Children and Public Spaces

Feministe has a post that sparked tons of discussion and controversy.

I’m currently childless, but very much pro-kid, which puts me in an odd spot in this conversation. I think that, of course, in places where “adult” activities are going on, it’s reasonable to prohibit children–most bars or nightclubs, adult toy stores, strip clubs. You know, places where the mere presence of a kid is likely breaking a law. And I doubt anyone is seriously arguing against that, but more against the expansion of “child-free spaces” from places that should absolutely never have children to include places where it might be a bad idea for children to be, or places where someone has arbitrarily decided that they don’t want children.

As a comment to the original post, La Lubu describes a ridiculously child-unfriendly hospital:

A cousin of mine sustained serious systemic injury and was airlifted to one of those “destination” hospitals that can handle that sort of thing[…]

So. She’s in the ICU, and in incredibly bad condition. Her kidneys are producing urine the color of motor oil, she had fasciotomies done on both legs (yep, open wounds that expose the muscle), and is in a great deal of pain. I knew my daughter (age 10, who as a preemie has her own litany of stories about hospitals and surgeries and the scars to prove it) wouldn’t be allowed in the ICU. I could live with that. I could live with that even though she has more internal resources for dealing with what she would see in the ICU more than most adults. But fine…I wasn’t going to press the issue, and I explained to my daughter she could sit in the waiting room and read a book, and I’d go visit in a few 30-minute sessions (seeing my daughter in between). Problem solved, right?

Nope. The age restriction to be in the waiting room is age 12. […] I gritted my teeth, told my daughter to be very quiet and invisible, just read her book, and everything would be fine. I got my daughter settled with her book and a drink, and I went to see my cousin.

When I got back, the Hall Monitor of the waiting room immediately started grilling me on my daughter’s age (though she was quietly sitting there in the back of the room, reading her book, disturbing no one). I wouldn’t lie. I told the Hall Monitor my situation […]—could she call her supervisor so we could get this resolved? Nope. […]

So I went off down the hall with my daughter, and we went to a nurse’s station to explain what was going on, and could they call for help. (this was going to be an ongoing problem; might as well make some kind of arrangement now). The nurses helped us out by putting us in a family conference room—which incidentally, had a television, puzzles, board games, and books in it.

That’s a prime example of the arbitrary and ridiculous. Kid’s harming no one, doing nothing wrong. And her mom has to waste valuable time that she could be visiting her injured cousin trying to find a place for her daughter to be.

Someone further down in the comment thread suggested that it was less because “kids are disruptive” and more because “kids are germy” and that it was a health and safety precaution. To which I call BS. If an adult was there coughing, the hospital staff would probably hand them a mask and some hand sanitizer, not tell them to go away. Plus, this is the waiting room, not the ICU. Even if 11-year-olds are more likely to spread germs than 12-year-olds, it isn’t as though she’s going to touch or breathe on someone who’s in intensive care. (Plus, if it were health and safety, I think the age level would be lower. By eleven, most kids have pretty well figured out hygiene.)

More likely, the rule is based on the assumption that kids eleven and younger are likely to be disruptive. Statistically speaking, that might be true, but it’s not fair to tell a kid “get lost” from a space they have a reason to be, and whose rules they are following, just because they’re of an age that they *might* cause problems. Adults don’t get thrown out of public spaces until they actually cause problems; the same “innocent until proven obnoxious” standard should be applied to kids.

It also seems really irrational to keep kids out of an ICU waiting room. What if it were this girl’s parent or sibling who was injured and maybe dying? Even if she can’t be in the room with the family member, why deny her the ability to be nearby, to have the adult visiting relay “I love you’s” between the injured person and the kid? And it’s not like illness and injury only affect people who are “old enough” to handle it. That girl’s been a patient in the ICU, after all.

Further down in the comments, Ellie, a restaurant owner, talks about the flip side of the “child-free spaces” issue:

If an adult were behaving disruptively or inappropriately in my business, I would ask them to stop or ask them to leave. If a child is causing that same disruption, I can’t expect them to know any better– they are learning, after all. Many parents are upset by strangers, even in a helpful or constructive way, trying to calm children or redirect disruptive behavior. Should I address the parent, ask them to address the behavior? Should I ask the child to stop, realizing that the parent may think I’m overstepping my boundaries? I don’t know how to handle this.

I can address an adult that causes disruption in my business. I feel powerless to address children. I think this is a lot of the reason behind many adults’ anxiety towards children in these spaces.

She further pointed out that if parents are asked to quiet a disruptive child, it can be taken as telling them how to parent or being child-hating. Another commenter talked about how she was talking REALLY LOUDLY in a restaurant. The waiter asked her to quiet down, and she did. Meanwhile, a two-year-old behind her was screaming and jumping up and down in her high chair, eventually tipping it, which resulted in even more screaming.

On BitchPhD, Sibyl Vane has a post about why “not liking kids” is bigoted, similar to any other dislike of a big group of people (a race, religion, nationality, disability, etc., though she points out really clearly that she’s not saying “being a kid is just like being Minority X”). She points out, and is annoyed that she has to point out:

[Children] are human beings. Actual members of society. Who, yes, happen to be in a dependent position. Nonetheless, inasmuch as they are members of society, they have a claim on society to help care for them in their dependence so that they do not starve.[…] you do have to deal with his presence in public spaces, even if he’s acting like a little turd; […] you do need to deal with the times when I bring him into work because there is work I can’t put off and there is no one else who can care for him on that day […] And in exchange, my friends, I and he have an obligation to deal with you when you have had a shitty day and are being a turd in a public space

So, okay, lots of conflicting needs and issues to reconcile and try to address. There’s the fact that certain activities, like drinking, have a legal age limit. And because people providing alcohol are held responsible if someone underage gets some from their establishment (even if they provided a really good fake ID or were given a sip on the sly by an adult who was carded), it’s reasonable for those business-people to ban kids all-together. Some don’t, particularly bar & grill restaurants, because a lot of their customers are families, but that’s their call to make.

For any public space where there’s not a law being broken (or likely to be broken) by a child just *being* there, it’s not reasonable to ban kids or set arbitrary age limits. A library or a hospital or a restaurant shouldn’t have the right to kick someone out for being the wrong age. This is not only discriminatory towards children, but also effectively sexist. As tons of people pointed out, restrictions on kids end up being restrictions on women, who still end up doing most of the childcare.

What they *should* be allowed to do, however, is enforce behavior requirements that are appropriate to that space. If I’m at a library trying to do homework, I have a reasonable expectation that a kid running around and screaming will be asked to leave. I have the same reasonable expectation that a grown-up couple having a loud argument, or an adult talking loudly on their cell phone, will be asked to leave. Similar thing for a fancy restaurant. If I go to a busy, popular chain and I’m annoyed by loud conversation (kids or adults), too bad for me for going to a characteristically noisy space and expecting quiet. But if it’s a swanky restaurant where Mr. Thinkstoomuch and I are celebrating an anniversary, yeah, we do have a reasonable expectation of our dinner being quiet and peaceful.

That doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t be *allowed* in that space, just that the standards of behavior for a space should be adhered to. Kids aren’t always to blame for not adhering to those standards. They don’t get to choose where they go, and they have shorter attention spans than grown-ups, and babies especially don’t have a way to make discomfort or anxiety known other than screaming. But, if parents are in a space where there’s an expectation of quiet, and they can’t get a kid settled down, it’s not unreasonable to ask the group to leave. It sucks, because it’s not the kid’s fault, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable as long as the waiter or librarian or hospital staff waits til there’s an actual problem, points out the problem, and only kicks people out if they won’t or can’t solve it.

The idea of behavior rules rather than age limits pretty much strikes a balance between the right of kids to be in public spaces, the right of parents to actually have lives, and the expectation of certain public spaces to be quiet, or conducive to adult conversation, or other requirements.

I say “pretty much” because people certainly use behavior requirements as a sort-of-but-not-really subtle way of discriminating against a group. You could certainly still discriminate against kids by making behavior requirements so stringent that no kid could ever follow them (like kicking a family out the instant a child cries, even if they’re soothed in thirty seconds and it never escalates to full-volume screaming).

Overall, I don’t think we integrate kids into society enough. We separate them, putting them with just their age group most of the day, and then expect them to know the rules and expectations of mixed-age groups, without ever really being taught. So, the more chances kids have to be in public spaces and learn to navigate them, the better. And this has the added benefit of not screwing over parents, mothers in particular. So it should be a win all around.


8 thoughts on “Children and Public Spaces

  1. La Lubu says:

    One of the frustrating things on that thread was how my challenge to that rule was reinterpreted as “throwing a fit” (which I did not do); I find it repulsive that on a feminist site, a fellow feminist’s challenge to authority is automatically assumed to adhere to an antifeminist stereotype of how women (or at least, women of my background) behave. No, I dealt with it the same way I deal with disagreements at work, calm, reasoned communication.

    But the other surprise for me was the invoking of vaccinations and childhood disease. Come the f*ck on! Objectively speaking, my daughter was the statistically (and realistically; her vaccinations are current) least likely person to be carrying a dangerous childhood illness! Most adults in the US do not get the recommended booster vaccinations. I haven’t had a vaccine (other than the annual flu vaccine) for thirty years. Almost all the adults in that ICU waiting room had at least 20 years (some up to 60 years) since their last vaccine! But my daughter is the danger? The mind boggles.

    No, all that policy did was force the children to stand outside in the hallway, with family members taking turns watching the kids who weren’t allowed to sit in comfort like human beings. That doesn’t just suck in terms of stress for the families that have children under 12; it defeats the purpose of limiting the spread of germs (if that was indeed the intent).

    No, I think the intent was the paternalistic idea that children should not know about things like injury, suffering or death. In that same hospital, children of all ages are allowed to visit with patients in every other area. But yeah, I’ll admit that I resent being told that overprotectiveness, silence, and lack of communication with one’s children is the proper way to parent.

  2. ginmar says:

    The reason kids are excluded from certain areas of hospitals is that they are exposed to and carry lots of germs—and hospitals are full of people with compromised immune systems. Then on top of that there’s the anti-vaxx morons, who are responsible for the current resurgence of childhood diseases like whopping cough.

  3. itsalllissasfault says:

    ginmar, thanks very much for your comment.

    I’m okay with excluding kids from an ICU, to keep them away from people with compromised immune systems (assuming that an adult who was coughing or visibly ill would also be excluded). But I think I addressed that issue in my post, that it’s really *little* kids who are likely to carry more germs–the preschoolers, not the ten-year-olds, and that a potentially germy kid should be treated the same way as a potentially germy adult. Kids of a certain age could be given a mask and some hand sanitizer and the risk would be reduced.

    I also think that any place that has a flat age-limit, especially in places where you wouldn’t expect it, like a *waiting room,* owes it to the people who are there to explain *why.* Not necessarily in detail, but if you’re going to tell a polite and well-behaved ten-year-old that she’s not welcome and make life harder for her parent than it needs to be, you do owe them both an explanation.

  4. itsalllissasfault says:

    Thanks, La Lubu. I think you’re right that it has more to do with protecting kids from seeing suffering (a nice sentiment, but pretty divorced from reality) than health issues. I think that the expectation that kids will be disruptive also makes it easier for a hospital to issue a blanket ban than deal with problems on a case-by-case basis.

  5. itsalllissasfault says:

    Also, you both have the honor of being the second and third commenters on my fledgling blog–thanks for being here, and welcome.

  6. La Lubu says:

    Also, you both have the honor of being the second and third commenters

    Oh, cool! I’ll have to come here more often!

    ginmar, I get that people with communicable diseases shouldn’t be visiting patients in the hospital, and that it would be best for them to stay out of waiting rooms as well. It’s just not reasonable to assume that children magically have more germs than adults, or are unable to perform the basic hospital hygiene to limit germ transmission (washing hands, donning gloves and/or gown as the case may be). In my instance, there were at least two grandfathers in the room that merrily hocked loogies into their cloth handkerchiefs, which they then placed back in their pockets….yeah, that’s sanitary! Especially since they’re going to go into the ICU unit itself, unlike my daughter.

    But like I said, I can agree to the rule about the ICU itself, despite disagreeing with its specific age limit…I understand the principle, and think the principle itself is reasonable even though the age limit is a little high. The waiting room is a different story, mostly because of how the logistics work out in practice. In practice, people don’t or can’t leave younger loved ones behind when they travel the hour or four that it takes to get to this hospital (this isn’t a small-town hospital, but one of the major downstate hospitals in Illinois). So, in practice, when people show up and discover this rule, this rule that is markedly different from the rest of the hospital departments (for example: my mother had outpatient brain surgery—cath lab—there last year to fix an aneursym. My daughter was allowed in that unit’s waiting room, no problem, and was allowed to see my mother in the recovery room as well. This hospital was the closest place outside of Chicago to have that operation done, so a lot of Illinois residents have had family there at one point in time or another; if you know that, it’s easy to see why there would be so many people unaware of the ICU waiting room rule)—here’s what happens: they congregate outside of the waiting room, in the hallway, by the restrooms. I saw several families doing just that, taking turns with the younger family members that can’t enter the waiting room. I didn’t realize that was the reason so many people were out in the hallway; I thought it had something to do with cell phones.

    Every now and then, family members would take turns taking the younger ones for a walk throughout the hospital, since they couldn’t sit anywhere and read, watch tv, play with puzzles, or whatever. They’d take them to the cafeteria and the snack bar a lot. (remember, in the ICU, folks are there for hours). Isn’t this making it more likely for germs to be spread? I mean, it isn’t just kids who spread germs—everyone does, and maximizing the number of people spreading themselves throughout the hospital seems like maximizing the number of people spreading germs.

    But since I upset the apple cart and asked the nurses in a neighboring section what reasonable compromise could be found, they directed me to the family counseling room they use for such a purpose. The nurses see this problem in action every day, and worked out their own solution since the hospital won’t budge on the official policy (say, by formally setting aside a “family waiting room” to accommodate people who have children under age 12). It solves many problems—giving parents a worry-free site to have their kids while they visit their loved one in the ICU, keeps kids from getting bored (not every kid will sit and read for hours like mine will), and keeps younger children in a isolated room (rather than throughout the hospital) which can easily be disinfected just in case they do have an illness but are asymptomatic. Makes sense, no?

    My other issue is this: had this been the 1970’s, I wouldn’t have had to ask the nurses for help. I could have taken my daughter down to the lobby, or the snack bar, set her up with a drink, and had that be the solution. In the 1970’s people had greater knowledge of, and greater respect for, proper developmental milestones like “being able to occupy oneself and stay out of trouble”.

    Kids haven’t changed. But the attitude toward parents (especially mothers—fathers don’t get the same level of micromanagement) has. If it had been legal for me to leave my daughter alone with a book and a cell phone in the snack bar or lobby, that’s what I would have done. I really don’t go out of my way to pester people, and I prefer the path of least resistance. But that wasn’t an option. All it would have taken was one person calling the police, and my daughter would have been whisked off to foster care several counties away from where I live, and I would have been arrested. All because of backlash against working womens’ parenting practices, which include expecting a lot of personal responsibility from their kids.

    You’re around my age, right, ginmar? Haven’t you seen this sea change in practice? This move towards…helicopter parenting being “proper” and encouraging independence being “neglect”?

  7. ginmar says:

    Oh, hell, Lubu, in the summer I got tossed out the door after breakfast, did this thing called ‘playing’ and was only allowed back in the house for meals or injuries and after washing—which I sometimes did in the creek. We did not live in the country, but in a city of 100,000. My mom and dad were extremely strict, and I’m glad for this. I knew what would happen if I misbehaved in public at an early age. My sisters, however, have raised at least two incredible ill-behaved brats between them, to the point where when my niece is around–at the age of 9!—one has to hide one’s purse, electronics, or anything. My sisters seem to have forgotten that they’re parents, not friends.

    I don’t know if this is an American thing or not—but when you keep kids infantilized long past diapers, I guess people are going to freak out when they’re alone or whatever. I don’t think the old system was all that bad, myself. I’ve seen the difference between myself and people a generation younger, where I was taught to take care of myself and be alert and well-behaved and sensible, and they were encouraged to verbalize their feelings at all costs and never have any discipline.

    I frankly think kids are being deprived. I had an ideal childhood, because I didn’t have playdates or shit like that: I roamed the neighborhood, played in the woods, and I loved my stern parents something fierce. They were strict but fair and I grew up knowing what was right and what was wrong. When I behaved well, I got rewards. Most of all, though, I loved them. They did things like read to me and act out the stories, mom and dad both, and helped me deliver papers and do my homework—but never did it for me–and listened to me and disagreed with me. From my mother I learned to carry a big Bag so as to contain the stuff that one would need in case of unforeseen events. Not fashionable, but when you’re a woman with four kids? A life saver. She had Kleenex, vitamins, aspirin, bandaids, a sewing kit, god only knows what else in there. It was awe-inspiring, and by the time I was ten I knew enough to carry a book and maybe a few other things, too. God, I miss my mother so bad.

    Mothers are being shortchanged by this, too. My mom could raise her kids and rely on them—for me it was about the age of 12—to help out with chores and stuff and do little things for themselves while she had some peace and quiet. I loved my mother to pieces, but she was not my friend. Later on, when she became both Mom and Lucille, the girl with the formerly red hair, I loved her with as another person, all flawed and vulnerable. Same thing with my dad. They gave me and kids of my generation the ability to be kids and then to be adults. Nowadays it just seems like everybody’s a big pain in the ass.

    Sorry I got maudlin. I do miss my mother something terrible, because later on life, when she stopped being such an awe-inspiring figure, her own upbringing—“How would YOU feel if someone did that to you, Gin? How would you FEEL?!”—-led me to see her for what she had lived through, and experienced, and triumphed over. The thing that gets me to this day, is that she thought she was a bad mom for going back to work. To support us kids. I don’t even have the space to detail the sense of magic my parents and their upbringing gave to me. My mom used to tell that dewdrops on rosebushes were diamonds left by fairies and if human beings touched them for greed’s sake….Some things, she said, were lovely but fragile, not meant to be owned or taken or even touched, just loved and appreciated.

    I dn’t know if that answers your question, but….

  8. […] Evil Slutopia wrote a post on child-free spaces, nicely summarizing the dust-up on Feministe and quoting a bunch of other blogs on the same topic, including my post. […]

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