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Rugrats and restaurant etiquette

Who among us has not had the unnerving experience of settling into a favorite booth at a cozy bistro, only to have that delicate arugula appetizer obliterated by the piercing cries of unrestrained children?

Surely the parents will calm them down, you think, grabbing that glass of Chardonnay for moral support. Yet the whoops and hollers continue. They escalate. Soon the yelling is joined by the thunder of tiny feet stampeding around the dining table like runaway rats in a maze. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, you turn in the direction of the commotion, scanning the table for a look of concern or admonition on the part of the accompanying adult, only to find -- nothing. The parents sit calmly by, chattering mindlessly, completely oblivious to the fact that patrons at nearby tables are ready to throttle the children and throw their bones onto the kitchen's rotisserie.

How can these people inflict their offspring on the other people in the room, other people who are paying good money, and spending precious time in quest of a soothing atmosphere and an enjoyable dinner experience? Restaurants are public places, not exercise yards for feral youngsters.

Small children allowed to run loose in the aisles, to scream, fuss and throw food, all without a word from adults, are unlovable monsters of the future. They and their adult companions should be asked to leave.

A few things are clearly at work here, social forces conspiring to create auditory mayhem in a variety of public places -- restaurants, movie theaters, libraries, airplanes, churches -- places we share with other like-minded citizens in search of sanctuary, food, entertainment and mobility. These fellow citizens have paid for these privileges and are entitled to a certain amount of fair exchange for keeping their end of the social contract.

One suspects that parents who flagrantly abuse restaurants as child-care yards are the same people who talk out loud in darkened movie theaters. Having grown accustomed to chattering during home video watching, they let themselves grow sloppy and "forget" that others would prefer to listen to Julia Roberts instead of them.

A modest proposal

Check out John Stuart Mills' On Liberty for the clearest statement of the arrangement. We're free to exercise our liberty up to the point where our actions infringe on someone else's freedom. In other words, we're all in this together. By going into a public place to dine, or to purchase coffee and read the newspaper, we each agree to abide by tacit rules of politeness and mutual respect.

Let's apply this pragmatic theory to noise conduct. When you enter a public zone, a space you share with others who similarly expect to be entering a public zone geared to a common purpose, e.g., dining, movie going, football-watching, you have to realize that you're one of many people engaged in the activity.

Here's the deal. Many of the people sitting at tables around you, struggling not to throw down their forks and give you a piece of their minds, are dining out as a break from dinner with the little rugrats. Unlike you, they actually shelled out cash money and hired a babysitter so as not to inflict their rambunctious toddlers on total strangers.

You made the choice to have children. That choice requires certain sacrifices.

Sensory bombardment

But clearly, you're thinking, anyone who finds herself outraged at the behavior of maturity-challenged youngsters must be a throwback to another era. This is the 21st century, where the self-esteem of humans-in-training must be nurtured to the exclusion of good manners, ambience, even -- from where I sit -- common sense.

So why is this a problem? Because we don't taste solely with our taste buds. Whenever we want to engage in some pleasantly sensual experience -- and that's surely what enjoying a meal is about -- it's difficult to appreciate the main experience when suffering from sensory bombardment.

Every restaurateur knows that the point of the dining experience is to appeal to all our appetites. That's why they bother to create an attractive setting, bring food to the table fragrant and hot, provide soft, pleasing music and veto TVs blaring baseball scores in the background. Not only is it rude in the extreme to inflict your gene-carriers on the public in these pleasant settings, it borders on criminal negligence. Your screaming child is destroying the value of someone else's dinner. Instead of that fresh-baked pastry they ordered, your fellow diner is actually having your child's decibel overload stuffed down his eyes, ears, nose and throat.

If your children aren't ready for prime time, keep them at home until they are.

Christina Waters writes for Metro Santa Cruz, a California alternative newsweekly where this article first appeared.

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