“Bertie, darling. Bertie. Now come on. Come on, darling. You’re disturbing all these nice people’s dinners.”
Bertie, cherubic face growing redder by the second as he hurtles around every table in the restaurant, continues to be a fighter plane and as such pay zero heed to his mother’s voice. “Bertie, sweetheart. Sit down please.” “NEEE… OOO… WOOWOWO”.
Genially, Mummy Bertie beams round the room. She’s loving it, of course, as is Daddy. They want to convey the impression that they’re concerned for our evening, ‘but really’, their smiling faces say, ‘you love Bertie as much as we do’. How adorable their little family must look. How much joy their son’s pink, screwed-up face must be inspiring in our hearts. Well, Bertie’s parents. I’ve got news for you: he’s not.
On the contrary, the boy’s a wretched nuisance. It’s 9pm on a Saturday evening and it is not unreasonable for diners in a nice restaurant at that time to expect a child-free zone. Were it half past five, or lunchtime, we’d understand (sort of) but by half eight, you shouldn’t have to tolerate young kids who are too tired and too hungry to be controllable. It’s not fair on them and it’s even less fair on the people who for their sake and others, left their offspring with a babysitter. If they’d wanted children in their evening, don’t you think they’d have brought their own?
Instead, they and all the other diners, parents or otherwise, are obliged to tolerate a boy they’ve never met before, and whose behaviour is frankly objectionable. I love children, and would one day like to love some of my own, but I do think this state of affairs is symptomatic of an age where the young are valued far and above every other society member, including the very old. Only the other day I stood on one of the maddeningly seat-scarce Met trains while a mum allowed three children to occupy a seat each – despite there being a number of people on their feet in the carriage who were far more in need of one. A more courageous person would have said something – but I’m a journalist: it’s in my nature to lash out from behind my pen retrospectively. Nevertheless, in the interests of balance, I decided to see what Mumsnet has to say.
It didn’t take long. Conveniently Mumsnet has an entire section of their site entitled ‘Am I being unreasonable’, and in October of last year the thread ‘Am I being unreasonable to think it's unsociable to let kids scream their heads off in restaurants without even making some effort to suggest that they keep the noise down’ began. ‘I'm not talking about the odd noise’ the questioner added, ‘but when mum’s happily chatting / talking on mobile while their kids are screaming rraaaahhhhh, stampeding over the chairs and generally ruining the whole thing for everyone else in there, why can't the mums just explain that there are some places it's fine to do that (eg park) and some where you could keep a bit quieter?’ Responses varied, some arguing that ‘if you go out in public you have to accept you're going to come up against other people who won't necessarily fit your ideals’; others that ‘those who hate screamers [should] have a bit of sympathy for those of us who have them and can't stop them’ – but, in general, Mumsnet mums agree with me.
There is, of course, another argument not made on Mumsnet, which says that kids brought up at the table with adults are more likely to be better behaved in the long run. That is a valid point – but even then I’d expect such meals to be taken earlier both for the sake of other diners, and for the child. Practice makes perfect, but other people will be far more tolerant if it’s 6 o’clock and you’re clearly making a conscious effort to keep your child or children engaged. The experience of eating unfamiliar food in an unfamiliar place with adult conversation is enormously valuable, and like any growing up phase, has to start somewhere –but there’s no need to plunge us all in the deep end with you half way through a Saturday evening.
Of course this invariably leads us to another feature of our age; the arrival of iPads, PSPs and all the other digital devices that enable children to sit with their parents at the table without so much as a flicker. This is the saddest sight of all. Eat with your children and have them engage with you (as opposed to the rest of us) or eat without them and have them at home with granny: don’t stop their mouths and their minds with a headset and forget they exist. We want them to be quiet, but we don’t want them socially stunted and there is a substantial amount of evidence showing the adverse effects of screen experience on the social and cognitive development of children. Bertie was an over-indulged brat but at least he was capable of pretending to be a plane, something every child should be able to do – provided, of course, it’s not in a nice restaurant at 9pm.