March 22, 2007 -- Have you ever found yourself counting the seconds until your check arrives at a restaurant? Not because the food, service or ambience were lacking, but because someone's child was running laps around the place, hiding under the tables, and practicing his dinosaur roar at ear-splitting volume.
Or maybe you've been on the other side, out to a family meal with the kids, proud of their behavior -- which in any other situation might be called exemplary -- only to be berated by a fellow diner who believes that children "should be seen and not heard"?
Either way, the moment probably doesn't rank among your top ten dining experiences. Whether they're well-behaved kids bored of waiting for their grilled cheese to arrive or poor-mannered brats hell-bent on ruining a meal for everyone within screaming distance, the friction created by kids in restaurants is something many of us have experienced.
In one Chicago community these tensions reached a boiling point when Dan McCauley, owner of a local cafe, A Taste of Heaven, decided he had had enough of children using his establishment as a playground.
Heaven and Hell
One afternoon, McCauley said, he caught a pair of kids scaling the walls of his restaurant while their parents sat nearby. As the group was leaving, McCauley confronted Julie, one of the supervising mothers, and told her that she and her children were no longer welcome in the cafe.
"I was so shocked," said Julie, who out of concern for the children's anonymity asked that her last name not be used. "It made me feel like I was in the second grade, having my knuckles whacked or something."
The following morning McCauley posted a sign on the front door, thinking it would be a simple solution. It read: "Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven"
To his astonishment, the sign quickly provoked a strong response within the community. "We had like 50 or 60 phone calls," McCauley said. "People stating that they were really offended, and they would never step foot in here again, which really surprised me." A local newspaper even wrote that a group of concerned parents was going to boycott the cafe.
The Debate Changes
But then things began to change, when the story was picked up outside of the community and reported nationally. All of a sudden, McCauley said, the steady stream of angry phone calls turned into a tidal wave of support.
Letters applauding the restaurant's stand against rowdy kids began to arrive from around the country, some from as far away as Singapore and the United Kingdom. McCauley even received some small checks from supporters worried he would lose business.
The story reflects a debate that has long been simmering in online chat rooms and letters to local newspapers: How should children be expected to behave in public places, and especially in restaurants? Disciplinarians, advocates of hands-off child rearing, the childless, and mothers of six all seem to have an opinion.
The point of contention is rarely whether or not children should be allowed in restaurants, or whether or not they should behave. Most agree that kids are welcome to dine out as long as they don't make nuisances of themselves. But tempers seem to flare when the topic is addressed in public.
'It's Like Speaking Against Nuns'
Ralph, the husband of Julie and father of the children banned from A Taste of Heaven, said that while it was hard not to agree with McCauley, "What I'm saying is that there are ways to approach this issue without making parents feel uncomfortable, patronized, pushed away."
Meanwhile, Ted, a Taste of Heaven patron who gave only his first name, had his own theory to explain the nation-wide debate touched off by the cafe's sign.
"It was kinda groundbreaking," he said. "It's almost taboo. Children definitely are the one thing that you cannot speak against in our society. They are innately good. It's like speaking against nuns. You know what I mean?"