Monday, November 14, 2005

using my inside voice

Jodi Wilgoren of the New York Times strikes again, this time reporting from the North Side of Chicago, on a controversy over the deportment of toddlers in coffee shops. One local barista has posted a sign stating that "children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven". Fightin' words! A band of rogue stroller-pushing angels has unholstered its Blackberries and fired a volley of e-mails, threatening boycott.

Two observations. First: My God, people are touchy on the subject of children. Parents are stressed and guilt-ridden and oversaturated with information and opinions about child-rearing, so offer them one more opinion and get ready to have your head handed to you:
"I love people who don't have children who tell you how to parent," said Alison Miller, 35, a psychologist, corporate coach and mother of two. "I'd love for him to be responsible for three children for the next year and see if he can control the volume of their voices every minute of the day."

But even non-parents have a chip on their shoulder about their choice NOT to have children.
Mr. McCauley, 44, said the protesting parents were "former cheerleaders and beauty queens" who "have a very strong sense of entitlement."

Me, I have a very strong sense that this fellow is still dealing with the trauma of all the wedgies he got during 10th grade gym class. I've noted in the past that there is a nascent "rights of the child-free" movement that projects some weird shit at times. Do they think we parents are jealous of them? That we think they're selfish? That we are lemmings, whereas they have the courage of their convictions? Look, I can picture the noise and the X-games antics that kids get up to in a coffee shop; mine have done it occasionally. (I remember my oldest TKOing herself, running headlong into the edge of a table; I remember my youngest howling with pain when she stuck her fingers into my piping-hot cup of Kona Blend. Each was age 2 or 3 at the time.) But is it really that persistent a problem? Is it way over the level of rudeness and unpleasantness Mr. McCauley should expect and be prepared to tolerate as proprietor of a retail business? Obviously, I can't know for sure, but in this yuppie neighborhood (in Wilgoren's description), I'm skeptical that this is an epidemic.

Second observation: Coffee shops are modern-day lifestyle temples, some kind of wired-for-WiFi cross between lending libraries and cloister walks, only with a not-too-edgy alt-rock soundtrack warbling at a tasteful volume. I occasionally enjoy lingering in quiet and comfort with a latte and a newspaper. I really don't normally have my kids in tow when I go for coffee, I recognize that Starbucks and its ilk are essentially adult spaces, but on a day when I'm going to have my daughters with me and want to juggle child care with some other errands, I'd resent the suggestion that I'm barred from them. The coffee shop seems to be one of the places where the rubber hits the road in balancing public against private, and access for all against our own standards of comfort and convenience.

At any rate, the celestial battle over A Taste of Heaven is headed for an apocalyptic showdown:
Mr. McCauley said he would rather go out of business than back down. He likens this one small step toward good manners to his personal effort to decrease pollution by hiring only people who live close enough to walk to work.

"I can't change the situation in Iraq, I can't change the situation in New Orleans," he said. "But I can change this little corner of the world."

I salute you, sir. Others are working with great fanfare on issues like child abuse, poverty, failing public schools, but nobody is confronting the little-acknowledged crisis of toddler etiquette as boldly as you.

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