An Open Letter from DEFCON Dining

Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

So it's been a while since all the hubbub surrounding La Fisheria's policy change, banning children under the age of 8 past 7 p.m. The story touched many nerves, with responses ranging from the predictable to the (perhaps) surprising. In my time penning DEFCON Dining, I've seen many of those same responses in the comments section: childless diners telling me to keep my brood caged until they're old enough to vote; sympathetic parents shouting down those who say children should be neither seen nor heard; the few rare voices reaching across the aisle to suggest that perhaps some accommodations could be made by both parties.

I understand why it's a polarizing issue; people without kids want to have a nice time when they go out to dinner, and so do people with kids. Fair or not, popular perception seems to be that children can't behave themselves in adult spaces. This is exacerbated by parents and non-parents alike, promotes both real and imagined behavioral issues, and occasionally culminates in the arguably drastic step of banning an entire class of humans from the privileged domain of "civilized adults."

In thinking through what a ban on children means, and my response to it, I returned time and again to a simple rule that has long guided my behavior in public spaces, and one which should help diners of both camps navigate the turbulent waters of dining out with and among children: don't be an ass****.

A while back, we were having dinner at El Real (Montrose Mondays, whut.) with my wife's sister, her husband, and their 3-year-old son. The kids were horseshoed around the end of the table, trading whatever passes for witticisms between three people whose cumulative age doesn't equal one legal drinker. Things were going fine, except my gymnast daughter wouldn't stop practicing her parallel bar forms on the edge of the table. I'd warned her several times that she was going to tip the table over, and that she had better knock it off, but the kids were being otherwise quiet and unobtrusive, so we decided to let them (generally) be while we conversed amongst ourselves. Clearly, this was a mistake.

When my nephew started screaming bloody murder, the shriek ripping through the restaurant exactly like a 3-year-old screaming bloody murder, it took us a few seconds to figure out what had happened. I'd seen the table tip out of the corner of my eye, and momentarily feared, based upon my peripheral view, that he'd taken the corner in a most inopportune place. The nearest adult, I rushed to his side and tried to calm him, checking for signs of injury. He was inconsolable, though he did not appear to be injured. Still, he wouldn't stop screeching. It was as if the entire restaurant had turned into a funnel, with every scrap of light, sound, and attention feeling as if it were focused directly on our 30 square feet of mortification. It was like being caught in the event horizon of a black hole made of embarrassment.

The thing is, it only lasted a few seconds before my sister-in-law scooped him up and rushed him from the building. That's called not being an ass****. She recognized that her child's behavior was impacting other diners, and she resolved the issue quickly and with as little drama as possible. The world rushed back in just as quickly, and everyone went about their business as if nothing had happened. Nobody glared, nobody made a big deal out of it. That's also called not being an ass****.

To be clear, the incident was certainly disruptive, though fleetingly so, and people acted as if they'd been fleetingly disrupted. That's not always how it goes. I've been witness to parents letting their kids run pell-mell around the restaurant, dodging waiters and jostling diners. That's being an ass****. I've had other diners glare at me and mutter under their breath when one of my kids had a moment of less-than-decorous behavior. That's also being an ass****.

Dining out with kids always has the potential to head south. Children are, in a way, "civilized people" in training. They're learning the ropes, testing the waters, and testing the limits for acceptable social behavior. It's a natural process, and one that always has its share of bumps in the road. It's also a process that each of us has faced at some point, even if only on the tantrum-pitching end. As a parent who's been on the receiving end plenty of times, I know that bad behavior is an occasional fact of life.

Children tend to be loud and lacking in social graces; that's why we teach them how to mind their manners. To me, that education is not merely for the benefit of myself and my children, but for the benefit of the broader community in which we live. I consider it a part of the social contract implicit in participating in public life that I keep my family's behavior from negatively impacting the experiences of those around us. That doesn't mean forcing them to sit straight-backed and silent, but it does mean keeping them in their seats and maintaining a volume and demeanor appropriate to the environment. If they get out of hand, I do what I can to mitigate the impact the impact. In short, I try not to be an ass****. Parents, this goes a long way.

When I find myself in the rare situation of dining without my kids, and am surrounded by other people's, I try to be understanding of the issues parents face. Nobody wants someone else's kid throwing rolls in his soup, but we should be able to tolerate the slightly more boisterous nature of children without wrinkling our noses in ignorant contempt. If a kid in the table next to mine bumps my chair while returning from the bathroom, I assure the embarrassed parent that it's no big deal. I've been there, and besides, that's just basic human consideration. Non-parents, this goes a long way.

So, back to the point at hand. I think there's something inherently unsavory about an otherwise normal restaurant banning children. After all, it's not the age but the behavior that is problematic; a well behaved 4-year-old makes a better dining companion than a loud and obnoxious twenty-something (or forty- or eighty-something). That a restaurant feels that the best way to serve its clientele is to bar entry to an entire group of people seems somewhat contrary to the ideals of inclusion and non-discrimination that guide so much of American culture and law.

That said, kids aren't a protected group in public accommodation law; neither are the elderly, as far as I can tell. I wonder what the reaction would be if a restaurant decided that it was going to ban patrons over the age of 65 after 7 p.m.?

It's not that I really have a problem with the ban, though. It's easy enough for me to patronize other restaurants when I have my kids in tow, and I'm always careful to consider the appropriateness of a given restaurant for my kids on a given day. If a couple of restaurants fall off of our rotation because my kids aren't welcome after 7, the impact is relatively small.

In the end, though, I think the broader implications are more troubling. To me, it points to the fact that people aren't following that simple rule I mentioned above. Let's not ban children from our restaurants. Let's ban ass****s.

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