Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kids in Bars, and the Adults Who Don't Love Them

For some time now, I've contemplated writing a piece on the increasing phenomenon of parents bringing their children to bars. But one Risa Chubinsky has beaten me to the punch, publishing on the topic in the Times' fine metro blog, City Room.

Of course, it's not quite the article I had in mind. More of a rant, the kind that twentysomething childless urbanites periodically lob like spitefull word bombs at the thirty- and fortysomething uber-parents who chose to live in a land that could be called Strollers Without Borders. These two groups have little patience for one another, it seems, particularly in New York. The breeders are in denial, unwilling to accept their roles as adults, indulgent or neglectful of their children, are self-righteous with a sense of entitlement, the hipsters howl. The post-grads are selfish, callow, shallow, thoughtless posers with misplaced priorities and no idea of what real responsibility means, merely larger version of the babies they complain about, retort the oldsters.

Both are right to an extent, though it must be pointed out that the younger set are merely bitching about their ruined good time, while the older group are actually wrestling with the lifelong charge of caring for someone other than themselves. Still, I can see Chubinsky's point. I have a kid, and I would feel odd and sheepish and inconsiderate taking him to places she mentions, like The Gate, which is an unmitigated bar, dark and old, and should be a destination for adults. (I could, however, see kids blending in nicely in the outdoor patio during the midday.)

However, I would argue that, with the maturing of the beer and cocktail scenes in Brooklyn, and the ever-more-mature attitude of the people who partake of them, kids have a place in some bars at certain times of the day. Strollers and toddlers are common sights at Clover Club in Cobble Hill, during that cocktail haven's popular Saturday and Sunday brunches, when light pours into the place and the atmosphere is quite wholesome and welcoming. And families are encouraged to visit Fort Defiance, the Red Hook cocktail bar and restaurant, during all daylight hours. The same goes from Henry Public, the new drinking and eating joint on Henry Street near Atlantic, where the strollers often pile up near the front of the bar. Tellingly, the owners of all three bars are new parents.

I can't think of many Manhattan bars where family time would be as welcome. But Brooklyn is another place, and Chubinsky should have taken that into account. It's an outer borough. And, no matter how hip or trendy that county may be at the moment, outer boroughs mean families and schools and playgrounds and a general vibe that speaks more of neighbors and community than it does of pub crawls and night trolling. Furthermore, living in Park Slope and complaining about strollers is like living in Little Italy and complaining about all the red-sauce joints.

Perhaps some of these parents are not as attentive to their progeny as they should be, and, given the circumstances and the environment, I think they should be especially watchful. (If you bring you kid to a bar, that kid should be by your side at all times.) But there's another aspect to this change of mores that's worth looking at. Exposing children early on to the existence and nature of bars and the beverages they serve is, I feel, a far more healthy approach to schooling kids about alcohol than the typical American diet of silence, mystery and ignorance. In rural Wisconsin, where I grew up, most of my friends were told absolutely nothing by their parents about alcohol or drinking. As a result, when the teens finally did meet a keg or a bottle, and no adult was looking, they overdid it. Binges, drunk driving, the works. Booze was the cookie jar on the high shelf that Mom and Dad would never bring down. And they were going to get those cookies.

In contrast, my son asks me curious, thoughtful questions about the wine I'm having with dinner and whether I like it and why. At first, his questions unnerved me. But after a while, I was happy for them, and I answered the queries in the same spirit as if he had asked me why Saturn has rings around it. He was interested. He's doesn't want any wine, and he knows full well that he's not going to have any until he's of age. He understands that it's serious stuff, to be taken seriously and with discretion. But he's not scared of it. It's no mystery. It's what adults drink. He drinks ginger ale and likes it.

This is not to say he belongs in a bar. He doesn't. He can learn those lessons at home. Still, I have to say, on the rare occasions when I do take him to a bar, he behaves beautifully.

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