The yummy mummy debate, round two: Now kids in cafés are rubbish as well

Earlier this year my partner, kids and I stopped for tea in a Little Chef.* For reasons I cannot explain, my boys were being exceptionally well-behaved, so much so that one of the waitresses came over to compliment us, the parents, on this. For further reasons I cannot explain, my youngest then decided to hold his chicken nugget aloft and pronounce “I’m like a dog eating poo off the floor”. I can totally see him as a future Sunday Times restaurant critic. He has that way with words. Back then, however, it was less than impressive. Thankfully the waitress took the feedback in far better grace than it deserved.

There are times when my kids have been total sods in cafés. Real little fuckers annoyances. I mean, they’re ace and everything – this morning I even over-egged the positive parenting pudding by calling them “the best little people in the world” – but now and then they turn to the Dark Side. And when that happens, there’s no reasoning with them at all (okay, I tell a lie – there sort of is. But it’s the kind of reasoning that ends with someone going “waaaaaahhhhh!” and it’s not always me).

I try to avoid going in cafés if I’m alone with my children for a number of reasons:

  • they’ll demand something expensive, take one bite then leave it
  • they’ll be too impatient to wait for the hot food to cool, burn their mouths then refuse to touch it again
  • they’ll disappear under the table while I’m faffing about with ordering and whatnot
  • my youngest will get bored and decide he needs to “work the room” – and yeah, he’s really cute, but this still tends to have mixed results

In spite of all this, I still frequently find myself seated opposite the younglings, cappuccino in hand, while they fight over who gets to unwrap the Starbucks gold coin. Cafés are good for a number of things: sitting down, breastfeeding, nipping to the loo, having something to eat and drink while it’s pissing it down outside. Moreover, I sometimes manage to keep them  under control with a couple of toy cars from my bag (does that count as a lame Top Tip? Perhaps I should give the Brainwaves Roadshow a try with that one).

In the latest round of the Guardian Yummy Mummies debate, the attention has turned very specifically to the behaviour of children in cafés, with Rowan Davies’ piece being followed up by one by Clare Kathleen Bogen, entitled Yummy mummies are rude and too demanding. Take it from a waitress. When I first saw that, my reaction was “pah! I’ve been a waitress, too, so less of that, matey!” Then I thought “oh, but I was a waitress while I was a student, so that doesn’t really count”. Then I read Bogen’s Guardian profile. Her waitressing is no different to mine. So yeah, I’ve been a waitress, too, for longer than you have, Bogen. And let me tell you, there are a million and one ways in which customers can be annoying, but it strikes me as odd that only “yummy mummies” seem to be fair game for this level of attack.

I’ve been a waitress and I’ve been an annoying mummy in a café with a massive buggy and badly behaved children in tow. I’m not going to start debating which experience is worst (although I’d like to note that when Bogen writes – somewhat self-pityingly, I feel – “after a certain amount of screaming, I’ve seen other customers pack up and leave. Here’s the thing: I don’t get to”, she should remember that the mummies don’t get to, either. Those little bastards you can’t wait to see the back of? Crappy, selfish, uncaring mummy has to take them home with her. While it might be her responsibility, let’s not pretend it’s fun).

Bogen is keen to distinguish “nice” parents visiting cafés from the yummy mummies, whom she claims “are not subjects of contempt because they have children and dare to occupy the same public space as others, as Davies suggests, but because they actively make problems, not just for the other customers, but for the staff”. Quite how this fits in alongside as derogatory, gender-specific term such as “yummy mummy” is unclear to me, but then Bogen doesn’t seem to have it in for daddies quite so much. She writes approvingly of one café in which “we put our pastries at half price: croissant for child, cappuccino for dad. I love this”. Greasy spoon meets Athena poster, it would appear. Meanwhile the mummies are banding together to spoil it for everyone:

[…] a group of mums, babies in tow, loses us customers. I have seen customers peek in, then walk on by if they see more than a couple of mothers and babies.

The sooner we get equal parental leave sorted and replace these harpies with bare-chested new men, the better for the economy, I say.

I read Bogen’s piece and think, largely, “well, I don’t care what you say. I know I do my best to be considerate, but you don’t seem as fair-minded or child-friendly as you think you are” (btw, by “child-friendly” I don’t mean you literally have to be friendly to my kids. Just not actively dislike them because they’re there). There is however one section which upsets me and it’s this:

This leads us to behaviour. As a child, if I had even dared to scream in public, I would have been told off severely. Every time we entered a shop, my siblings and I dutifully held our hands behind our backs so as not to touch anything. Yummy mummies apparently are big fans of letting their children “find themselves”, which includes allowing them to scream at loud volume and touching everything in sight (especially cakes and pastries).

As a child, I witnessed a lot of screaming in public – not from me, mainly from my brother, who had (and still has) several physical and mental conditions which limit his ability to respond as others do. His problems are not instantly obvious. My parents tried discipline, a lot – too much, I fear. The knowledge that others, who don’t know your background or the challenges you face, might take it upon themselves to judge you and your child via one snapshot of their behaviour disturbs me. Moreover, this sense of being judged increases the pressure on parents. It makes it clear they and their children are “on show”, yet not all children are able to perform. Not all children can be controlled through Supernanny tactics. Should the parents of such children hide away, to the detriment of their own well-being and that of their other, more “normal” café-appropriate offspring? Should every single outing be cut short, followed by endless apologies? Or should others learn to be more accommodating to people who are different – including the very young? I know the response to this might be “yes, but she doesn’t mean those children”. But you don’t know who those children are. We haven’t yet started forcing them to walk round bearing a special sign.

I am concerned that declaring open season on yummy mummies isn’t just sexist – it’s also allowing ablism in through the back door, by insisting on one model of “normal” social behaviour for children and their parents. It’s never that easy. You can have perfect little angels and it’s just luck. Or you can have the child who’s screaming and kicking on the floor and it’s not because you’ve failed or you’re not bothered. You’re trying your best and the least – the very least – you want is to be able to down your espresso before the angry glares shoo you out of yet another establishment. Or you can have the child who’s a superstar until he announces that his chicken nuggets are like poo. Personally, for the time being, I feel fortunate to have the latter, but know things could change. It’s all a bit of a joke – bash the mummies and their silly, selfish indulgences – but there is a real risk of it descending into children-bashing. And when that happens I just can’t reason with people. It’s the point at which I go “waaaaaahhh!”

* Yes, Little Chefs do still exist. Although they still refuse to allow you to keep the empty plate if you don’t want the lollipop. “Kindly swap”, my arse.

6 thoughts on “The yummy mummy debate, round two: Now kids in cafés are rubbish as well

  1. Thanks for another great post. I Totally agree about ablism through the back door.My son has learning disabilities and autistic traits. Unless you see him with other kids his age and look closely he looks “normal”. Yet he had toddler style tantrums til he was 8 and still has occasional autistic style meltdowns. He doesn’t understand social conventions and needs telling everything over and over again. Usually he’s quite well behaved, if a little loud. But despite years of speech and occupational therapy he struggles to control his chewing and swallowing, and his knife and fork. Visits to cafes often mean us getting either black looks or nasty comments, despite the fact that his sister, brought up with the same parenting and discipline but without the extra chromosome has exceptionally good table manners. Sometimes we get positive supportive comments too, there are considerate, thoughtful and caring people out there, but they’re either in the minority or they don’t speak up as much. The majority of people already rush to blame the parents, particularly the mother, rather than consider what might be causing the behaviour.

  2. Thankyou for this, excellent piece. I wonder where children are supposed to learn their cafe manners if not in a cafe? I second what lexilil says above too. Families of children with ADHD for example, are we meant to stay indoors and not inflict our children on anyone else? Society consists of all sorts of people, maybe Bogen should move to Midwich.

  3. ADHD and Autism are not *that* common we can assume its that each time. Lots of kids are foully behaved and need to learn some manners and are not taught any by parents. I have 4 children, 4 are autistic and one severely brain damaged so I do have plenty of experience with the hard to train ones.

    1. “Lots of kids are foully behaved and need to learn some manners and are not taught any by parents.”
      How on earth can you possibly know that the children you see in a cafe haven’t been taught any manners? You have no idea what they’re usually like because you’re only seeing a 10 minute snapshot of their lives. They might just be having a bad day. No child is perfectly behaved 100% of the time but that doesn’t mean that they should be judged as bad based on those moments of misbehaviour. If people stopped judging everyone constantly (especially women and our parenting choices) we would all be a lot happier.

  4. Glosswatch, I wonder which part of mummy and daddy’s £100K that was spent on educating the type of petit bourgeois people that Bogen is referring to, went towards teaching them to ignore simple, common manners?

    The lack of manners described in Bogen’s article is not limited to parents ignoring screaming babies, blocking walkways with oversized prams etc. The people that Bogen refers to are often self-important, ill-mannered and pretentious. They are a distinct type. A stereotype.

    Over the years, society and the media have acknowledged the rise, existence and demise of various social stereotypes. Why should the existence of the petit bourgeois social cliche be ignored? Perhaps it’s time that the media had a look in the mirror.

  5. A bit of vanity googling led me here. I’m sure I’m too late to respond in my own defence, but I’ve been a student and a waitress for a very long time, since I started working over a decade ago. A Guardian profile doesn’t reveal who anyone is one hundred percent, nor do the mere moments in which I encounter a customer reveal to me who they really are. I did not choose the term ‘yummy mummy’, the editor did, and I was responding to an article about the subject, again, I did not choose the term. But I don’t mind that misunderstanding so much as the one accusing me of ableism. As a child, I was diagnosed with ADD, along with a whole host of developmental and behaviour difficulties. I know first-hand what it looks like to others when a child has developmental, behaviour, or learning difficulties. Don’t assume that just because someone is a waitress, that we are not capable of empathy or able to understand the difficulties of parenting.

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