Monday, January 28, 2013

Children in venues, and why this whole debate makes me sad

There is a Thing on Twitter and elsewhere at the moment that I've been following. It's rehashing a very well-worn theme that resurges from time to time, and provokes a strong division of opinion. It comes down to this: Some people think that children should be excluded / banned from either certain kinds of venues, or from certain venues after specified times, or from certain kinds of activities that are not R-rated. (I'm not even going to engage with the people who think that children should basically be NOWHERE AT ALL THAT I CAN SEE EVAH, because a) they are extremists, and one can't debate extremists and b) their arseholery and entitledness more or less defeats its own ends and they get little traction with people who are not of their own limited cast of mind).

I think it's not coincidental that this "issue" is being discussed again in the immediate wake of the David Koch breastfeeding in public snafu (if you missed it, Google it!) I also am not surprised that there is a strong correlation between those who dismissed the whole Koch thing as "not important" or "not a feminist issue" and those who think that childrens' presence in public spaces can be and should be limited. That some of these people are also self-touted feminist spokespeople makes me sad, but doesn't surprise me.

Having picked it to death in my head, there are two things that I find the most problematic about this argument:

1. It is inevitably and deeply discriminatory as currently argued.
Let's be really clear about this:

Venues already have the right to ask disruptive patrons to leave, whether the disruption comes from a shouty drunk, a party of merrymakers harassing the staff, OR a child breaking stuff. Whether or not they exercise this right is up to their judgement, and each draws the line differently.

But when you say "no children allowed" or "no children allowed after a certain time", you are not basing that exclusion on bad, damaging behaviour that's occurring. What you want to do is exclude a class of people based on an innate characteristic (age). The very presence of children, regardless of what they do, say or how they behave, is cast as an ill to be avoided, because their innate nature is unwanted, offensive or undesired. I cannot understand how you can argue that this is different from excluding, say, people with different skin colour, or people with disabilities, because, after all, some patrons would rather not look at / see those people. It's pretty sickening, isn't it, when you put it in those terms?

I know that there are reasons beyond taste why people may be very uncomfortable with children around. I feel for people struggling with child loss or infertility; being surrounded by children must be agonising at times, and I wish it wasn't that way. But, and I will wear it if this sounds harsh (and you may have at me in comments, I won't censor anything) - the public sphere and public venues are not lock-down safe spaces for grieving or traumatised people. It's absolutely alright to limit your private world in whatever way you need to, but to ask others - strangers - to carry the weight of your grief which they have in no way personally occasioned seems to me to be taking the point beyond what it will bear.

2. Whether this is understood or acknowledged or not, things that restrict childrens' access to public space also restrict parents' access to it, and in reality, often, disproportionately restrict mothers' access.

Parenting children is experienced differently by everyone, and just as every child is individual, so is every family dynamic. Some parents frequently take their children to public venues, others much less often, and that is for a million different reasons that are not important to this argument. Some parents and carers take their children to venues at times when the conventional wisdom is that those children "ought to be in bed", because clearly there is One True Way to Raise All Children, and All Children Have the Same Patterns, Cycles and Needs.

What happens if you bring down the ban hammer on childrens' presence at venues or at particular times? Yes, some parents get babysitters and leave the kids at home. Yes, some choose alternative venues (if available) instead. But some can't afford babysitting, or have kids that have issues that mean that they can't easily be left with others, or have no reasonable alternative venue available. So then one or more than one caregiver stays at home with the children - and in the standard narrative, this is often (although not always) the mother.

What's the message here? I'll boil it down for you:
a) When you have children, you should largely retreat to the private sphere, because
b) The public sphere is for grown-ups and their grown-up concerns, not for small persons and their carers; therefore
c) While you are parenting, you are not as fully adult as others are.

This is, of course, ten times worse when you add the breastfeeding crap into it. Women - when you breed, you cease to be proper grown-ups in the subtext of much of this debate. If you have the nerve to suggest that these are feminist issues ... well. They're not, because feminism isn't for mothers, you realise.

One of the blogs that I read often and really love is called Are Women Human? Grace, the author of that blog, writes about many feminist and humanist issues, using her central question as a locus for all her discussions, and it's astonishing how often that question - so simple, so profound - can point up the ways in which gender-based inequalities are manifested and justified.

What I'd really like to say to people who think that it's OK to ban children from places and spaces based on the fact of their age and nothing else is this: Do you believe mothers are human? I don't mean "sure, IN THE ABSENCE OF THEIR KIDS" - I mean as you find them, which can include plus-children. Do you believe that children are human? I don't mean "potential humans" or "one-day humans" - I mean human RIGHT NOW, in their current state of being.

I'm not asking if you like kids. I'm not asking if you want any, or if you enjoy spending time with them. I'm not asking if the sound of children chattering is pleasant to you, or if you would prefer to be in public without them. You can like whatever you like and prefer whatever you prefer; it's all good, not everyone is the same.

What I am asking though is whether you believe that your likes and preferences, and even, yes, your inconveniences, gazump the fact (if you so acknowledge it) that children are human, and mothers are human, and do not, should not, lose their human right to walk the world because you don't enjoy their presence.

What I am asking is whether you would support this kind of discrimination against any other demographic you care to name.

What I'm asking is whether you can believe that part of being human yourself is accepting the diversity of the world, in all its messiness and imperfection, and being able to see the richness of the whole that's woven from the many.

The many that includes children - their perspectives, their voices, their presence, their humanity.

So that's what I think about that.


  1. I'm conflicted on this.

    An example off the top of my head: it's common for pub music gigs to be 18+ only, even if the performance itself would not be rated R. Is this a problem?

    1. If they are 18+ because they take place in a venue that serves alcohol, then I think there is a different argument in play there to do with licensing and so forth, and that can be a reasonable argument. I also suspect that it's designed to exclude teenagers who would attend sans adults and probably drink, although I cannot verify that.

      Remember, though, that children CAN legally be in pubs if they are with a responsible adult who is over 18 years. (They cannot consume alcohol though, which probably goes without saying!)

      If a breastfeeding mother wants to attend such as gig and bring her nursing infant or toddler, should they be excluded? Not in my opinion, absolutely not.

  2. Yep well, I've happily taken little kids for lunch at pubs. But there are those where I'd do that, and those where I wouldn't.

    Are conditions at some (not all) gigs likely to be dangerous for children, especially babies? eg noise? Jostling and risk of crush? Would organisers risk legal action if something happened? Apart from pubs (which can be pretty cramped and pretty sweaty), what about something like the Big Day Out, for instance?

    1. Well, there, you might be looking at a health & safety / burden type exception - along the lines that venues or events can be exempt from undue burden to render an event suitable for wheelchairs etc.

      Honestly though, I don't think this is what the debate is about. It's people arguing that children should be excludable *because some adults don't want them there*, rather than arguing about the safety of places and environments for people of different ability and maturity levels.

    2. while i completely support a mothers right to breastfeed in public i also am aware that i would not approve of them doing so in certain places, a pub/restaurant or pleasant country pub in the evening is one thing but as the person who commented previously said a noisy busy pub is nowhere to have babies or young children and similarly certain venues should be child free for the protection of the child! some parents are not sensible or responsible they let their children watch 18 movies they leave their kids running round unsupervised at festivals etc where they can get into all sorts of problems and then they sue the venue when the kid breaks a leg this is why many places will ban children under certain ages now, its one thing to ask a drunk to leave for being rowdy its the drunks responsibly for getting drunk and everyone can see it but asking parents with rowdy kids to leave who are not willing to accept that their kids are less than perfect ??? lawsuit waiting to happen , i have woken up in my tent at a festival site to find someones kid rummaging in my food box for sweets while their parents were nowhere in sight [they seemed as if they had been heavily asleep after a drinking session when i went to complain and got angry with me for saying their kid had done anything wrong ] its people like that who have ruined things for decent responsible parents everywhere