Thursday, October 27, 2011

Keeping Kids in Their Place--Blurry Lines

I just returned from vacation in New Orleans, a city I love for its great food and vibrant culture. That same culture, however, can make vacationing with a kid tricky.

Rue Bourbon (bourbon st.)

We stayed at a hotel a few blocks away from the French Quarter, and we walked toward the Quarter for a late lunch, my daughter (10 months old) strapped to my back in the Boba carrier. We walked to Jackson Square, watched the street performers, bought a piece of artwork, and had some lunch. I let my daughter run around in the Square to practice her newly minted balancing skills. 

We weren't the only people with kids around, but there were certainly fewer than I see in most cities. As we walked back, I was careful to stray no further toward Bourbon Street, though my daughter was excited to hear the music coming from that direction. 

Later, my husband and I went down to Bourbon on our own while my mom watched our daughter. It was dusk, around 7pm. We were there a few hours, and the street got more crowded and louder as the night went on. Occasionally, I saw couples pushing (or attempting to push) strollers through the crowd. The babies inside were usually sleeping or looking around in awe. 

I didn't consider taking my daughter onto Bourbon Street, but the sight of those few errant strollers prompted me to dig a little deeper into why I had made that decision. 

First of all, I am not one of those parents that think kids belong everywhere. When McDain's restaurant made headlines for banning young children, I wondered if it was a smart business decision, but I didn't feel insulted. I understand why people (parents included!) would want the ability to escape to a  child-free space. 

Some spaces are designed for adult activities and themes and--even if you don't have a problem with your child witnessing those themes--placing them in the environment can disrupt it in a way that makes the space awkward for others. Some friends of mine were at a bar watching sports, drinking, and chatting (you know--bar things). One of them dropped a "fuck" into his casual statement and the other leaned in and said "Watch your mouth! There's a baby over there!" "It's a bar!" the first responded. 

And what about people who just don't want to be around kids? That was the main idea behind pushes for child-free flights, a "luxury" people suggested they would willingly pay for. 

Sometimes the presence of children might literally change the way a space can be used. Consider this gym patron who laments the loss of pool space and the change in the culture of the gym when parents were allowed to bring their children (for a fee).
Birthday at Hooters
The decision to ban children from a restaurant or to make child-free flights is largely based on what kids can do the atmosphere of a place, but that's a two-way street, and there's equal concern over what the atmosphere does to our kids. This lesson was front and center when one man blogged about taking his 11-year-old son to Hooters and was blasted for the messages he was sending his child about sex and (dis)respecting women.

Sometimes, placing a child into an adult context is just a not very well thought-out decision, but sometimes it's exactly the point. The NY Times reports that more and more parents are bringing their children to the Occupy Wall Street protests. Many say they want their children to be a part of something they consider important. However, "[c]hild therapists are divided on the appropriateness of taking children to the protest," with some saying that children younger than 14 might be traumatized by the impact and others saying that it's a great way to engage children in civic responsibility. And it's not the first protest that's seen children: "They were often present at civil rights marches, and more recently, boys and girls (complete with placards) have become a familiar presence at Tea Party events."

Of course, a lot of this decision is based on a larger parenting philosophy. Are children equal societal participants, or is that a position that is earned through age and experience? 

I tend to lean more toward the former. I think that it's important to treat my daughter with the same respect I would anyone else. At the same time, I recognize my responsibility to keep her safe and in suitable environments. Finally, I recognize that "respecting others" necessarily means keeping my daughter out of spaces where she doesn't belong, because it's disrespectful to the people who use those spaces to transform them into something else by bringing my child there.

So, what does this mean in practice? I very rarely get babysitters. As a full-time employee, I really cherish the time I spend with her on the weekends and evenings (not that stay-at-home-mom's don't cherish this time, but knowing that I'll be back in the office Monday morning definitely makes me focus on the finiteness of time). I've taken her to places that some people probably don't take their children (restaurants fairly late at night, my friends' house parties, urban street fairs, etc.) She's been around people who are drinking, talking about "adult" topics (politics and academics), and--yes--people who use "bad" words occasionally. 

At the same time, I try really hard not to take her places that are going to make other people uncomfortable. It took me a while to figure out which restaurants were okay (in my experience they all say "yes" if you ask outright if it's okay to bring a kid, but--once you get there--it's pretty obvious they lied to you). We like local restaurants and good food, so I'm not just going to limit myself to Applebee's for the next 18 years. I've started asking "Do you have high chairs?" and scanning websites for kid's menus.

And, on some level, I just trust my gut. My gut told me that Bourbon Street was too much--too much stimulus, too much unpredictability, too much noise. That's an individual decision that's based on my own parenting, comfort level, and child's personality, and it's a decision that I'm figuring out as I go along.
What about you? How do you decide where to take your kid(s)? Have you ever made a mistake? How do you handle it?

Photo 1: PetroleumJelliffe
Photo 2: planetc1

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