Seen and Heard: Creating a Child-Friendly Culture

By Wendy Ponte
Issue 96, September/October 1999

Illustration of Child-Friendly areaOn a cold December day, Kerry Jane King took a walk through the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens with her visiting elderly parents and her 13-month-old daughter, Bernice, who was asleep in the stroller. Their planned walk took them to the garden’s conservatory, a large complex that houses several indoor gardens and a cafe, the only eatery within a 20-minute radius. They would have some lunch and take a break from the cold air.

“No strollers are allowed inside,” said the security guard at the entrance, looking bored.

King explained that Bernice was napping and asked to speak to a supervisor, but, in the end, she and her parents were forced to take turns waiting outside with the baby while the others had lunch. The supervisor would not even allow them to wait just inside the door, where it was warm. Also, they were told if they chose to wake her up and carry her inside, the gardens would not take responsibility for watching the stroller.

Parents expect their lives to become more complex when they have children. When we discuss the possibility of starting a family, joking about the loss of freedom and convenience that is sure to come is de rigueur.

However, few of us are prepared for the often harsh reality of life with children in public situations. Many of us are surprised when we are made to feel our children are not welcome or when we are not allowed to use the tools (such as a stroller) we need to conduct our lives. Sometimes the vehemence with which these restrictions are imposed is very shocking. We worry about how this negativity might affect our children’s self-esteem. Sadly, few of us feel we have the right to make a “fuss”; we don’t try to change the situations that cause us, and our children, such discomfort.

It often seems to parents as though our country is still operating under the old Victorian cliche “children should be seen and not heard.” Sometimes it can seem like even the “seen” part is dubious.

It’s Just a Feeling
Parents find the unspoken antipathy with which they, and their children, are often greeted to be particularly difficult to deal with. “Sometimes it’s just a look,” says mother Jennifer Lee of Wellesley, Massachusetts, “but you know you are not really welcome there.”

Michele Mason is a lactation consultant and the mother of three children, ages four, nine, and 11. She clearly remembers boarding a plane with her first infant at the outset of a trip. “The looks I got from the other passengers were shocking,” she says. “They did not want to be sitting next to us, and you could see the relief in their eyes as I walked past their aisle.”

Once she did find her seat, things weren’t much better. The woman sitting next to her made it clear she did not approve of Mason nursing her child on the plane. The one time the baby did actually cry (not bad for a six-hour flight) everyone glared at her. “In general I felt a new awakening about how children are treated in public,” reports Mason.

Parents have become so used to feeling the unspoken antipathy with which they and their children are greeted that many are anxious before they’ve even left their own front doors. Parents know that the expectations many adults seem to have of children’s “good” behavior are not necessarily realistic for young children. Children are noisier and less inhibited than adults by nature, not by choice; and it is not always possible or advisable for parents to “control” them.

No Children Allowed Here
In some situations, children are outright prohibited. Prior to the birth of my daughter, Adelaide, my husband and I frequently stayed at a bed and breakfast in Massachusetts when visiting my extended family. This lovely inn, on an old farm, had only two guest rooms, and we had developed something of a rapport with the owners.

When Adelaide was only a few weeks old, we planned a trip to Massachusetts to introduce her to all my cousins. I called the inn to make my reservation and was told, “Sorry, but we just don’t allow children here.”

This disappointment, mixed with a sense of shame and rejection, during an already difficult time in my life as a new mom was very difficult to deal with. “These are crucial moments in people’s lives,” says Dr. Joseph Cancelmo, a psychologist and coauthor with Carol Bandini of the newly released book Childcare for Love or Money? “You really mess with people’s ability to eke out some family experience of personal enjoyment,” he says, “and it’s sad.”

Breastfeeding in Public
Perhaps the most difficult public situation many mothers face is one they may have to deal with the moment they become a parent. Although there is more acceptance of breastfeeding than there used to be, the situation is far from perfect.

When Julie Triedman’s daughter, Olivia, was four months old, she went on an afternoon outing to the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn with her husband and two-year-old son. Olivia began to cry, and Triedman knew it was time to feed her. She left the others, sat down on a bench in a quiet part of the zoo’s plaza near the exit stairs, and began to nurse. Just as she was finishing, she saw a guard slowly approach, jingling his key. “You can go inside and do that, you know; this is a public place,” he said.

Triedman knew that New York State law was on her side but felt humiliated and angered by the implication that she was doing something wrong. “Every time I return to the zoo and see that guard, I cringe,” she says.

Nursing women feel vulnerable because, while doctors suggest nursing up to age one, the public often gives another message: stay home to do it. Since newborns need to nurse often and at unpredictable times, this would make many women prisoners in their own homes.

“This is a problem in many states, even those with laws protecting breastfeeding in public,” says Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who is currently working on a new bill that will support a working woman’s right to pump on the job. “I think we need to educate people about breastfeeding as a natural choice for many women. Unfortunately, many people learn by example, so when they see or hear about incidents where breastfeeding is not accepted in public, these women do not feel like they are supported in their decision to breastfeed.”

Wheelchairs, Yes. Strollers, No
When my daughter was ten months old, I spent a day at the Baltimore Aquarium with her and my father. We purchased our tickets and followed the signs to the entrance only to discover that it was accessible by a very long set of stairs without even one landing in the middle.

“Is there an elevator?” I asked the guard.

“You have to carry the stroller up,” he said. “The elevator is only for disabled persons.”

Between the two of us we would have been able to manage the stroller and our bags, but I wondered what I would have done had I been alone or had back problems (or twins). We spoke to a supervisor, who finally relented and allowed us to use the elevator, justifying it to herself by announcing that my father — a strong, healthy man of 70 — was “elderly” and needed the assistance.

Once we got to the top we were so grateful to have been spared the task of carrying my daughter up all the stairs we didn’t even bother quibbling when we discovered that strollers were not allowed inside the exhibits at all. At least the aquarium provided a secure place to stash it and supplied a backpack child carrier. If my child had been two or older, though, I imagine it would have been quite difficult to carry her on my back the entire time.

“The problem with this is it really is a rejection, not only of the kids, but of the parents as adults trying to get through the world in their family unit,” says Dr. Cancelmo, himself a father. “You are really robbing the children of a moment with the parent in a place that will, hopefully, come to feel important to them as museum-going adults. You can’t get through a museum with a toddler if they’re not in a stroller — they fall asleep and wake up and fall asleep again.”

Toddlers are quite difficult to manage, as any parent can tell you. They have great mobility and energy but do not yet have the good sense to monitor themselves safely. They have an uncanny ability to find whatever is dangerous and head right for it. A stroller can be a parent’s best friend in public situations because it provides protection for the child.

“When my son was less than two years old, we were told we could not enter a store with our stroller,” says Jennifer Lee. “The ironic thing was that this was a store that actually sold strollers.”

In this case the reason cited was that strollers would violate the fire code. Fire codes, in most states, prohibit the blockage of. an exit or the pathway leading to one. However, a myriad of other items, such as shopping carts, vacuum cleaners, and A/V carts, take up even more room than a stroller does, and yet these items are commonly allowed in stores and office buildings.

Many professional buildings prohibit the use of strollers on their premises and claim this restriction has been placed on them by their insurance companies, which are concerned with liability issues if someone trips over one, for example. This was the reason for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s policy against strollers, which affected Kerry Jane King and her family earlier in this story. King was told there had been an earlier incident of someone tripping on a stroller and suing the gardens.

Interestingly, I was not able to find one major insurance company that places any restrictions on the use of strollers by the buildings they insure. “It would be difficult to find any reference to strollers in any policy language,” a spokesperson for The Hartford says. “We used to hear that line about insurance companies and liability all the time,” says Joe Reich, a 25-year wheelchair veteran and code specialist for Advocates of Persons with Disabilities.

While the relatively short-lived difficulties facing the parents of a young child cannot begin to compare to the lifelong hardships of a disabled person, there are some parallels. Small children have trouble walking because they are very young. We do not deny disabled persons the use of their wheelchairs; why does our culture feel it is all right to deny young children the use of their strollers?

With regard to disabled people, parents of young children also benefited from the Americans with Disabilities Act when it was introduced ten years ago. Wheelchair ramps and wider aisles come in handy for strollers, too. Extra-large bathroom stalls allow parents to take their children inside without having to remove them from the strollers; stores that have changing tables usually put them in these larger stalls.

Parents Get a Bad Rap
To say there is a real prejudice against parents and children in our country may seem too strong, but it often rings true. Despite a lot of talk about “family values” on Capitol Hill, there is a real lack of support for parents from our government when it comes to things like subsidized child care and tax breaks. Also, to date there is no federal law protecting women who wish to breastfeed in public.

A look at how parents are portrayed in the media gives us more clues about current societal attitudes. In sitcoms, parents are typically presented as buffoons, bumbling and fumbling their way through life. “In the late ’90s, the mass media bombards us with negative stereotypes of moms and dads. It seems that every time we turn on TV, watch a movie, or read a magazine, we are confronted with yet another dismissive put-down of the parental role and function,” say Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornell West in their recent book The War Against Parents.

But why do such negative feelings about parenting come out in public situations?
One answer may be that many of today’s parents are unwilling to compromise their freedom and are, therefore, taking their children out more often and to more kinds of places. Moreover, people in general tend to spend more time in restaurants and other public spaces.

These recent trends create conflict. After arguing over a seat for my toddler with someone at a very noisy antique auction in upstate New York, an nearby older woman turned to me and said with vehemence, “I never took my children to auctions!”

Also children are very honest. Their emotions and frustrations are right there for all to see, which can be intimidating to adults, especially those who would prefer not to be in touch with their own, often difficult emotions. “Kids have a way of putting us in touch with our own vulnerabilities,” says Dr. Cancelmo.

Take the reaction to Michele Mason’s infant on the plane, for example. “Some of it can have to do with not having been around children, but that’s the easy explanation,” Dr. Cancelmo suggests. “On another level, here is a situation where most people, as comfortable as they tell you they feel about it, have to cope psychologically with being on a plane.” An angry reaction to a noisy child is an easy way to vent their anxiety and not have to take responsibility for it.

Hewlett and West suggest another explanation for the negative response to families in public. “Millions of adult Americans became overinvolved with the self,” starting in the 1960s, they say, “pouring their best energies into a set of personal goals that ranged from career success to sexual freedom.” While people, especially women, have worked hard to achieve these laudable and necessary goals, this concern with the self may have created less tolerance in our culture for the pressing needs of children.

What Can Be Done
What are some ways that we, as parents, can begin to chip away at the negative attitudes towards families in public?

One important step is to make an effort to recognize business that do go out of their way to create a family-friendly atmosphere. Cover to Cover Booksellers, in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, is an example of a store that really embraces families. They sell books for adults and also have a large children’s book section, but that’s only part of it. They have a toy basket and a Victorian playhouse, run kids’ events (such as a mother-daughter book club), and provide parents with an area for stroller “parking.”

“We’ve raised six kids in this store, till they went off to nursery school, and we’ve never had a problem,” says store owner Nicky Salan. This policy toward families has really paid off for Cover to Cover Booksellers (or “Babyland,” as area residents have nicknamed it), which has just moved into a new space with twice the square footage of its previous store.

Michele Mason, the mother of the infant on the plane, became so acutely aware of the positive difference a family-friendly operation could make in her life that, in 1997, she founded the Child-Friendly Initiative (CFI) in order to raise public awareness of the need for such businesses.

CFI has established a set of criteria to describe what constitutes “child-friendly” when it comes to stores, restaurants, and other businesses. It suggests providing a small play area with toys for kids, installing changing tables and a chair for women to nurse, and making sure there is a place for parents to leave their strollers; there are also less tangible improvements, like taking a moment to acknowledge children when they enter a store. Mason stresses that sometimes small changes are enough.

CFI plans to hold nationwide forums to help educate businesses and the general public on these issues. The first of these will be in San Francisco this spring.

Isn’t it appropriate, though, to have some places where adults can go for a little peace and quiet, without the presence of children? Certainly, but the problem is that the “family-style” restaurants and inns that currently exist often tend to be chain operations, without an emphasis on original cuisine, service, and decor. Perhaps if there were more family-friendly establishments and better quality of service, parents would not feel so keenly the prohibitions against children from other businesses.

Parents have to make their needs known on a community level. One way to do this is to patronize and praise businesses that are family-friendly and vocalize our displeasure against those that are not.

We also need to make a point of praising individuals who help us with our kids, from the lady who holds the door open for our stroller to the waiter who brings our toddler some crayons and paper to play with.

It is also important for us to acknowledge and praise the effort other parents are making when they come into public with their children. Eileen Wilson, of Hickory, North Carolina, was waiting in a doctor’s office with her infant son, Joseph, when it became clear he needed to nurse.

“Joseph is a very noisy nurser,” says Wilson. She noticed an older woman sitting across the waiting room staring at her. After some time the woman got up and approached her. Wilson braced herself for a confrontation but was surprised when the woman remarked, “Those are the sweetest sounds I have ever heard a baby make! It makes me long to nurse again.”

“Since that wonderful experience, I have never been embarrassed by his noises in public,” says Wilson. The positive reinforcement Wilson received from a stranger made a huge difference in her life.

What about how our children feel? How will negative responses to them in public affect their self-esteem?

How parents respond in these situations is key, according to Dr. Cancelmo. He cautions against overreacting. “Parents can feel a sense of rejection that their kids might not even be aware of,” he says. Parents can minimize the situation by reassuring them, for example, that the pasta at the next restaurant is just as good, and it will be a nicer place to eat, anyway. Then, later, they can certainly call or write a letter to the offending restaurant or store to make their feelings known.

Finally, parents need to support those politicians who are working on new legislation that will make their lives as parents easier. Changing the law will help, over time, to improve public perceptions of children, just as new legislation about access for people with disabilities has improved tolerance towards their needs.

Effecting change, and standing up for our rights as parents, is never easy, especially in the face of strong opposition. The hard work is worth it, though.

Why It Is So Important
Children learn who they are not only from how their parents and peers treat them but also from how they are treated by complete strangers. When they are made to feel that they are valuable and that their needs are worthy of respect, they learn to value themselves; they also learn how to treat others with respect.

It is to everyone’s advantage to make sure this happens because, all too soon, today’s children will be running the world. They will grow up to become the doctors who care for our generation in our old age and the bankers who will assist us in managing our money.

“Children are likely to live up to what you believe of Them,” said Lady Bird Johnson. Perhaps our society needs to work to ensure that our beliefs about children are worth living up to.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cancelmo, Dr. Joseph A., and Carol Bandini. Childcare for Love or Money? A Guide to Navigating the Parent-Caregiver Relationship. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1999. Talks about the feelings that can arise for both parents and caregivers regarding their own unresolved childhood issues.

Elkind, David. Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. A look at the changing structure of the post-modern family with an emphasis on the need to give kids more priority.

Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, and Cornell West. The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998. Discusses in detail our government’s lack of support for parents.

Louv, Richard. Childhood’s Future: Listening to the American Family — Hope and Solutions for the Next Generation. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1991. Although this book is now almost nine years old, it is still timely. Focuses on the problems of today’s families. One chapter, “Creating the Family-Friendly City,” suggests ways cities need to be redesigned in order to satisfy the current needs of families.

Small, Meredith F. Our Babies Our Selves. New York: Doubleday, 1999. A look at how much our thinking about children is culturally driven. Portraits of attitudes towards kids in other cultures.

Also see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “The Madonna about Town,” no. 74 and “Breastfeeding in Public,” no. 57.

Wendy Ponte writes about family issues and travel. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Bob Usdin, and their three-year-old daughter, Adelaide.

Illustration by Jeff Levan.