Children in Pubs

Children in Pubs

tl;dr- a look at some of the arguments, and counter-arguments, for and against children in pubs

Given the bifurcated nature of this blog, it’s perhaps inevitable that I would tackle the thorny issue of ‘Children in Pubs’. The fact that I’ve prevaricated this long before attempting a tackle, though, may give an indication of quite how spinose an issue it is. It seems to bubble spasmodically to the surface of debate, jog round in increasingly wearisome circles, and diffuse cholerically without any degree of resolution. This last, I suspect, is largely because most of the most vocal antagonists are largely indifferent to actually solving the problem, or, indeed, of establishing if there even is a problem.

Overall, the debate never seems to go anywhere because most people worth listening to state their position as something adjacent to “I don’t have any problem with children in pubs, if they’re well-behaved”. This position is so unarguably reasonable that it’s never really questioned, and everyone leaves with their own vastly divergent, and unchallenged, mental picture of what ‘well-behaved’ actually constitutes. I shall address this in greater depth further down, but first I’d like to pick out and exclude certain arguments that don’t have merit.

 

Now, as a rather confessional aside, I should state, for the record, that I have a slightly disgusting personal habit. Well, more of a compulsion, really, and the disgust it engenders is both violently emetic in nature and exclusively generated in me. Sometimes, usually when I’m feeling rather more buoyant and well disposed towards the world than is generally my mien, I’ll remind myself of the dark and pessimistic horror that is life on Earth by trawling through Below The Line comment sections and forum message boards in which the denizens are encouraged to Speek Dare Branes on the many and various issues of the day (as Mitchell and Webb brilliantly put it, “you may not know anything about the issue, but I bet you ‘reckon’ something”) and it was into this filth that I crawled on hands and knees, sieving squidgy examples of reckon from the mire, to sample a range of opinion that is almost certainly biased and unrepresentative and, incidentally, makes me a bit sad to be alive. These opinions can be sifted into a number of broad categories.

First of all, there are two extremes that, I think, can reasonably be excluded from consideration.

1. Hates children

Firstly, there are those that resolutely hate children. These can be easily identified by their assertion that they don’t hate children. That’s not an invalid opinion, in and of itself, but hating children in pubs is merely a subset of hating them in general. Just as vegetarians don’t get a say in how steak should be cooked, they don’t get a say in this. They will frame their objection as being against kids in pubs but, overtly stated or not, it’s clear that they don’t want to see kids anywhere. Some examples include:

  • It’s not just pubs. Some parents treat supermarkets or DIY stores as playgrounds for their children, who run around out of control. I don’t have any problem with kids that are kept under control, but too many parents simply have no idea how to control their kids.
  • To be honest I don’t think children should be allowed in Starbucks let alone pubs.
  • Sadly, modern parents don’t use any form of discipline to keep their kids in check. Ban children. Ban them now. Ban them forever. Even my grandson.
  • Why should a Child have a greater right than a Cigarette to be in a Pub? 

Another quote posited the mind-boggling assertion that ‘children are everywhere these days’. Most also seem to run with a strong theme of ‘parents can’t control their kids these days’, which pops up fairly frequently even in more reasonably-stated positions. Given that people have been complaining about this since Plato, it seems unlikely that they’re suddenly correct now.

2. Hates everyone except children

The other dismissable-out-of-hand position is on the other end of the scale. While much, much rarer than people would have you believe, there are those who believe that their children can, and should, go anywhere and do anything and that attempts to hinder or restrict this are tantamount to abuse. Since this is much more often used as a strawman argument than anything else it seems disingenuous to consider it, but it did rear its head once or twice:

  • The U.K is anti familys and hates children, Pubs landlords who are fussy about the customers, should have they lincence to sell alcohol taken off them
  • Pub is short for “public house”. Get it? PUBLIC house. So leave our kids alone. In the years to come they’ll all be paying for your pensions!!!
  • how sad. I can imagine what a sterile place [a pub with no children] is – and definitely a sad old people’s pub where you can get away with talking about things you don’t want kids to hear.

3. Defends pubs by slagging them off.

Paddling hard for shore, we come back to more reasonable statements, although many seem perversely self-destructive. Principle amongst these are those who seek to preserve the sanctity and integrity of the pub by explaining how utterly terrible they are. These generally start with pronouncements along the lines of “Why would you even want to take a child into a pub, you monster!?” and bolster this by painting a picture of a pub right out of an Irvine Welsh novel. There’s three possibilities I can see here: That they believe all pubs are the kind of horrific Hogarth/Heironymous Bosch nightmares that make Mos Eisley look like Eastbourne; That parents are so addled by the narcotic effects of breeding that they’re incapable of telling which pubs are nice and are heedlessly leading their precious offspring into nefarious, gangland, spit-and-sawdust stab-arenas; or, that children themselves possess such rarefied and gossamer natures that the mere sight of adults drinking and conversing will shatter their fragile mind-tank like a bubble in a hurricane. Whichever the case may be, though, the position is absurd. Pubs are not that terrible, and children are not that delicate, and even if either were true then, absent of any genuine (rather than supposed) risk, it is still the parents themselves who are best placed to make the decision.

  • Do you really want to sow the seeds in yer kids heads that the pub is a place to hang out during the day – especially a weekday? Ah well, at least you are doing your bit to create the next generation of alkies, which will help to save our dwindling stock of pubs. Top notch Kojok.
  • Why take children into a pub? A pub? OK, if it is really the ONLY place to get something to eat, if there are no cafes or coffee shops around in your tiny hamlet then fine – take them. But if you are in a decent sized town then there must be alternatives, where people are not drinking.
  • We actually wanted them to have a childhood without being subject to dingy bars smelling of stale alchohol. Weird aren’t we?

4. The Prohibitionists

Closely related to the previous category, with a heavy dose of ‘wont someone please think of the children’, and a thick vein of class-based vitriol. In this case the evil isn’t mortared into the very fabric of the building, or redolent in the degenerates therein; instead the contagion springs from the devil’s water served in such establishments. It’s not even that these people are necessarily against alcohol, but they ascribe it such fearsomely destructive properties (often, it is implied, amongst the other classes, not our sort obviously) that children being around it, or around those who have consumed it, is a case of abhorrent abuse. The absurdities are also closely related: pubs are not perpetual Bachannalian debaucheries (I haven’t been able to find the ones that are, at any rate) and parents are still sentient human beings and are as capable of picking up a bad vibe in a pub as anyone else. Still, since one of the many reasons pubs are closing at an alarming rate is the preponderance of people drinking at home, perhaps we should be keeping children safely in the shed?

  • But adults in pubs with children, if they are drinking alcohol they are not in a state where they can be responsible for their kids, either that or they just ignorant.
  • Pubs can be a dangerous place for Children – moreso since Adults are becoming intoxicated there. Nobody can deny that alcohol does bring out the WORST in SOME drinkers – including the criminally-minded.

5. The Circle Jerks

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that, until workshy wasters like me got in on this sweet, sweet deal, child-care and child-rearing was an exclusively female arena. Thus, any place or activity that limited or restricted children did the same to women and, frankly, with regards to pubs, it’s hard to see that as an entirely unintended consequence. Much of the spluttering and posturing about children in pubs reflects that seen in issues around women in certain clubs, professions, sports and workplaces, that it’s simply not suitable for them, bless them, we’ll have to stop swearing and tidy up! There’ll be doilies, for God’s sake! Doilies!

This attitude ties into a broader theme amongst some people who are intent on maintaining pubs as an exclusive space. Although who exactly they exclude varies around one, some or all of gender, race and class (and children as a whole may or may not be interdicted en mass), the important thing is their sort are kept out of our pub. Well, tough shit. Time to move over.

  • The pub, once an escape from the drudgery of family life, has become just the opposite.
  • Pubs were invented to get away from moaning women and whinning brats
  • You know the sort, sat there hunched at the table, scruffy, shouting in vain to stop their darling brood from rampaging, screaming and hollering around other customers whilst, elbows on the table, they crane scampi n chips down their knecks.  And moreover swilling it down with all that Eurofizz stuff. And that is just the mothers…..

 

So, after cutting the crusts off it’s time to get to the meat of the argument, if you’ll excuse a slightly mixed metaphor. The bulk of the rest of the argument against allowing kids into pubs basically boils down to two main streams:

A – ‘Kids are bad for pubs’.

Essentially: Children are annoying, and I dislike being annoyed. Hard to dismiss the prima facie case, really, and the rejoinder is not, as it is for 5 above, simply ‘suck it up, your time of dominance is past’. It’s not unreasonable to wish to remain un-annoyed, but it probably is unreasonable to expect large swathes of strangers to circumscribe their lives to avoid the possibility that you might be. To which, of course, many will reply ‘You should have thought of that before you had kids’, but since that contains the implicit assumption that any restriction is reasonable if you knew about it beforehand, it obviously belongs in the ‘Ignore the Stupid’ section above.

The validity of the argument, though, rests largely on a fair assessment of how annoying kids really are. On a ranked list of public house annoyances would the presence of children (or, more accurately, the possibility of the presence of children) really feature that highly? More than short measures? More than badly kept cask? More than incoherent and disturbingly touchy drunks? More than wanky beer bores who try to tell you there’s no such things as pilsners? Are kids in pubs even that common, and do the problems caused by some warrant an outright ban?

By way of analogy, Crate brewery in Hackney Wick handed out notices at the beginning of the football season effectively banning West Ham fans before and after games at the nearby stadium. A fair amount of consternation ensued, with many making the fairly reasonable point that it’s deeply unjust to sweepingly ban significant segments of the population based on their association to people who may or may not cause trouble in the future. Of course, certain West Ham fans made this a rather more difficult argument to advance by trashing the stadium a few weeks later but if we can reasonably say it’s unfair to preemptively ban football fans, how can it be reasonable to do the same in the case of children, when the numbers involved, and potential risks, are much smaller? I’ve never heard of pre-schoolers tearing up chairs and glassing opposing toddlers. Rather like the lift at Canary Wharf station that demands that you not obstruct the doors before you’ve even got in, it’s the automatic assumption of bad behaviour that’s galling.

B – ‘Pubs are bad for kids’

Pretending pubs are unconscionable dens of sin and depravity gets your opinion relegated to the discard pile under clause 3 (above) because it’s observably untrue, but it’s entirely possible for a clear-eyed and unbiased observer to nonetheless conclude that they’re inappropriate places for children. After all, their principle product, and reason for existing, is illegal for children, and they can sometimes be crowded, loud, confused and full of people neither expecting, nor explicitly accommodating, children. The difficult corollary to this is that, since pubs are not for children, taking them to one is selfishly placing one’s own enjoyment over theirs. I refute this, obviously… but then I would, wouldn’t I? After all, the pleasant days-out I list in a previous post could be just as easily accomplished without the pub at the end and wouldn’t it be even nicer to do double playground and skip the beer entirely?

Part of this, I suspect, is linked to an implicit (and often explicit) undercurrent that runs through much of the discussion around parenting and children’s issues, that one must utterly ablate one’s personal hopes, life and desires on the altar of childrearing; that anything less than complete sacrifice in service of your children is not only an degrading insult to those putative children but also, chillingly, to those people who can’t or don’t have children of their own. I exaggerate slightly, but only very slightly. From this perspective, taking your children to the pub, an ostensibly (although, I contend, not exclusively) adult space, when you could be whimsically and organically crafting organic whimseys (or whatever it is ‘good’ parents are supposed to do), is absolute anathema.

To this, and to the slew of other related attempts to make parents feel inadequate, I say ‘Oh, do bugger off’ while feeling guilty and resentful. I’m not going to make the children the orbital centre of our familial solar system, partly out of bloody-mindedness, partly because the adults need to preserve their own identities and partly because I don’t think it’s actually good for the kids. While they obviously require a huge (huge!) amount of accommodation, too much seems likely to set them up for a fall. There will be a full spectrum of activities in their lives, in varying hues of suitability, appropriateness and enjoyability, and at some point they’ll have to contend with them all.

 

In summation, we can return to what I think is the central, almost unassailably reasonable assertion, as succinctly stated by The Pub Curmudgeon (whose status as a curmudgeon probably behoves a certain species of opinion on this topic):

…. and who can argue with that? Well, let’s see.

Firstly, on the surface of it, it’s almost unhelpfully tautologically, tantamount to saying annoying things are annoying. The concept of bad-behaviour, for all practical purposes, is defined by how it relates to and impacts on others, in that it’s the fact that it causes you, or others, to be annoyed, distressed or uncomfortable that makes it bad behaviour…. if a toddler has a tantrum in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, is it still bad behaviour?

Secondly, it’s such a broadly reasonable statement that it seems strange to limit it to children. Why would we not say badly-behaved people are a big minus point? Is it that we assume bad behaviour on the part of children is inevitable? Is it that we, perhaps subconsciously, exclude children from the set of ‘people’? If the former, the statement starts to lose a portion of its unassailability… unless your benchmark for bad behaviour is absurdly low, it’s not reasonable to avoid pubs on the basis that any children in them are likely to be, or become, badly behaved, any more than it’s reasonable to avoid, en mass, pubs with football fans because you think they’re likely to kick-off. People do, obviously, and people are welcome to define for themselves the criteria that define a pleasant pub-going experience, and yet I sense that the beer and pub community as a whole are much more comfortable challenging the second presumption than the first.

Thirdly, as alluded above, it leaves the question of what constitutes bad behaviour unanswered. This is the facet of the debate that worries me the most, as it involves me trying to perceive people’s perceptions, a trick of cognitive executive function I’ve never comfortably mastered. My children are, the overwhelming majority of the time, adequately well-behaved in pubs and I would, and have, taken them out if they weren’t… but, again, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Is my ‘well-behaved’ sufficiently well aligned with yours? They don’t charge around the places, they don’t scream, they don’t throw raucous tantrums on the floor, but they might be a bit loud, might sing a bit, might wander, might leave toys on chairs. Is that enough? Because the arbitrary, undefined, tautological and variable entry requirements we seem to have set for children in pubs would put even the Home Office to shame and, unless pubs make a small effort to make their position clear, are likely to deter all parents without an appreciable degree of self-confident fortitude.

Good, you might say. You might not want children in the pub anyway, so you’re probably unconcerned that the centuries of social feedback that have taught us which behaviours are acceptable in which particular pubs are not there to guide children and parents, but let me finish with this thought: A mild to moderate antipathy towards children in pubs seems to correlate with a strong position against the smoking ban and a horror at the consequent drop in people visiting pubs. The feeling is that pubs are so valuable that anything that threatens their existence by driving customers away must be resisted. I was in Howling Hops a few weeks ago on a weekday afternoon. Not a busy time, in general, but there were a dozen or so customers. Every single one of them had come with a child.

So, frankly, you can’t eat your cake and have it. You can’t bemoan the slow asphyxiation of pubs and decry a potential breath of air. Smoking in pubs is gone forever (although the populist political horror show that would restore it seems less implausible by the day) and, in my opinion, we can embrace the opportunities that affords or watch pubs, perfectly and eternally unadulterated, slowly sink. 

And this is not a big ask, either. No one is demanding Fruit Shoots on draught and a ball pit where the fruities used to be. All it requires is a small amount of tolerance and forebearance on one side and some awareness and restraint on the other, and there is, potentially, a large demographic putting money over the bar, often at times that would otherwise be completely dead. Not everyone wants to go to cafés, after all. Is that so desperately intolerable?

3 thoughts on “Children in Pubs

  1. I suppose I should feel flattered that you have specifically referenced me, although I find it disappointing that you can’t help attributing unworthy motives to those who disagree with you.

    I really fail to see why we can’t have a mixed economy of child-friendly pubs and adults-only pubs, just as we could have a mixed economy of smoking and non-smoking pubs.

    I’m also not specifically singling out “bad” behaviour by children, although in my experience licensees are much more reluctant to confront that than bad behaviour by adults. But I’d say normal behaviour by children, while intrinsically perfectly OK, is something that you might reasonably want to avoid if you just want a quiet drink in the pub. You don’t have to dislike something not to want to be subjected to it all the time. If I lived next to a school, I wouldn’t want to sit out in the garden during playtime. But that shouldn’t be taken to imply that I don’t like children per se.

    Anyway, you might have prompted me to do a blogpost in response…

    1. Oh, I did mean it when I said your position was reasonable… I only quoted it because it seemed to embody to me a particularly succinct statement of what I like to think of as the quintessentially reasonable stance on the issue. I apologise unreservedly if I’ve conflated your opinion with the horrible opinions I list at the beginning, that was the very opposite of what I intended.
      Part of the point I was trying to make is that reasonable and unreasonable positions on the matter state their case in very similar ways, and I was trying to unpick some of the baser arguments and speculate about motivation. Certainly, not everyone who prefers pubs without children is motivated by hate or even dislike. Perhaps I should have made that clearer…

      I don’t think it’s unreasonable to prefer pubs without children, regardless of behaviour. I also don’t think it’s unreasonable for pubs to ban children, for some pubs I think it’s the right course. I mentioned that in the companion piece to this post, but I’ve foolishly left it out here. Although I can’t agree that a mixed-economy with regards to smoking is desirable, or even workable, I absolutely agree that it’s the best course with regards to children, and would be a definite improvement on the ‘guardedly permitted on sufferance’ policy that seems to prevail. It would have to be genuinely mixed, though, not simply a relegation to ghastly Family Pubs; a ban from good pubs is, effectively, a ban from all pubs, as far as I’m concerned. And it’s the ‘blanket’, ‘automatic’, ‘presumptive’ or ‘unthinking’ bans that I’m mostly trying to challenge, rather than specific cases.

      You make a good point about licensees feeling disinclined to challenge parents. This is perhaps the other side of what I experience, a product of the gaping uncertainty that surrounds the issue. Generally, I feel I understand pubs, they’re one of the few social spheres I really think I do ‘get’. I can walk into a pub and understand where to sit, how loud to talk, whether to chat to the regulars, whether to put something on the jukebox or, if necessary, whether to turn round and walk straight out because it scares me deeply. When I go with kids, none of the usual rules work… I’ve sat in dead quiet pubs, paralysed by the worry that every laugh and burble is grating on the few other occupants. Licensees don’t want to challenge parents, parents don’t want to go where there’s an uncertain welcome, and nobody wins except the people at either extreme who are prepared to blanket ban, or wilfully trample others’ serenity. And yet this new terrain can be negotiated with comparatively little effort.

      Of course, all this would just be special pleading if pubs were doing OK… as it is, though, I guess the question is this: While it’s fine to want to avoid irritating things, how irritating do those irritants have to be before one would seek to prevent someone putting money over the bar, supporting pubs and breweries that need supporting? It is, I think, the difference between wanting to increase pub attendance and just wishing things were back the way they used to be.

      Please do write a response! Almost everyone I know in ‘real life’ either supports the idea of children in pubs, is unaware there’s contention, or is silent on the matter, so most of the counter-arguments I’ve harvested to explore the issue are rather thin and un-nuanced. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help me understand why and how people might oppose what I’m doing, which is essentially what I’m trying to do.

      Again, apologies if I’ve attributed unworthy motives to you, or to anyone who merely disagrees with me. Although, obviously, part of my argument is that some people are unworthily motivated on this issue, I’ve categorised what I think are the reasonable ‘arguments against’ as A and B, above… please let me know if I’ve missed anything.

  2. I think it’s good that someone from the “other side” has taken the trouble to write a detailed and thoughtful post on the subject.

    I certainly don’t hate children (indeed I’m told I was once one myself) and don’t think they should be generally banned from pubs. But, even if you like children, it doesn’t mean you want to be in their company all the time, and what annoys me is that I am often painted as a bad person for sometimes liking a quiet drink in a child-free environment.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this blogpost from last July which puts across a more nuanced view on the subject.

    “Almost everyone I know in ‘real life’ either supports the idea of children in pubs”

    That’s a classic piece of confirmation bias, really. Everyone tends to associate largely with like-minded people. But I would refer you to the writings of GBG ticker Simon Everitt of BRAPA, who is a lot younger than me, but is often heard to complain about “twilds” in pubs.

    It seems to me that the conflict tends to occur in middle-of-the-road pubs that combine the role of food pub with local boozer. Children come with the territory in family dining pubs, and you don’t really tend to encounter them in “old man” wet-led pubs.

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