Screaming Me Me's

Who among us has not had the unnerving experience of settling into a favorite booth at a cozy bistro, only to have that delicate arugula appetizer obliterated by the piercing cries of unrestrained children?

Surely the parents will calm them down, you think, grabbing that glass of chardonnay for moral support. Yet the whoops and hollers continue. They escalate. Soon the yelling is joined by the thunder of tiny feet stampeding around the dining table like runaway rats in a maze. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, you turn in the direction of the commotion, scanning the table for a look of concern or admonition on the part of the accompanying adult, only to find -- nothing. The parents sit calmly by, chattering mindlessly, completely oblivious to the fact that patrons at nearby tables are ready to throttle the children and throw their bones onto the kitchen's rotisserie.

No parental voice is raised in caution. No whispered reprisal is offered for little Tommy's sober consideration. In fact, the word "No!" fails to surface at all, although we watch in horror as Brittany, Jason and Megan begin banging their silverware on the table. How adorable, coos mindless Mom. They can hit the wine glasses in unison -- isn't that clever?

How can these people inflict their offspring on the other people in the room, other people who are paying good money, and spending precious time in quest of a soothing atmosphere and an enjoyable dinner experience? Restaurants are public places, not exercise yards for feral youngsters.

Small children allowed to run loose in the aisles, to scream, fuss and throw food, all without a word from adults, are unlovable monsters of the future. They and their adult companions should be asked to leave.

A few things are clearly at work here, social forces conspiring to create auditory mayhem in a variety of public places -- restaurants, movie theaters, libraries, airplanes, churches -- places we share with other like-minded citizens in search of sanctuary, food, entertainment and mobility. These fellow citizens have paid for these privileges and are entitled to a certain amount of fair exchange for keeping their end of the social contract.

One suspects that parents who flagrantly abuse restaurants as child-care yards are the same people who talk out loud in darkened movie theaters. Having grown accustomed to chattering during home video watching, they let themselves grow sloppy and "forget" that others would prefer to listen to Julia Roberts instead of them.

A Modest Proposal

Check out John Stuart Mills' On Liberty for the clearest statement of the arrangement. We're free to exercise our liberty up to the point where our actions infringe on someone else's freedom. In other words, we're all in this together. By going into a public place to dine, or to purchase coffee and read the newspaper, we each agree to abide by tacit rules of politeness and mutual respect. I don't sit at a table that is obviously already occupied by someone else's coffee and books. That's a violation of someone's prior right to this territory.

Let's apply this pragmatic theory to noise conduct. When you enter a public zone, a space you share with others who similarly expect to be entering a public zone geared to a common purpose, e.g., dining, movie going, football-watching, you have to realize that you're one of many people engaged in the activity. The 747 does not exist just to transport you and your brood. There are 235 other people who also paid money to take the trip. It's not your private party. And not everyone is equally charmed by Jonah's ability to recite the alphabet at the top of his lungs while running up and down the aisle.

Here's the deal. Many of the people sitting at tables around you, struggling not to throw down their forks and give you a piece of their minds, are dining out as a break from dinner with the little rugrats. Unlike you, they actually shelled out cash money and hired a babysitter so as not to inflict their rambunctious toddlers on total strangers.

You made the choice to have children. That choice requires certain sacrifices. You might actually have to forgo that morning latte if it means you and your girlfriends fill one quarter of the coffeehouse with huge strollers filled with screaming babies. The guy trying to read The New York Times doesn't bring his howling dog with him. Why should you bring teething Chad?

You can't have it all. You can't pretend that your unmannered children don't actually belong to anyone in particular. This is no longer a postmodern world. There is an author of those tiny texts. Take some responsibility for those emerging humans you chose to create. Stop holding us all hostage -- all we ask for is an enjoyable meal.

Sensory Bombardment

But clearly, you're thinking, anyone who finds herself outraged at the behavior of maturity-challenged youngsters must be a throwback to another era. This is the 21st century, where the self-esteem of humans-in-training must be nurtured to the exclusion of good manners, ambience, even -- from where I sit -- common sense. If we attempt to shush little Brittany, think what we'll be doing to her nascent self-esteem. She might begin to have doubts about her own ability to dominate the social arena. She might find her emotional expression stifled, perhaps irreparably damaged by psychic scarring. Consider the identity issues she'll have when she grows up.

So why is this a problem? Because we don't taste solely with our taste buds. Whenever we want to engage in some pleasantly sensual experience -- and that's surely what enjoying a meal is about -- it's difficult to appreciate the main experience when suffering from sensory bombardment. Too much stimulation -- people incessantly cruising the aisles or loud children acting out nearby -- and you're distracted from what you're trying to enjoy.

Every restaurateur knows that the point of the dining experience is to appeal to all our appetites. That's why they bother to create an attractive setting, bring food to the table fragrant and hot, provide soft, pleasing music and veto TV blaring baseball scores in the background. Not only is it rude in the extreme to inflict your gene-carriers on the public in these pleasant settings, it borders on criminal negligence. Your screaming child is destroying the value of someone else's dinner. Instead of that fresh-baked pastry they ordered, your fellow diner is actually having your child's decibel overload stuffed down his eyes, ears, nose and throat.

If your children aren't ready for prime time, keep them at home until they are.


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