Stuck at the Kids Table: Banning Children from Restaurants

Last week’s post has generated some really good discussion, which is exactly what I was hoping for. I have a bit of a followup post planned, specifically looking at the practical implications of the subject, but I want to let the idea breathe a little bit before I really start writing it. Besides, I’m in Alberta visiting family at the moment, and my experience on the flight over really highlighted a topic that I’ve wanted to make a post about for a while now.

Children — especially young children and infants — can be incredibly disruptive creatures, and not just to their parents. Anyone who has shared an airplane with a crying baby (as I recently did) will be familiar with the frustration and annoyance they can cause, and it isn’t limited to air travel. Bawling children can also play havoc with restaurant patrons, moviegoers, and basically anyone in a confined space where there might happen to be an unhappy child or two.

You can try to tune it out, obviously, but a crying baby can actually make a somewhat impressive amount of noise. Plus, the sound of a baby crying is psychologically harder to ignore than other sounds of comparable volume, so it’s not just a matter of turning up your music a little. So what’s the solution?

Well, following the example of an Australian restaurant owner, we might just have to ban children altogether.

Okay, maybe that was a bit misleading. I’m not suggesting that we outlaw children, or even that they be banned from all public places; this, obviously, would be overkill. But I do think we should examine the case of Liam Flynn, a restaurateur in Queensland who recently banned children under the age of seven from his establishment.

That article has a summary of the inciting incident that led to Flynn’s decision, but basically he felt that the annoyance and irritation caused by screaming, crying, or otherwise disruptive children were detrimental to the dining experience. He believed that the exclusion of some potential customers was worth it to ensure that those who did patronize his restaurant would not be disturbed by a wailing baby.

And although some of the benefits may have been a result of all the press his restaurant received, he was right. Not long after the policy was enacted, Flynn’s restaurant had its most successful weekend in the 14 years it has been open.

Individual reactions to the decision weren’t quite as unanimous. While some lauded the policy change for allowing adults (and even older children) to have a nice dinner without having to worry if their meal would be interrupted by a screeching, disconsolate baby, others condemned the choice as punishing good parents with well-behaved children based on the actions of a few bad apples. Some even went so far as to say that the new policy was discriminatory.

Let’s address the accusation of discrimination first, since it’s certainly the most serious complaint levied against businesses that ban children. If such a policy could legally be classified as discrimination, it is illegal and certainly cannot stand.

The precise legal wording (or lack thereof) on the issue of a private business’ right to refuse service varies a little depending on where you live, but the underlying principles are usually about the same (I’ll be referring primarily to Canadian legislation). Businesses are prohibited from systematically refusing service to patrons based on such criteria as race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, or any other grounds that constitute discrimination according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (source, last question on page).

There are exceptions to this broad rule, namely when a refusal of service that would otherwise be discriminatory is not found to be arbitrary and is, in fact, justifiable. There must be a clear reason for the refusal, and it must be consistently and uniformly applied. As a somewhat extreme example, a mohel is entirely within their rights to refuse to perform a traditional circumcision ceremony on non-Jewish babies or non-male babies. There is a clear reason for refusal on both of those grounds, and as long as the policy was uniformly applied (e.g. the mohel was not selectively allowing non-Jewish babies), it would not be legally classified as discrimination.

The policy at Flynn’s restaurant is indeed consistently applied to all children under the age of seven. Thus, the complaint that this ban unfairly punishes many well-behaved children because of the actions of the misbehaving few is ill-founded, since selectively allowing well-behaved children is much more likely to be deemed a discriminatory policy.

The only question left to decide whether or not Flynn’s ban constitutes discrimination, then, is whether or not there exists a clear reason for the refusal. This question encompasses a lot of the debate on both sides of the issue, and it’s where things get a bit fuzzy. After all, it’s difficult to quantify the detriment caused to other patrons by a baby’s cries intruding on their experience, or the benefit when that screaming child isn’t allowed in the restaurant. If there was some demonstration of the effect a policy like this would have on the customers, we could see whether or not the policy was justified.

Well, we’ve actually already discussed such a demonstration, albeit only in passing. Despite a vocal minority vowing to boycott Flynn’s restaurant after the ban came into effect, they recently had their most successful weekend to date. I can’t think of a more practical and effective demonstration of the motivation and reasoning behind the ban than the fact that it has already improved Flynn’s business.

I’m certainly not advocating that children be banned from all restaurants, nor should they be banned from all airplanes or movie theatres. I simply believe that customers should be given the option to choose an experience where they don’t have to worry about a poorly-behaved child intruding on their meal, flight, or movie. Maybe children would only be banned from a restaurant on a specific day of the week, or maybe some flights could be designated as “child-free,” but the ticket would cost a little bit more.

Perhaps you still feel that the policy is a little egregious, but at the root of this issue, we’re discussing private business. In cases like this, it’s often simplest to put an idea out there, let consumers vote with their wallet, and watch as the market dictates whether the idea is worthwhile. That’s what Flynn did, after all, and his business is booming. This is apparently something that many customers want.

If you still aren’t convinced, I have a closing anecdote for you. Here in Canada, we’ve had this option for a few years now in the form of Cineplex VIP. For about seven dollars more than the price of a regular movie ticket, you get an improved experience with nicer chairs, in-seat food service, and the knowledge that everyone else in the theatre is above the legal drinking age. No obnoxious teenagers, no crying children. And this option has been received incredibly well.

Many consumers want the option to enjoy a meal, flight, or movie without having children around to get in the way of their experience. Many of them are willing to pay for that option. By most legislative definitions, these sorts of policies do not constitute discrimination and are thus completely legal. As long as options still exist for those who want to bring their children with them when they go out, I see no reason that all businesses should have to allow children.

But maybe I’m just grumpy. I only arrived in Alberta last night, after all, and I couldn’t get any sleep on the plane. There was this baby that just wouldn’t stop crying. Maybe I’ll have better luck on the flight home.


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