Java Tots: No Longer Just Your Mama's Starbucks
An inviting fire crackles in the wrought-iron fireplace in the center of the room. In one corner, a woman with a guitar strums softly, putting a new twist on an old Dylan tune; people are relaxing on overstuffed couches and large living room chairs. Some people hunch over the white, steril glow of their MacBooks, maybe composing the next great American novel, maybe composing their resignation letters. And two children, blonde and bright-eyed, their skin flush with the nourishment of organic food and free-trade soaps, amuse themselves with pop-up books, wooden puzzles, while they enjoy their java latte-cinos, soy milk of course.
This is a scene that plays itself out in any Starbucks across the country, each one relentlessly, insistently the same, right down to their increasingly kid and family friendly atmosphere. If science and pop culture has taught us anything it's that humans are creatures of habit, as illustrated most eloquently by that cinematic masterpiece, Groundhog Day. Bill Murray's character, Phil, is sentenced by some cosmic justice to relive a singular day endlessly. In doing so he gets to know the habits and coming and goings of the townspeople, down to timing their most intimate idosyncracies. Entering a Starbucks is a lot like Groundhog Day: no matter the city, town, or country, everything is just about exactly as you left it in your hometown, right down to the shorthand that the barristas bark at one another in an effort to serve your coffee just the way you like it. It's creepy when you really think about it; but we rarely do because we are so thrilled and comforted by the familiar, so much so, in fact, we might not even notice the strollers, the juice and milk boxes appearing in the food case, or the plush monkey and giraffe merch showing up in "festive" baskets around the cash wrap.
I live in Boston, but used to live outside the city near an affluent suburb. I admit to patronizing Starbucks on occasion (this isn't some class warrior, fist-shaking at the corporate enemy kind of post, though I salute those of you who join in angry solitude over such corporate behemouths. I do, usually, shake my fist alongside you from an independently own cafe), and in the one I would visit to write without the distractions of home, I was always amazed to see moms and dads with their little ones. Some of the kids were on obvious play dates. They would chase each other around the cd kiosk or sprawl in front of the fireplace with coloring books, while the mothers convened and chatted or groused depending on the day. Other children who were in the exclusive care of their dads (sorry dads) seemed to be caught in the aftermath of a lost coin toss. The dad looked harried and irritated and unable to cope with Alistair (for real, I heard one man call his little boy Alistair, not Al, which made me immediately sympathize with the kid for the super wedgies and dodge ball welts he would surely endure in his pre-adult life) who refused to drink his carmel macchiato, eat his frosted donut, or understand what dad meant when he used words like "comprimise" and "mid-life crisis."
It just seemed wrong to me. I understand the coffee giant capitalizing off of or else actually creating every aspect of cafe culture: selling travel mugs, regular mugs, the various apparti and implements needed to make coffee; offering up chocolates, biscotti, and other dunkable items; and even hawking music, the perfect Miles Davis or Bob Marley compliation for any java head. But appealing to kids? It's either corporate genius (Baby 'Spresso Bjorn) or Dr. Spock's worst nightmare come true.
I am without children, which makes me an armchair parent and great authority on the subject. Though I believe that children should be taught in a way that doesn't condescend to their intelligence (let's face it, some 5 year old is probably the true genius behind the iphone), I also believe that children are meant to be children. This is why Victorian parents eventually stopped making their little boys wear three-piece suits and forbade them from reading Homer "for fun;" or, you know, why sending kids down into mine shafts became passe. Watching kids who still think booger eating should be an Olympic sport or could easily pass an afternoon tickling Elmo, totter around Starbucks clutching caffeinated sugar bombs with whip cream and brightly colored straws is unnerving, like catching a glimpse of Mickey Mouse without his costumed head, sneaking a smoke at Disney World.
Isn't there someone we can blame for this new cultural trend? Perhaps a right-wing conspiracy against education reform--tots so wired they are bound to score poorly on standardized tests? Maybe we could blame cafe culture in general for making it permissible to conduct all kinds of affairs in the inviting, aphrodesiac of java beans and scorched milk. Or we could just blame ourselves, for being creatures of habit, for following the rest of the salmon upstream and either placating our kids with illicit foodee treats or else shoving them toward adulthood by pre-maturely arming them with the accessories of survival in the twenty first century. Afterall, they need something to sip while they chatter away on their iphones, right?