Lisa Wilkins / MSNBC.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/21/2006 11:58:15 AM ET 2006-08-21T15:58:15

For Cindy Nooney's 3-year-old twin boys, playing with the Thomas the Train set at their local bookstore in Southern California is a major thrill. Jack and Sam push Thomas, Arthur and friends down the track, they run around the table, jump up and down — and, of course, they squeeeaal.

Nooney expects as much in the children's section of the store. But on a recent afternoon, she was surprised by an employee who confronted her, calling her darling Jack a tyrant.

“He was a little loud but this is a children’s section,” says Nooney. "They run a noisy, cavernous bookstore but they don’t want kids to make any noise? It just seems ridiculous and leads me to believe that they don’t want kids, they want silent kids.”

The bookstore is not the only place that likes quiet, controlled children — and isn't afraid to say so. Across the nation, there are signs of a low-burning uprising against children supposedly behaving badly in public.

Eateries from California to Massachusetts have posted signs on doors and menus saying “We love children, especially when they are tucked in chairs and well behaved” or “Kids must use indoor voices.” In North Carolina an online petition was started last year to establish child-free restaurants — the petition loosely compared dining with children to dining with cigarette smoke.

In response to an MSNBC.com story about the controversy over pets in public places, some readers wrote in to say they'd much rather see a dog at dinner, the movies or the mall than little "cretins." Dogs are better behaved, they smell better and they're much cuter, wrote one reader.

Josephine Charlton, a public relations consultant in West Hollywood, Calif., says she loves children but feels they are becoming public nuisances nonetheless. Her local Whole Foods has been overrun by “breeders” with an oversized sense of entitlement, she says, museums are now inappropriately clogged with strollers, and even first-class travel has morphed into "Romper Room" in the air.

“You can’t work on planes anymore because of kids running around,” says Charlton. She recalls a recent flight when parents allowed their toddler son to run up and down the aisle in first-class. “My friend said, ‘Hey, would you mind watching your child?’ You would’ve thought he wanted to nail the kid to a cross!”

Charlton, who doesn’t have children but describes herself as an adoring godmother of two, says too many parents act as if the earth revolves around their children, and the general public should treat them as such. Yet kids are more out of control than ever, she says.

Is it true? Are children these days allowed to run amok like never before? Has public etiquette gone to hell in a hand basket or — er — a Dora The Explorer backpack? Or is society simply becoming more intolerant of little tikes?

Etiquette maven Cindy Post Senning argues it's the latter. “Almost every generation will try to say that the current generation is worse than ever,” says Senning, director of the Emily Post Institute, an organization founded in 1946 by our nation’s first grand dame of good manners, Emily Post, Senning’s great-grandmother. "I don’t think children are any worse than they’ve ever been.”

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Good parenting equals quiet kids?
Diane M. Hoffman, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia who studies how culture influences parenting, agrees that society is becoming more child-unfriendly. “We have a lot of pro-family, pro-child rhetoric out there but there’s little action behind the words,” she says. “We continually marginalize children."

Hoffman notes that even experts and parenting resources that are supposedly child-centered can be blamed. Widely accepted standards of  “good” American parenting such as giving children time-outs and naming emotions (e.g. “You don’t hate your brother, you’re just frustrated!”) have helped foster the notion that children are pint-sized puzzles for adults to figure out and master rather than real human beings, she says.

The “parenting industry” that has sprung up over the last few decades, she contends, promotes a style of parenting that leads both parents and onlookers alike to believe good (read: quiet) children are a reflection of mastering proper parenting.

Senning, who is the mother of two sons and author of “The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children,” says it’s mostly busy lifestyles that have conspired against kids.

“We have so many more single parents or families where both parents work,” says Senning. “People get the sense that kids spend too much time in childcare and that they don’t want to have more childcare, so they simply want to bring the children along with them.”

Sadie Wasmund, an Iowa City mother who quit working to spend as much time as possible with her daughter, Alyssa, age 2, completely understands. But she acknowledges it's not always appropriate to take kids out in public.

“I do think some people turn parenting into something it shouldn’t be," she says. "They want to take their children to fancy restaurants, art openings and R-rated movies instead of getting sitters.”

But claiming children have suddenly become public nuisances is ridiculous, she says.

Besides, kids aren't the only ones misbehaving, says Wasmund. "I see more adults behaving badly in public than children,” she says, noting they leave messes around the tables at bookstores, they speak too loudly on their cell phones and they’re more likely than children to be pushy and rude.

Christy Bell, a Vero Beach, Fla., mom, parenting instructor and former restaurant owner, says she's seen her share of misbehaved adults. "When I owned a sub shop, I had parents curse at me while I was taking their order, and then turn around and yell at their children for poor behavior,” she says. “Maybe we have to look at what adults, all adults, are modeling for children.”

She also says she’s noticed a certain amount of unreasonableness in what parents and society as a whole expect out of kids.

“In my parenting classes I had one parent who asked me what to do in the following situation: the family eats out every night and every night the toddler cries or throws food,” says Bell. “It seems to me that the answer is to understand what is a reasonable expectation for the behavior of a toddler. Is it really reasonable to eat out every night? That’s a hard time to expect a child to be confined for 45 minutes or an hour.”

Yet, Bell says, plenty of parents think it’s entirely reasonable and they’re shocked and dismayed when they can’t get their kids to comply.

“I don’t think the solution is more childcare or ‘better’ children. But I do think you have to make a lot of choices about where to go,” Senning says.

In fact, she says, sit-down restaurant behavior is learned and has to be worked up to. “You take a 2-year-old to the snack bar down at the park,” she says. “That way they get to experience the fun part of going to a restaurant and you get to manage the time and how well your child is doing. Next, you go to a family restaurant where you learn about ordering. But you always bring activities and toys.”

As parents, be mindful to encourage those businesses that are respectful and friendly to children. Along with the growing number of kid-unfriendly places there are coffee shops, supermarkets, shoe stores, furniture stores and even cell phone centers that are making efforts to welcome parents and kids. Some are installing play centers, handing out toys, providing supervised care or offering interesting shopping carts for children in an effort to make families feel more supported.

'Two rudes don't make a polite'
Still, there will probably always be people out there who will kiss Fido on the mouth but sneer at your little guy or girl.

“We’ve been in a few situations where Alyssa hasn’t even done anything and still we didn’t feel welcome. There were just these looks,” says Wasmund.

What's worse is if — like Nooney at the bookstore — somebody actually admonishes you for your child’s behavior and you feel the behavior is appropriate given the setting.

According to Senning, there’s a gracious way to handle even this. “I always say that two rudes don’t make a polite,” she says. “Just say something like ‘I feel Jamie is doing just fine but we’ll be done in a few minutes and I’ll be on my way.’”

Nooney wound up having a discreet talk with the manager. “It probably won’t do anything to change the attitude toward children but at least the manager understands that I’m not spending my money someplace that claims to be geared toward small children but isn’t.”

Senning says she handled the situation perfectly. “You don’t want to wind up in a confrontation. Remember, the golden rule of parenting is to always behave how you want your kids to behave,” she says.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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