Child Free Spaces

Indian budget carrier IndiGo recently adopted a ‘quiet-zone’ policy for passengers travelling in premium seats, banning children under twelve from sitting in them. With Eurostar providing family-friendly coaches and Virgin’s Richard Branson reportedly exploring the viability of a ‘kid’s class’, this sort of policy is not new to companies. The topic is one that also seems to be prevalent in public debate, whether it’s Janet Street-Porter claiming she would ban children from food establishments or a café in North London actually banning small children and babies on account of not being able to afford replacements to the furnishings and fittings.

On the face of it, these measures can sound pretty appealing – guaranteed travel time spent free from screaming children who insist on kicking the back of your seat or a meal ticket that comes with the assurance of no rude children sat at the table next to you. But having sifted through a lot of articles surrounding this topic, it’s not so much the arguments against preventing children from entering certain spaces that are shocking – it’s the language employed in the arguments that hints at a deeper contempt for children and their mothers.

The internet is full of those bemoaning the loss of ‘sacred spaces’ and people who complain that choosing not to have children means that they should not be forced into encounters with kids in public spaces – conveniently forgetting that the word ‘public’ includes under-twelves as well.

And in almost every single one of these articles and comment threads, the words ‘brats’ and ‘breeders’ are used. Not only do these derogatory terms become increasingly unsettling the more they crop up, they also seem to be symptomatic of an increasing dislike for children.

Calling children ‘brats’ may seem pretty harmless, especially when they are highly unlikely to read the insults that are getting printed against them, but that’s not the point. When looked at in the context of power relations, and the complete power that an adult has over a child, it becomes a bit more worrying. Instead of infringing on the rights that children have to occupy public spaces alongside adults, we should be attempting to make children feel welcome in public spaces. It gets even more unsettling when you consider the negative effect this will have on women. Banning children from public spaces is marginalising and isolating not only to them, but will also disproportionately affect female carers who already find themselves excluded from parts of the public sphere.

This doesn’t seem to bother many of those celebrating child-free zones – in fact many of them actively mock mothers. Parents are routinely insulted for not being able to keep their children ‘under control’, but it is the mothers who are singled out for being ‘smug’, overbearing and indulgent. An article written for the Huffington Post defending Street-Porter’s stance on child-free spaces states: “Now, I don’t agree that children should be banned outright, but her no nonsense point of view is a welcome change from a sea of deafening child-centric mummy bloggers.” Another article in the Telegraph concedes that women do in fact blog, saying “It’s hard to find a mother who isn’t a mummy blogger.” What is the issue with mothers who blog, and what has it got to do with noisy children in public spaces? Surely we should be holding up blogging powerful tool against the adversities that come hand in hand with motherhood. Blogging by its very nature builds an online community, a space which is especially important to women who may find themselves suddenly stuck at home looking after their newborn child. The flexibility of being able to blog during sporadic free time fits someone who spends a lot of time at home but also wants to stay connected. If called out on their language, these commentators would presumably say it’s a bit of harmless fun. But language is powerful and when it becomes so naturally derogatory, it can do damage.

The whole debate is also inherently classist. I have read dozens of comments from parents complaining that they have left their children with a babysitter, only to have run into someone else’s noisy children when they’ve stepped outside of the house. Spending money on not having your children around has nothing to do with how well behaved they are, and everything to do with disposable income.

It’s easy to say that the articles calling for child-free zones on public transport, in coffee shops and restaurants are tongue in cheek, just a bit of fun. But when the majority of these refer to children as ‘brats’, it seems like there are problems that run a little bit deeper than a four-year old kicking the back of a chair.
[Louisa Burden]

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