I’m not denying how objectively annoying kids in restaurants can be, but perhaps it’s an annoyance worth tolerating. After all, the restaurant is a perfect place for parents to teach their kids how to be people around other people, and the perfect place to teach parents how to shepherd their kids through the world. It’s the ideal environment, too, for non-parents to remember that they are part of a community, and that by tolerating kids in their space, and doing so with patience and kindness, they are upholding their own stake in the future of the greater community. Restaurants are a place where parents can briefly escape the ever-increasing isolation and loneliness of the modern parenting experience. Even if it’s just the passive act of enduring a loud kids’ presence with kindness, restaurants give parents a small, easy way to feel supported, held, and welcomed in a place that is not their own house.
Of course, no one should be taking their 18-month-old to dinner at a pricey fine dining restaurant like Le Bernardin, or at least, that’s not the case I’m making. Sometimes dining out absolutely is about having a very specific, curated experience, and young children are incompatible with that. You have establishments that are inarguably only for adults—bars and most fine dining restaurants—and others that are specifically for kids, like Chuck E. Cheese, where it would be weird or even creepy for childless adults to hang out.
There are, and always will be, plenty of restaurants that are either implicitly or explicitly not suitable for children. But in most cases, we have to more critically think about what role restaurants play in our communities, and who gets to be included. If you’re looking to feel like god for the price of an entree, and you feel like the presence of kids disrupts that experience, and that is the reason why you don’t want kids in restaurants, then your relationship to restaurants is broken.
The truth is that most restaurants are at their best when they act as a place for people to be around each other. If we exclude children from that experience, we’re only further entrenching the worst parts of modern society: everybody believing they’re solo entities, obligated only to their own self-interest, with no idea what it means to bend a little to give way to others, to automatically scoot your chair in so someone can pass behind you. A society full of people who are acting only in their own self interest is a society where everyone—even those who don’t particularly like eating dinner next to kids—is doomed.
As more and more parts of our infrastructure—the car-centric lack of walkability in the suburbs, the “heads down, headphones in” culture of cities, the proliferation of food delivery options—move towards reinforcing our aloneness, the role of restaurants as a common space is becoming even more essential. It’s one of the last spaces where the humanity of others is so directly in our faces that we can’t forget it exists. Pushing kids out of these spaces isn’t just a bummer—it might harken the end of something crucial and human that we’re already losing.
Maybe this entire line of thinking feels like a reach, like a distraction from the simple fact that kids in restaurants can be annoying, but I don’t think it is. Humans have always raised children in the context of a community. We largely do not do that anymore. Both parents and children suffer because of this, with intergenerational health impacts because of this solitude—and we’re not broadly doing much to course correct.
What we should do now is ask how we can show up for parents and kids in ways that cost the rest of us very little. Continuing to allow kids in restaurants is a way for people other than their relatives to invest in the socialization of those children. And if you don’t value that, then you’re probably the one who should eat at home.