There was also the time that a hostess at a café (as in not-that-fancy) told me that, no, they don’t have high chairs, with a look that asked me to read this between the lines: “Your kid is not welcome here.”
I would hardly remember the occasion, but my mom was visiting from out of town and this was where we’d had dinner the week before my daughter was born. I would have enjoyed that Last Supper more if I had known such meals would heretofore be eaten with a child on my lap. That is, unless I wanted to squander a date night on a ’round-the-corner restaurant that costs less than the sitter.
I’m not implying that these hospitality establishments must throw their arms open wide to us and our (did I mention she’s well-behaved?) toddler, or that parents have a right to eat at places where they actually like the food. But let’s at least call it what it is: toddler discrimination.
Discrimination is “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.” In this case, it’s the assumption that my toddler will act just like the last one that walked through the door — or the most memorable one of late.
Technically, Airbnb’s discrimination clause makes it illegal for a host to refuse our reservation because of age — my daughter’s as much as mine. So why, instead of saying as much, did I find myself offering to drink red wine from a Nalgene bottle (“Adult sippy cups!” the host mused in response) to prevent a dreaded spill? Why do I find myself avoiding restaurants where I know our arrival will be met with grimaces, even if my toddler’s track record shows she can behave just fine in public?
My daughter is a few months shy of two. I get it. A lot of kids her age would need a side of duct tape to sit through a meal. Saying there are certain places where a toddler isn’t welcome isn’t “unjust” so much as wise. White tablecloths and crayons, for example, don’t mix.
We’re big fans of date night, but we also like vacationing and eating out with our daughter when appropriate. We enjoy watching her unexpectedly scarf the chicken lawaan at an Afghani restaurant or wave to the other patrons as we walk to our table. We love it when a waiter is surprised by how well she behaves or how much she ate (we usually are amazed, too).
While we’re past the bring-the-baby-anywhere stage, that doesn’t mean having a toddler suddenly defines where we should go, where we should stay and what we should eat.
That’s why we slept at that Airbnb place anyway, where we drank as much red wine as our allergies would allow (a few sips, really) on the back patio, just to be safe. We made sure to toss dirty diapers in the outdoor trash, and kept all four of our communal eyes on the little one, who was far more interested in reorganizing her mother’s suitcase than destroying anything in the room.
Concerned that perhaps the host’s reservations about our toddler were shared with the entire city of Charleston, I had made careful plans about what we’d do and where we’d eat. We opted for a walking tour of the city (with a stroller, of course) rather than a carriage ride that would have required snack bribery to keep her in her seat. We ate at Sean Brock’s casual taco joint, Minero, rather than his fancier flagship, Husk. And we were reminded that, overall, people are really gracious about the whole toddler thing.
Our waitress at one restaurant must have been a new grandparent, because she could not stop fawning over our pig-tailed babe. Her welcoming air made us feel right at home, even after a scan of the dining room for other children came up empty.
But, even in the most hospitable of environments, the rules for dining out with a toddler still apply. If our food takes more than 40 minutes to arrive, all bets are off. We made it through that particular meal not because of the waitress’s kid-friendliness, nice as she was, but because they had bread to nibble on and an entryway with plenty of leaves and sticks on the floor for emergency entertainment.
You see, even though it’s gone well in the past, I am testing the mettle of my parenting every time we venture out with the kid. I want to prove to the world that toddlers and their parents have the right to eat out and vacation, too, and that they can be expected to behave accordingly.
But I can’t guarantee it. I, like every other toddler parent, have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that rearing children is one of God’s favorite ways to keep us humble; to remind us that, no matter how well yesterday went, tomorrow could be a doozy.
We’re still figuring it out and, while we know as well as our fellow diners that a given meal could end in tears (or worse), we don’t think our child — or we — should lose the privilege before we’ve even had the chance to earn it.
Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment in and around Washington, D.C. She tweets @whitneypipkin and blogs at thinkabouteat.com.
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