babies will cry, people will talk loudly and cell phones will ring. If you want quiet, buy a library. 2) Offending a huge customer base---such as parents, for example---is not the best way to make money. 3) The customer is always right. If you get even just one customer complaint, take it seriously. Even the people who agree with you are going to have less confidence in you as a businessperson if you are completely deaf to customer complaints, and completely unwilling to find compromise so that your customers know they are number one with you. Your utter refusal to back down in the light of not only numerous complaints, but a boycott, proves that you, sir, are number one...not the customer. And even the customers who are applauding you now have to wonder why they themselves should patronize a business that puts the owner first...an owner who has no problem insulting his patrons publically if they dare disagree with his policies. And most importantly: 4) It's not the message, it's the tone. The message, in and of itself, is a good one: please keep your kids from destroying property and eardrums while in a restaurant. It's sad that some parents need to be told this, but addressing the problem is not a bad idea. HOWEVER, the way you worded it leaves a bit to be desired. I hope you read the article you were interviewed for, and take note of how other establishments have worded their signs. A little humor and a lot of diplomacy would not only have possibly avoided the boycott and bad blood, but made your customers---ALL of them---feel welcome. If you care more about "changing your part of the world," if your agenda here is more important that making an inviting, welcoming environment for all your patrons...then maybe owning a restaurant is not for you.
To the moms who are boycotting: Get a life. Children screaming and hurling themselves at display cases is not something out of your control. Discipline them. Teach them how to behave in public, or don't take them out in public. And if you don't feel your children are welcome at some restaurants, simply save your money and spend them at restaurants that not only don't mind your family's patronage, but actually cater to it. Walk the five blocks...and if you are so "offended" by the sign, but too "addicted" to the scones to stop giving Mr. McCauley your money....you need help. Maybe a 12-step program: Assholes Anonymous. Because if you actually ARE offended, you aren't going to give the jackass money even if his scones were made of solid gold and sang show tunes. If you can still go and buy the damned scones, you weren't really offended. You were miffed, and you got over it. So get over it already.
And to the "Women and Children First" bookstore: Get a clue and a life. You might have some reading materials handy to help. If not, I suggest Barnes & Noble. You can even breastfeed there. ;-)



At 10:58 AM, Blogger Angel said...

Yeah, what you said ;)

I make my kids behave (or we leave). I HATE it when I hear screaming kids anywhere, that is not relaxing to me. And I don't mean a baby fussing to nurse (though honestly, if my son wanted to fuss, nursing wasn't going to fix that). I even consider that a child may have issues such as autism.

But when parents SIT THERE and do nothing while their little pumpkins are going at it--I don't care what the issues are--you don't let your child continue to create a disturbance.

I do think it's an epidemic, the lack of manners anymore. I can't imagine my parents letting me act that way, I can't imagine letting my kids act that way.

I would definitely patronize restaurants that were 'adults only' or had signs that implied 'good behaviour only'.

At 8:03 AM, Blogger amanda said...

How ridiculous some of those mothers were being!!! I guess they were just to shallow to see the truth in the matter?

My children wouldn't dare act that way in an eating establishment or anywhere for that matter because they know that Mommy would whoop "em. Not really but all kidding aside if my 4 beautiful lil ones acted up you are darn right I would take them out first talk with them and if that wasn't gonna work you are darn right we would leave.

We as parents are responsible for our children's actions. Not everyone else in the restaurant.


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