Pipsqueak pariahs? The fuss over children in public

Five-month-old Cordelia gurgles and coos, shakes her baby rattle, and fusses until she falls asleep - all while "The Passion of the Christ" bleeds quietly on the screen above.

Cordelia is one of many infants in today's Cry Baby Matinee - designed specifically for parents and children. While anyone is welcome, patrons without children are told the parameters before entering: The lights will be up, the sound down, and you may see a bit of breastfeeding in addition to the feature film.

The idea, started two years ago at the Angelika Film Center in downtown Houston, is to give parents a way to relax and enjoy a film without the anxiety of disturbing others.

But what appears to be a family-friendly move on its surface may also be a reaction to the growing voices of those who don't want squirming, screaming children interrupting their nights out.

Indeed, the childless demographic is growing. With baby boomers nearing retirement and fewer women having kids than ever before, the idea that parents should be allowed to take their children everywhere is being tested in subtle ways. For service-oriented businesses like movie theaters and restaurants, that means wrestling with an ever-broadening array of wishes.

"Back in the 1950s, television programs were geared toward one demographic. Advertising was geared toward one demographic. Now we've gotten to the point in this country where family forums and marriage arrangements are so diverse that businesses have to provide a range of choices," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family studies and cochair of the Council on Contemporary Families.

Mommy matinees and restaurant day care, which segregate children voluntarily, are two ideas. But for some, the notion of having places to go that ban kids entirely sounds like nirvana.

"It's not that we have anything against children; many of our members, including my husband and me, are aunts or uncles and happy to be such," says Sue Irvin, a member of the Houston chapter of No Kidding!, an international social organization for the childless. "There are times when we like having them around, but there are times when it would be nice go to restaurants and other public places and know there's not going to be a 3-year-old screaming in your ear."

Ms. Irvin is one of a growing number of women who choose to remain childless. In fact, in the past 20 years, the US has seen a 200 percent increase in childless women - the fastest-growing demographic to emerge in decades, according to "The Childless Revolution" by Madelyn Cain.

The reasons are varied, says Ms. Cain: Women are now solidly in the work force, they are less financially dependent on men, they are marrying later in life and out of love, and they are marrying men who are older who may already have children.

Today, 42 percent of US women between 15 and 44 are childless. "With a society that is becoming more child free, some adjustments need to be made," says Cain. "The childless have no voice.... They're worried that if they speak up, they'll be viewed as child hating and self-centered."

That's about to change. The older generation of childless women, raised to believe they should be housewives and mothers, still suffer from a sense of guilt and will remain quiet, says Cain. But the newer generation refuses to let society tell them who they should be and will be a strong voice in the coming years.

So expect a greater push toward child-free afternoons at museums or child-free nights at restaurants. Already, some restaurants are wrestling with the issue.

At Atlanta's Villa Christina, the third Friday of each month is Date Night: Parents get a candlelit dinner while kids are upstairs with child-care professionals. Those without children don't know the difference. "Our restaurant is a little more quiet, a little more romantic. It's not really a Chuck E. Cheese kind of environment. We don't have a clown running from table to table," says Julie Bilecky, director of sales and marketing.

Not true upstairs, where for $10 a child, there's a kids' buffet, arts, crafts, videos, and books. It's become so popular that reservations need to be made up to three months in advance and other restaurant owners routinely stop by to figure out how to make the concept work for them.

In Cambridge, Mass., the Full Moon restaurant is at the opposite extreme. Buckets of toys are on each table, sippy cups come with each child's meal, and in the back, there's a play space with stuffed animals and a pretend kitchen. The idea is grown-up dining with a child-friendly twist. "It's hard to go to a restaurant with kids," says Helen Haley, feeding pizza bites to her 10-month-old daughter, Grace. "It's more comfortable here. There's not quite the pressure to get up and leave, especially with this one. She's screamy."

And that, parents here agree, doesn't go over well in some public places.

"I never liked how you were treated when you had kids," says Sarah Wheaton, cofounder of Full Moon and mother of two. "The minute you came in with a child in tow, they seated you in the way back."

But Ms. Wheaton realizes that her restaurant will keep many people away: "We still get complaints from time to time."

Indeed, it's a fine line for businesses. Back in Houston, Juliana and her date look shocked when they find out "The Passion of the Christ" is a Cry Baby Matinee.

"That's kind of weird. I don't want to see a movie like that with crying babies, like I'm at a day-care center," says Juliana. They turn away from the theater and she shakes her head. "When I was being raised, my mom just stayed at home and raised us. She wasn't toting us around with her everywhere."

Sociologists debate whether such ideas make America more family friendly or less. "When it comes to things like the Cry Baby Matinee, for instance, is that segregating mothers or is it easing their lives?" asks Steven Mintz, a historian and family expert at the University of Houston.

Many factors work against family friendliness, says Dr. Mintz: Unpaid parental maternity leave, mandatory overtime, and an unsatisfactory day-care system are among them.

Other scholars argue that the US is too family friendly, expecting childless employees to pick up the slack at work and pay more in taxes.

Mintz says it's important to look at other countries to see where America falls. In Mexico, for instance, if you bring a child into a restaurant, he or she will be passed around from table to table. In Germany, the child may be treated like a pariah.

"Americans envy youth, we envy children's energy, we envy their viability. But that's not the same thing as being child friendly," he continues. He points to vanishing public spaces for kids. "I would argue that there are fewer places for kids to call their own and we feel very uncomfortable about letting them into adult spaces."

In the end, many say that it's up to parents to decide when and where to take children and that they should teach their children how to act in public. Many more decry the loss of manners and upbringing.

"There is a kernel of truth in that [argument], but it shouldn't be puffed up into a bag of popcorn," says Dr. Coontz. "Parents are becoming much more tolerant of a certain amount of talking back and boisterousness. But I wouldn't want to return to the days when we allowed our children to be intolerant ... just so long as they were quiet about it."

Sara B. Miller in Boston contributed to this report.

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