Bad behaviour: Are British children a public nuisance?: If we are not a child-friendly nation, could it be because our kids are brats? Hester Lacey reports

AT SUNDAY lunchtime in a Harvester 'family' pub the bar is packed out: not only by adults with pints and gin-and-tonics, but by children with teddies and dollies. The restaurant echoes to the sound of tiny feet thundering back and forth from the Salad Cart, tables are piled with story books and crayons.

Many clients disappear under the table during the meal - not grown-ups who have overindulged in the Lambrusco ('fun and frisky', pounds 7.99), but children playing Wendy house or hide- and-seek.

Stepping over a toddler on the way to the bar may soon become a normal event. As part of the deregulation Bill announced in the Queen's Speech, new licensing laws are planned which will enable pubs to apply for a 'children's certificate', allowing them to admit children of any age. Since 1991, a similar scheme has operated in Scotland, where children are allowed into designated pubs until 8pm, as long as they are in a family group and have a meal.

The Brewers' Society says it is all in favour of child-friendly pubs. 'But it won't be a free- for-all - 12-year-olds off the school bus with their mates,' their spokesman, Tim Hampson, quickly points out. 'In pubs, children's behaviour would be good - not like in McDonald's on a Saturday afternoon, which is hell on earth.'

But not everyone is convinced that the British child is up to the challenge.

'I certainly won't be applying for a certificate,' says David Meredith, landlord of The Swan at Denham, Buckinghamshire. 'Children are so badly behaved, often completely out of parental control - and the parents are oblivious to what their kids are doing. I would lose my regulars.'

Tania Green, landlady of The Boot in Chester, agrees. 'Children are not well-behaved enough. My regulars come in for a quiet pint. They'd be very disgruntled to find children in here - we'd lose trade. They'd think, 'Oh God, I've just left all that at home, I don't want it here as well.' '

Even some parents are unsure. 'I feel ambivalent about it,' says one father of two. 'In a way it would be great not to have to crouch outside in our anoraks in the drizzle with the kids, but the pub is a child-free haven. My own are fine, but some of the squawking brats you see around would just ruin the atmosphere.'

On the continent, children are welcomed in cafes, bars and restaurants. In this country, pubs have long been an infant- free zone, while a glance through hotel and restaurant guides reveals restrictions from 'No children under five' through 'No children under 10, 12, 13' to the blunt 'No children admitted'. Are English children really so bad-mannered and disruptive?

A London businessman remembers a lunch date with important clients. 'It was in an extremely expensive restaurant. I could see my guests wincing as the little girl at the next table tipped out the contents of the salt cellar on the floor, while her parents smiled indulgently.' The meal was punctuated with whoops and yells as the child ran around, politely ignored by other diners. But breaking point was eventually reached. 'When she grabbed one of my clients' handbag from under our table and attempted to make off with it, I felt I had to act, so I wrested it back - at which she let out a piercing howl and her parents finally rushed to the rescue, glaring furiously at me. That is not so much bad manners as non-existent manners. Totally antisocial and oafish - the parents as well as the child.'

French restaurateur Marc Renzland does not welcome guests under 10 at his Kingston bistro Le Petit Max - apart from well-behaved regulars who know his ground rules. 'British children don't want adult food, they want baked beans and chips. They won't eat vegetables. They cry and run around. This is not what I'm looking for in my customers.

'Parents don't want to know if their children are inconveniencing others. They let the children do exactly as they want, annoy other people - and it's dangerous for the children to be under the waiters' feet.'

He blames parents rather than unruly children. 'If you've got four children, you don't buy a sports car. You buy a Volvo and put them all in the back. It's the same with restaurants]'

He also feels that this is a peculiarly British problem. 'I was brought up to behave like an adult when we went out, not have my food cut up and demand special menus. I wasn't allowed not to behave. Even at home, we always had meals together, with the table nicely laid - every meal was an occasion for all members of the family.

'I've just been to Italy, where eating out is regarded as a family treat - it's amazing, the children are a lot happier in themselves, it's the way they are brought up. Here, parents ignore their children, they don't talk to them, of course they get bored.'

Restaurant critic Craig Brown does not flinch from taking his son and daughter, aged five and three, to help him with reviews, and staunchly defends their right to be there. 'The world doesn't consist entirely of paunchy businessmen. Children under nine are simply not seen as human beings,' he says. 'England is one of the few countries where children are ostracised. It's not that we are a nation of noisy children, though - more that we are a nation of child-hating adults. It's only the prissy and anally retentive that don't like to see children in restaurants. Restaurants shouldn't be like boardrooms or chapels - they should be places where people behave like human beings and enjoy themselves.'

Brown says he has also come across child-haters in hotels. 'An American woman once came up to us and said 'When are you leaving?' We said 'Tomorrow'; she said 'Good, then I'll stay.' I receive letters that are completely psychopathic whenever I mention my children in my column.'

He believes that there is an unbridgeable gulf between 'those who have children and like them, and those who don't and don't like them' - and that everyone changes sides completely as soon as they have a child of their own. He also does not subscribe to the theory that manners have deteriorated. 'We teach our children manners. I'm all for children saying please and thank you. And everyone always thinks that they were better-mannered than their children. I want to video mine for when they start showing off to their own children.'

Some restaurateurs also stand up for the younger generation. 'Adults can be as disruptive and difficult as children - they can be complete assholes,' says Michael Gottlieb, proprietor of London restaurant Smollensky's Balloon. 'Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes, the whole restaurant becomes a circus for children. It works because it is done with soul, sincerity and belief.'

He concedes that sometimes there are behaviour problems. 'Sometimes people are so relaxed that they let their children run riot. There are certain types of British people who themselves don't know how to behave. And the British just don't involve their children in family life - a country that sends so many children to boarding school, well, that says something about how people connect to children.'

Gottlieb feels that today's less formal manners are an improvement. 'I've seen more of my customers hugging their children over the last five or six years than ever before. Things are changing for the better.'

Mass-market family food is already an extremely profitable market. Despite restrictive licensing laws, many of the major breweries already have restaurant premises that can cater for parents and children.

Whitbread has just opened its 200th Brewers Fayre pub, while Bass have 130 Toby Restaurants nationwide, and Trusthouse Forte's Harvester chain has 78 branches in England and Wales.

Harvester pride themselves on taking particular care of young eaters - 'we don't have clients, we have guests, and we don't have staff, we have team members,' explains the young and enthusiastic Bernard O'Neill, manager of the Globe Tavern in Dulwich, where John the barman has volunteered to dress up as Santa for the second year running.

Vanessa, Dulwich team expert on children, says: 'You have to home in on the child, make the child feel important. If you get a difficult child, you can bring it round.' She squats to take children's orders 'to talk to them at their level. You look them in the eye - and make sure you have your finger monsters and dinosaurs in your pocket. It's magic to them.'

Team coach Graeme starts every induction with the Harvester philosophy: 'We treat everyone who comes in through the door as a guest in our own homes.' What if your philosophy with young guests at home is a swift smack on the legs where necessary? Eyes widen and everyone starts laughing at the very idea. 'If you don't like children you won't last in the job,' says Vanessa firmly.

She is happy to feed a screaming baby so that harassed mothers can eat their own meal, and will coax faddy eaters along with the promise of a trip to the kitchen to make their own ice-cream sundaes.

Halinka, team member with responsibility for special family days, remembers a particularly grumpy little boy. 'You just have to give them more time and attention. He had a wonderful time in the end. He and his dad came back with a Flake bar for me. He said he wanted to marry me.'

This child-welcoming bonhomie is remarkably genuine. Harvester team members were superhumanly patient and charming as their young guests disappeared under tables and behind partitions, violently rearranged place settings and sent bowls of salad with thousand-island-dressing hurtling carpetward.

'Baked beans or spaghetti with your Golden Fishes? Do you like spaghetti? Mmmmmmm]' smiled one waiter, deftly whisking a plate out of harm's way before deflecting a stray toddler from the kitchen entrance.

The Harvester team didn't even have a bad word to say about mums and dads, apart from expressing shock at the late hours that some parents allow their toddlers to keep. But despite the supposed British hatred of children, everyone interviewed laid the blame for their anti-social behaviour squarely with their parents.

Harry McGurk, Professor of Developmental Psychology at London University, who has a special interest in children's social development, bears this out. 'Children who are running riot and are being a pain in the neck in a restaurant haven't saved up their behaviour especially,' he explains. 'They are simply transporting it from home to the public arena.'

He feels that bad manners stem from grazing at home - children do not know how to behave because they no longer sit down to a family meal.

'In Europe children develop their social repertoire earlier. In this country we pay lip service to the ideal of the family but we don't really support it.'

So if we have created little monsters, we only have ourselves to blame. Even Vanessa at Harvester, says: 'We look after them really well, we have as good a time as they do. But the thought is always there at the back of your mind - you know they're going home and you'll be able to hand them back.

(Photograph omitted)

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