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Suffer the little children (1)


As I sit at my computer in a spacious bar (part of a former air-force barracks that was tastefully renovated soon after the Cold War ended) on a late Saturday afternoon, with a cool glass of white Languedoc wine to lubricate my synapses, the air is rent once more by the screams of a young child some twenty or thirty metres away. The screams go on, and on. I’ve been sitting here for a couple of hours now, and this is about the sixth time it’s happened. Probably not the same child, as the direction of the decibels varies (although that may just be because it’s running around) – but always the same sound. I hardly ever hear kids laughing, or talking normally – they scream, and they do it at the slightest provocation. Thwart them in whatever they want right now, and they scream. Freddie Mercury, you have a lot to answer for.

Now, when I was a child – sorry for the cliché – my parents had a very effective three-step plan for dealing with my bad behaviour in public places. Step 1: they stopped whatever they were doing and firmly told me to cease and desist. In those days there were no smartphones, digital cameras or other such distractions, so very often they were paying attention to me – and, as they did so, teaching me by osmosis how to behave in public. Step 2: if I disobeyed, they instantly paid the bill (even if their order had only just arrived) and we all went straight home. Step 3: they made it very clear that if I misbehaved again we would never go back there. They did all this as a united front, so there was no question of playing one of them off against the other. A couple of such experiences was all it took. It was a brief hassle for them, wasting their money on unconsumed food or drinks – but they didn’t have do it for long, for I soon got the message. Any signs of reversion to type were met with warning glances, and I automatically backed down – for I knew the warnings would be followed through.

How very different things are nowadays. More and more restaurants and bars have small play areas or large boxes of toys – I suspect a response to the drop in turnover caused by the viral smoking bans. The incessant clatter of the toys (often thrown about rather than played with) and their distribution throughout the premises (so that busy passageways where staff carry precariously balanced trays of food, glassware and often scalding liquids are littered with small rolling objects) are just one new irritant. But the worst change is in the parents, who no longer seem to have time for the kids they’ve brought into the world – and have now brought with them to wherever I happen to be. How often have I seen small groups of mothers (invariably outnumbered by their children) chatting away or comparing photographs and text messages, studiedly oblivious to the havoc their kids are causing all round them – or, if possible, somewhere out of their sight and earshot (‘go and play round the corner, dear, mummy’s talking to Linda’). Little is now done to stop children climbing on seats with their outdoor shoes still on – seats that other people will later sit on, staining their clothes with whatever the kids happen to have stepped in en route. And if the kids aren’t actually screaming, they’re doing their best to interrupt the adults’ conversations with crescendo cries of ‘Mummy! Daddy! MUM-MY! DAD-DY!‘ As I write, precisely this has been happening at a table very near mine, for the best part of an hour – a great source of inspiration (and rectalgia).

And then there are the cease-and-desist orders. On one recent occasion I heard a Dutch mother tell her son (who was about seven years old, so no babbling infant) to stop doing something obnoxiously noisy after he’d been doing it for quite some time and even she was sick and tired of it – or, more likely, the annoyed glances they were getting from other patrons. The brat shouted ‘No!’ and began screaming and whining at high volume. So what did mother do? She turned to her two friends at the table, shrugged helplessly and literally said Ja, je doet je best (‘Well, you try….’). No follow-through, no firmness, no upbringing. Seconds later the three women were back at their mobile phones, and brat was engaged in some other form of antisocial mischief. I didn’t see him smile or hear him laugh so much as once in the very long time they were there – he mostly had a scowl on his face, or a malicious glint in his eye. I am not making this up.

The real killer is the ding-dong debate on the subject that is now raging on the Internet. A large number of people – including parents of young children – appear to share my views, and welcome action by restaurants, shopping centres and other public places to tackle this scourge, for instance with signs that read ‘Screaming children will NOT be tolerated’. But least as many people are ferociously up in arms at this ‘unacceptable’ curtailment of their ‘right’ to bring up their own children precisely as they see fit, wherever they choose to do it. People with views like mine are dismissed as ‘grinches’, ‘fascists’, ‘child-haters’ and worse. ‘Come on, they’re kids – get over it!’ (that horridly selfish expression again). And some self-proclaimed experts on child rearing speak of the ‘growing intolerance’ in society, of which this is supposedly just another part.

Nonsense. It’s society that has changed, and any ‘intolerance’ is clearly a response to this from members of society that dislike the change. And please don’t start with the old saw about ‘things changing all the time, that’s life’. Not all changes are for the better – and blaming the victim never makes a problem go away.

Sure, I have no kids of my own. And sure, bringing up kids must be damn hard. So why do people keep doing it? Biological urge? Survival of the race? Saving their marriage? Preserving the family name? We have compulsory tests and examinations for so much else. Why not this?

One Comment
  1. Monika Sears permalink

    I have had children. I have grandchildren. I have observed my children and their friends bringing up the next generation and I think that above all, they are afraid of their children.
    “What untold psychological damage am I going to inflict on my child if I insist that he eat soup with a spoon and not his hands?”
    We live in the age of psychobabble which has scrambled common sense.

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