Kids and Coffee Shops
posted by Amy

Okay, so I was going to stay away from this article about rowdy kids and annoyed coffee shop owners, but I find myself thinking about it too much to ignore it. Right now, my husband is ready to boycott his beloved locally-owned, ultra-hip café (with free wi-fi) because the staff there declined a request for our daughter's small preschool to bring their annual Halloween parade through the café. He's been walking around ranting, "They wouldn't even let them walk through! In their costumes! Jesus, it's not like they had to set up a play structure or something!"

I'm torn, since this is the place Sheri and I half-jokingly called the mamazine.com office for months, as it's where we met as we began work on the site. We didn't come with our kids, though, because we had work to do, and I realize now that part of the appeal of the place is the library-like hush and grown-up atmosphere. It's not a cosy place, and I've even felt sometimes like it's not a place where people are supposed to hang and chat; the prevalence of solitary customers concentrating intently on their laptops' screens inhibits conversation, at least inside. It's also not a place I want to take my kids; even my relatively-quiet-in-public kids (hey, there are some benefits to having extremely shy children…) would seem loud and annoying in that atmosphere.

I frequent the drive-thru coffee places (including Starbucks) much more often than I did before I had kids. I don't know about the other patrons, but I don't find it very relaxing to sit and drink my latte while my children run around. Plus, I have little patience for the heart-to-heart talks with friends that are interrupted every three seconds; I forget what I wanted to say and get frustrated pretty quickly. While I know some amazing mamas who are multi-tasking goddesses, I'm just not one of them. If I want to hang out and talk to a friend over coffee, I usually do it when the kids are at school or when my husband is home. Most days, if I have kids in tow, I'd rather just grab my coffee to go and drink it at the park.

But the tone of this article bothers me, as it seems to imply that this is part of a war between the "breeders" and the "child-free," and I don't think that's what it is. I think, instead, that it's much more complex. Children—and their caregivers—are expected to exist quietly and out of sight in American society, or at least some think so. Invisibility is isolating and depressing for parents and other caregivers. During the years when I had one school-age child, a toddler, and a baby, I sometimes dragged them all to cafes and restaurants so that I could sit where other adults were. I didn't want to be with other parents—I didn't want to actually interact with adults in my exhausted state, nor did I want to have to referee fights between my kids and someone else's. I just wanted to be out in the world, to regain perspective, to perhaps get enough caffeine into my system to get me through those late-afternoon hours which felt like marathons some days.

I'm fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood where some child-friendly cafes and restaurants have opened up recently. The truly welcoming owners created play areas for children and serve fresh, healthy food for all ages. While we've tested these new places out, my personal refuge when I just need to eat out and can't spend as much as it would cost to eat at any of the local places is, embarrassingly, Wendy's. Despite having read Fast Food Nation, I keep coming back to this particular Wendy's, partly because of the Frosties, but mostly because the other customers tend to be elderly people who often compliment us on our "beautiful" and "well-behaved" children (even when said children have fallen out of their chairs five times, smeared Frosties and ketchup all over themselves, and hide their faces from the sweet older woman trying to say hello to them. Maybe one of the reasons fast food places remain so popular for families is that they're among the few places that are family-friendly. I don't have any illusions that the fast food industry cares about my kids except as consumers, but fast food restaurants, like malls, are among the few indoor places kids are welcomed with toys (advertising products and movies, sure, but toys nonetheless) and even indoor playgrounds.

Even Starbucks caters to families with organic chocolate milk and vanilla milk boxes, small tables for kids, and the Disneyesque attitudes of employees who are trained to be friendly! And smile! Even when your three-year-old has clogged the toilet in the restroom with WAY too much toilet paper. Or spilled your coffee. Or left more cookie crumbs on the floor than in her stomach.

As I took my daughter to preschool the other day, I noticed the sign had gone up on the new building under construction two doors down from the café which opted not to let the kids bring their Halloween parade through. Turns out a Starbucks is opening up—and while I'll choose to go to the other place when I'm by myself, I suspect it's Starbucks I'll run into on the more frequent occasions that I have children in tow.