Debate: Is it right that some public spaces be kept free of children?

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The At-Bristol science museum, which opens next year, is to make one of its galleries adult-only in response to concerns about noise. But is it reasonable to expect to avoid children in public places? Yes, says Root Cartwright; why should their rights come first? But families still have a raw deal, says Rosalind Freeborn; we have to learn tolerance

Families do not live in a bubble, says Root Cartwright. They should consider the rest of us.

Queuing at a Sainsbury's recently, I couldn't fail to notice someone's wretched four-year-old who had located the infra-red beam that operates the doors and was stepping in and out of it, producing Arctic conditions for the poor woman on the till and the rest of us.

An attentive parent might have led the lad gently away, pointing out that two or three goes was sufficient to confirm the truth of his discovery. No doubt a generation or two ago the erring tot would have received a tongue-lashing or a clip around the ear from some stern and public-spirited matron. Anyone trying it these days would expect anything from a mouthful of verbal to the glint of a knife to accusations of paedophilia. The store management were clearly oblivious, or else more worried about alienating one customer than freezing the bonus points off a dozen others.

With organisations of every kind falling over themselves to be child- friendly, parents would do well to remember the quid pro quo. Despite the fact that the anti-society, anti-state ideology of recent decades has encouraged a view of the family as privatised and hermetic, parents and their offspring do not live in a bubble. Children are part of society and one of a parent's primary tasks is to equip them to understand the reciprocal obligations of citizenship.

Take eating out. Whilst dinner in a grown-up restaurant is not an occasion for sepulchral gloom, it is primarily about the (relatively) quiet enjoyment of food, wine and conversation. If people wish to include their children in such outings, then simple good manners require that they are able to understand and respect the rules of engagement. Dragging kids along to a situation that provokes misbehaviour through boredom or awkwardness is unkind to them and antisocial towards the rest of us.

It is against bad behaviour, not against children per se, that we need to erect the - metaphorical - barbed wire. It is equally irksome to be disturbed by braying yuppies and their mobiles or the boorishness of post-match revellers. There are plenty of places where sport fans, teenage bankers and noisy kids can go and do their thing: why must they be allowed to do it all over me? Nor do I have much time for that mousy but defiant young couple who manage to inveigle a two-month-old infant past the maitre d'. Surely if they can afford the dinner they can afford a sitter?

As a non-parent I recognise that the doctors, decorators, binmen and boffins on whom we all depend are someone else's children, and am happy to contribute taxes to their cause. Too many parents, on the other hand, assert their "right to have children" without the first idea of why they want them or what to do with them, in itself a pretty spectacular form of antisocial behaviour. In the face of these parents' defensiveness - to reproach the child is to reproach the parent - doing anything about antisocial behaviour is impossible. It seems we are doomed to collude passively with struggling parents in ensuring that today's ill-disciplined brat is tomorrow's football hooligan or boardroom bully: arrested, unhappy people with no sense of where they end and the rest of the world begins, no idea of the difference between public and private space.

Children represent all of our futures, whether we are parents or not, and we should include them, says Rosalind Freeborn.

Suffer the little children, and spare a thought for the parents too. It's tough bringing up children. It always was and it always will be but I'm not complaining. We bring our babes into the world, trailing clouds of glory, full of hopes and fears for their lot in life but it can be really tough when, at the end of a long walk, the only pub for miles around has a "no children allowed" sign on the door.

Children get a raw deal and so do their parents and there should be much more tolerance for families - we are important. The demographic timebomb is due to make its impact felt sometime early in the next century when the number of retired or non-working people (us) will depend on the hard work and taxpaying capacity of our children (yes, them).We must invest in their needs and, more to the point, in the needs of parents and future parents. It does seem extraordinary that the family has for centuries been deemed the most important and successful social grouping, yet retailers, architects, town planners, transport companies and countless service industries have paid little attention to the needs of parents with young children. Parental passivity has not helped. A sense of being a second-class citizen when responsible for a child has prevailed for years. Children and parents should not be excluded from any aspect of life, their needs should be understood and accommodated.

I know that not everything about babies and children is attractive. To the uninitiated they can be big and brash, small and smelly, but they are ours, we love them and they represent our future welfare. Surely, we owe it to ourselves and to them to be inclusive not exclusive.

A world where children were seen but not heard would be a sterile place. Children have gloriously open minds and we should encourage a delight in ideas and aspirations which many of us lose in the "crawl to maturity". To deny children access to information and influences because they may disturb the peace of adult thought is a sorry prospect. To deny adults access because they have children with them is an even sorrier prospect.

Things are beginning to change for the better and this inclusive trend must continue.

I remember well how a day in the open with a young child had to be planned well ahead. It was essential to pack provisions for all the baby's needs and just hope that a "safe house" of some kind would be encountered on the way. Ten years ago there were few nappy changing rooms in shops, few restaurants which welcomed, let alone catered for children and certainly no one could abide breast-feeding on the premises.

What was one supposed to do - exist in a kind of parental purdah until the kid was earning or make a stand?

Children may seem insufferable at times but let's face it, we all started out that way. A bit of tolerance, a bit of care and understanding won't cost that much and, in the long term, will benefit us all.

Root Cartwright is chairman of the British Organisation of Non- Parents, BM Box 5866, London WC1N 3XX.

Rosalind Freeborn works for Tommy's Campaign, the pregnancy research charity which organises the Parent Friendly Awards (sponsored by Huggies).