THE OLD ROCK SONG about "everywhere a sign" was right, even prescient: Signs forbid us from going here or stopping there. They push us to buy or warn us that we stand in the presence of cancer-causing chemicals. It's a good thing modern man has evolved with a sign filter, allowing him to survive by ignoring most of them.
But there's one sign that people have noticed. Posted at a Chicago cafe called A Taste of Heaven, it's made the national media and any number of mommy blogs in recent weeks because parents are warned -- ready for a shocker? -- that children will have to behave decently, and speak in reasonably quiet voices, inside the eatery. Moms are so insulted at the thought that anyone could be so "child unfriendly" that many are boycotting.
That's fine with the eatery's owner, who was fed up with parents who ignored their children's wilder moments. Not your basic kid stuff of chanting "Mommy" loudly 50 times over 30 seconds until they get parental attention, or playing under the table. These children were brazenly running headlong into display cases, screaming full throttle and spreading themselves on the floor in the path of customers carrying hot coffee.
The owner's not the only one noticing a perplexing lack of manners -- not just in children but in parents, who either can't be bothered to interrupt their coffee or shopping to tame their progeny or who think the word "limits" is synonymous with "repressive regime."
This parental negligence is also on display at the Orange County tide pool where I volunteer as a docent. My colleagues and I hang around the rocks during low tide, handing out cute waterproof pamphlets and rhapsodizing about limpets. But our main job is to persuade the public not to rip the starfish off the rocks or poke the sea anemones repeatedly in the belly.
Most people cooperate, with one standout exception -- the parents of young children. "He's just trying to explore," one man snarled at me after I'd asked him to stop his son from throwing the crabs from one pool to another and hitting the sea hare with a stick. "It seems like kids just aren't allowed to have fun anymore."
That was mild compared with my recent trip to buy a baby gift at the mall. I never expected prissy public behavior at a clothing store for toddlers, but an astounding number of preschool-age children were pulling clothes off hangers and onto the floor while their mothers smiled absently at them.
One woman sifted through the racks, not even glancing at her son as he ran back and forth in the display window until the mannequins crashed to the floor. In the long cashier's line, children were screaming in full tantrum mode; their mothers smiled sheepishly and offered the age-old excuse: "He's two hours past his naptime." Leaving those of us who were developing crushing headaches to wonder why he wasn't home two hours ago instead of (judging from the women's armloads of shopping bags) on an extended romp through Nordstrom.
The more disturbing question, though, is whether this represents merely a supremely annoying tic in parenting or reflects a shift in child-rearing in response to modern-day society.
All but gone is the world in which adults joined a business or trade, stayed in it for decades and enjoyed a sense of job security. That world rewarded such attributes as loyalty, a willingness to share, or the ability not to hurt others. Today's entrepreneurial work world calls for different traits: a willingness to provoke, the ability to stand out from the crowd (i.e., capture attention), the flexibility to grab new and better things while the grabbing is good.
Seen through this prism, seemingly self-centered parents might simply be the ones conscientiously getting their kids ready for life, in which the competition to get into Princeton begins in kindergarten, or maybe earlier. These might be the best-raised kids around, the children of the future. I just don't want to be around them. Anybody up for a sign?