By Julia Pelly of juliapelly.com
Before I had kids, when I was a young, fun 20-something wandering the world without mouths to wipe or diapers to change or little feet to stuff into little shoes, I occasionally found myself passing judgment on the parents around me. They were too strict with their kids, or they gave in too easily. They made them dress up like creepy mini-versions of themselves or they let them leave the house without even trying to comb their hair. They left their kids with a sitter too often or brought them places they shouldn’t. While I didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about people with babies and kids—their lives were simply too foreign—when I did, it often included at least a note of judgment.
When my first son was born, however, I was immediately humbled. As all parents discover, usually within days if not hours, babies are hard and parenting is hard and you make the wrong decision at least as often as you make the right one. You’re also judged for so, so many of those decisions. When my first was a baby I internalized the judgment. When an old woman at the park scolded me for not have socks on my son’s feet in 65 degree weather I cried and wondered if I HAD given him hypothermia and just didn’t know what to look for. By the time he turned three, though, and my second son was born, I had developed a kind but firm fuck-them policy towards anyone who spoke stupid judgment.
I know how to take well-intended advice. The nice-but-wacky stuff gets a smile and a nod, and I know how to really listen when someone’s giving me advice about something I’ve asked about or that I could really use help with. One person I absolutely never ever entertain, though, is the person who side-eyes my two-year-old (and me by extension) for being two at Panera at 4:45 on a Tuesday.
My kid is two. He hates high-chairs and he’s kind of loud sometimes and his food ends up on the floor more often than not. And so, I talk him through the fact that he has to sit in a high-chair and hug him while he feels his feelings, I remind him that we’re in a restaurant when he starts to squawk and I clean up his mess from under the table before we leave. I also, most importantly, don’t take him places where this sort of behavior isn’t appropriate. You know where that sort of behavior is appropriate, though? And expected, really? PANERA AT 4:45 ON A TUESDAY.
When I go into Panera I’m not expecting a lot. I just want to sit at a cleanish table and eat a mediocre sandwich and let my kids each slam a bowl of macaroni and cheese and squeeze yogurt all over their shirts before heading home, satisfied that I’ve fulfilled my parental obligation of feeding my kids yet another meal.
Usually, this works out just fine but, every now and then, there are other diners present who sigh loudly when my baby acts his age. Or who roll their eyes when he eats like a two-year-old eats. Or who talk loudly at the next table about how kids today suck because parents today just don’t spank them like they should.
I swear, if my kid starts throwing a true tantrum I take him outside wherever we are. Or if he’s acting too wild I’ll pass that Panera right by and head home for scrambled eggs. But when he’s just a two-year-old being two? I let him live his life and enjoy his meal in exactly the sort of restaurant where he can do that.
While Panera seems to be the restaurant other diners mistake for fine dining most frequently, it happens other places too. So, for reference, if a restaurant meets any of the following criteria, two-year-olds are allowed to be two while they are there:
- The silverware is plastic
- You order at a counter before sitting down
- There are any sort of animals on the sign
- They run ‘kids eat free’ specials
- There are plastic napkin dispensers and a condiments basket on the table
Again, I’m not advocating letting kids run wild or be disruptive just because a restaurant is affordable. I’m well aware that eating out at Panera is still expensive for many families and that eating out at all is often reserved for special occasions. I’m just asking that my child be allowed to exist as he is in places that have deemed themselves “family friendly.” I’m asking that other diners check their expectations and try to find the joy in a bustling, loud, “family friendly” environment instead of rolling their eyes at the families that are there.
So, to all the parents I rolled my eyes toward before I had kids of my own: I’m sorry. And I’m hoping karma will be done with me soon so that I can enjoy my early-bird dinners with my kids. We mamas need our mediocre 4:45 sandwiches, after all, and our babies, well, just like the rest of us, they need a place they can be themselves and enjoy some ooey-gooey mac-n-cheese.
About the Author
Julia Pelly lives in North Carolina with her husband and two young children. You can find more of her work at JuliaPelly.com