Are cafes the new frontier in the Mummy Wars?

<i>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</i>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

Are cafes the new frontier in the Mummy Wars? Increasingly often a skirmish breaks out on this bourgeois battleground, prompting such vociferous public debate it makes you think maybe something deeper is going on.

The most recent front opened in Newcastle this week, when the owner of a place called The Little French Cafe wrote a Facebook post to her customers about her policy on children in the cafe.

She was responding to a narky customer who had given the place a one-star review and asked: "Are you child friendly? Because it doesn't seem like it."

The cafe owner replied that if parents were looking for a place with a children's menu, babyccinos, space for super-prams and a play area where kids can "run rampant, and annoy other customers, while you are oblivious to them", then no, they weren't child friendly. But if the child was well behaved and sat up at the table, then he or she would be welcome.

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"Otherwise," she wrote crisply, "There are plenty of other places that are specifically designed to entertain your children."

According to reports in the Newcastle Herald, the post was called "arrogant" and "an attack on parents", an over-reaction which only seemed to prove the existence of the entitled parental mentality the cafe owner was resisting.

But the majority of posts, and comments on the news stories on Fairfax websites, approved wholeheartedly of the cafe owner's stance. If you wanted a place where kids could go nuts, take them to McDonalds, more than one contributor said.

You can see the yummy mummies curling their lips in distaste at such a thought, and to be fair, McDonalds coffee is notoriously undrinkable. But is it so terribly Victorian to expect children to sit up nicely in public eateries, and not run around like stunted warlords, or squeal in that high pitched way that small children seem to enjoy so much?

Interestingly, this complaint of wild and undisciplined children – which implies lax parenting – seems to go hand in hand with a contrary trend – of children who are over-scheduled and constantly supervised, whose lives are filled with after-school activities, who are picked over by anxious alpha-parents who monitor their development with an obsessive, almost scientific closeness.

We are constantly hearing about parents who won't accept their child is not "gifted" or schools which ban the giving of prizes because they want to save the self esteem of the "losing" children.

Which is it? Are children un-supervised or over-supervised? Could it be that both trends have the same source, in middle-class maternal guilt? Women are having babies later and for social and financial reasons, most women have to work (and want to), even when their children are very young.

Perhaps they feel guilty about this, and so when they spend time with their children, they are intensely focused on letting the child "be a child". You can hardly blame the time-poor mother – if you get limited time with your toddler, do you really want to spend it imposing discipline and dealing with the ensuing tantrum cycle?

Far better to order a babyccino and allow them to pour it over the table – this is the modern-day equivalent of "letting" kids have a childhood, right?

An intriguing study recently reported in The Economist, called the Multinational Time Use Study, found that working mothers today spend more time with their kids than stay-at-home mothers did a generation ago. The study took data from 20 countries and found that in 1974, stay-at-home mothers spent 77 minutes with their children every day, compared to 25 minutes for employed mothers.

By 2000, the kid-focused time had increased to 161 minutes and 74 minutes respectively. So all kids are getting more "mummy time" than in the previous generation, despite the fact that more women work, often in more demanding jobs with longer hours.

What's going on? Part of it is probably a renewed social emphasis on the child, and different ideas about what kind of parenting is best. This would account for all the over-scheduling that seems to crowd some childhoods.

But I would wager it's also because as women become more successful in the work sphere, they feel guiltier in the home sphere, and strive to do more.

In her new book The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb cites a parallel statistic about housework – basically, that when a woman starts out-earning her partner by a certain amount, the amount of housework she does increases. What could possibly account for that except the over-compensation that accompanies guilt?

Interestingly, the Newcastle cafe is proudly French in its decor and its menu, and the French, who love children, do have a very different attitude towards them, as noted in several books by ex-pats living in France, including Why French Children Don't Talk Back by Catherine Crawford.

They are not treated as little Buddhas to be worshipped and catered to. They are treated incredibly fondly, but also just as small people who must integrate into the lives of their parents.

But in other ways the French seem to be much more relaxed parents. During a recent stint in Paris, I saw babies in cafes with smoking, drinking mothers (not ideal but reasonably normal; in Australia you can just imagine the disapprobation such a mother would attract!) and I saw the way (usually male) waiters would chuck the chins of these babies and pinch their cheeks in a way that would have many over-protective Australian mothers reaching for the antiseptic wipes.

On a previous trip I ate with children at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The littlest one fell asleep on the expensively upholstered banquette before the meal was over.

"Ah, elle dort!" cooed our waiter, who, given the surroundings, was entitled to be much snootier.

I doubt that restaurant needs to clarify whether or not it is child friendly. Equally, I doubt many children mis-behave in it. It's just a theory, but without Anglo-Saxon guilt, there is no need for over-correction.

It is probably not a coincidence that these attitudes exist in a state where child-rearing is actively supported by government. The French have the concept of politique familiale (family policy) built into their welfare state, with long-standing bi-partisan support.

This means family policy (in particular, heavily subsidised childcare beginning when your baby is two months) is consistent, and considered central to the job of government, no matter who is in power.

It must be a lot easier to raise a child well, particularly while working, when you have support from the highest quarters.