Broad Humor

Women and Comedy
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SEPTEMBER 7, 2009 7:37PM

Java Tots: No Longer Just Your Mama's Starbucks

Rate: 14 Flag

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?

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I've also noticed the overload of teenagers in Starbucks and similar establishments. When I was in high school I wasn't even allowed to drink coffee - now it's the local hangout and "cool" thing to do. Starting your kid on a $4 coffee habit a day at the age of 14 - well there has to be something wrong with the sound of that.'s less the kids running around wrecking havoc on the place and more about turning them onto those kinds of sugary drinks from such an early's pretty disturbing
I love your writing style, and agree with your dismay about kids growing up on Starbucks fare. The analogy to Mickey Mouse sneaking a smoke without his head/ears on was hilarious. I've noticed a cultural/geographic difference in Starbucks where I live, in Austin, TX. ITE (In this economy) Starbucks are often empty except for adults. The giraffes and monkeys are in stock, but they seem to stay that stock. I noticed in New York, in Westchester, the Starbucks were more of a community gathering place, with live music on weekends and other events. Doesn't seem to have caught on in Austin. We do have a "fake" Starbucks called Enoch's, which puts the F-word on a Starbucks logo inside. It uses little a/c and feeble fans, but it's jammed full of people playing chess and board games. I like your essay, especially the part about the poor dad with a kid named Alistair (!?)
I tire of the rapid "kidification" of EVERYTHING. Museums, restaurants, public gathering places. It seems children can't go to museums and enjoy them without "kid friendly" exhibits, and grown-ups can't go to restaurants without kids running around screaming. I blame the boomers' crazy obsession with their children at the expense of everything else. In Paris, where cafe culture is an art, you just don't see this type of thing.
I live in the middle of nowhere and the nearest starbucks is 60 miles away. I would be dismayed to find children there if I went. The Barnes and Noble I go to has decided to make about a third of the building a place for teens and kids. Since the population of school age children has dropped drastically in this area and schools are closing I find this quite confusing.
Children do not need sugar or caffeine
I was told that coffee would stunt my growth. There's probably no truth to that, but who the hell lets their children drink highly caffienated, sugary, boiling hot drinks that stain everything they spill on?

I like kids, and I don't usually mind children in "adult" spaces, provided those children are acting like adults or at least being seen and not heard. The problem is that children are NOT adults, and they can't nor should be expected to keep up the act for very long or very often. An occasional trip to Starbucks with your kid is OK--hey, I remember being a kid and really enjoying getting to do "grown up" things because I got to do them so infrequently--but it's not a site for a play date. Get your coffee and take the kids to a playground and let 'em run around while you sit on the park benches and catch up with your adult friends.
Who needs Starbucks when they can just make coffee, let it sit for three days and reheat it several times until it taste like driveway sealant? Here's nother sceneario - a baby boomer standing around with a Starbucks cup trying to appear hip (pretending they don't care what people think of them, though they desperately do) with their corporate cool emblem perring out their $4 cup of Starbucks sewage, pretending they actually enjoy the taste. Anyone over 30 that wants to be, much less tries to be cool or hip is just sad. It's oever at 29.
Gosh, that image of the fireplace and overstuffed chairs seems right out of corporate PR. The Starbucks I last visited, which happened to be in an affluent suburb of Boston looked a little run down, had about one scruffy oversized chairs and a bunch of tables and chairs that probably wouldn't have looked out of place in an upscale school cafeteria. The place was slightly reminiscent of school cafeteria and I was there during school hours, so there were no kids to help with that image.
I'll give you the perspective from the parent of a 4 year old....

1) Starbucks knows its market...there is no population more in need of a safe place to both caffeinate and take their children than moms of toddlers. This is why every PTA committee that can do so schedules their meetings at a local Starbucks. That Starbucks is catering to this population by making thier spaces kid friendly should come as no surprise.

2) The serving of coffee to kids I find pretty piss-poor parenting. As many of you know, my kid has a feeding disorder, which means that I am usually pretty tolerant of what parents feed kids, mostly because I am grateful when my kid eats anything at all most days, even if it's only teddy grahams and peanut butter. But this is where I draw the line.

There are plenty of kid friendly options at Starbucks to drink. There's juices and milk and even soymilk, and yes, that most boring of drinks -- water. It shouldn't be hard to find your kid something to drink that doesn't involve caffeine, which isn't particularly good for kids. (Really not that great for adults, either, but that's a different issue.) The parent who lets the kids have foamy latte drinks full of sugar and caffeine is copping out needlessly. If MY kid, whose limited range of foods is so serious that it can endanger his health can go with me to Starbucks and drink something other than a latte, then most normal kiddies can too. The word, dear gentles, is "no." Some parents have a hard time using it and making it stick.

3) I am the first one to sympathize with the notion that not everyone wants to be around my kids. My personal opinion is that you're not doing your kids any favors by bringing them someplace where the expectations for correct behavior are beyond their reach. My four year old stays home when we go to a nice restaurant, or to a play, or someplace where there might be long lines or limited facilities. It's setting your kids up to fail and it just makes everyone miserable in the end.

There are some parents who believe that they should cart thier little ones everyplace they go -- either because they are too attached to them to leave them with a sitter or can't afford one. Some of them even beleive that everyplace, no matter how ill-suited to children, should make an effort to accommodate kids. Generally, people who insist on their own needs being met ahead of everyone else's are rude. So it's no wonder that the kids of these rude parents are no better than those that spawned them.

But let's be honest about what Starbucks is -- it's a ginormous cookie-cutter coffee chain. Anyone who is expecting some sort of oaisis of chi-chi bliss is kidding themselves and expecting too much. Sure, parents need to parent their kids wherever they are, and many fall down on that score. But let's not kid ourselves that Starbucks is so exclusive that it's the kind of place that kids should be utterly excluded from.
I wasn't going to comment on this because, well, I just don't care - though I think it's clever and nicely written, don't get me wrong.

But @voicegal I have to jump to the defense of my generation! We boomers are too old for the little kids running around SBs & elsewhere. I'm a boomer and we didn't even have coffee shops when my kids were little. Maybe we made our kids feel so special they think they invented having children (they do seem to, don't they?) but it could just as well be the reverse - they're getting back at their parents through their kids by being opposite.

Slightly seriouser - I wonder if this extreme specialness of kids isn't a product of a transition to having fewer of them.
Wow. Great points all around! While we're at it, lets get rid of the folks who refuse to speak English at Starbucks--it really chafes my a$$ that they are allowed to walk in, ramble in foreign tongue, and sit near me with their existence whilst I revel in my childless, singlehood.
I was on weekend trip riding on the back of my friend's motorcycle. We looked like people who had been riding on a motorcycle for several hours, so when we got hungry, we went to a Jack in the Box. A novel experience for me, but I won't even go into Denny's unless there's a hope of cleaning up a little. So the place was full of kids, naturally. Some of them were screaming. I was philosophical. It was a Jack in the Box, though I don't get just ignoring a screaming kid. I could do that sort of thing as a lark, but I like peace and quiet.

I don't have a problem with kids as much as parents who think screaming is normal and that's just what 2 year olds do so the rest of the diners can stuff it. I have a crazy notion that kids scream when they are ignored. If you are with a kid, you have to focus on the kid. That's the nature of kids. If you don't give them your attention, they will scream for it. I don't believe that the world should revolve around kids but I do believe that the point in bringing kids to adult environments is to provide them with an experience, hopefully age appropriate, by showing them how to behave and appreciate the environment. So I would not have a problem with kids at Starbucks coloring in their books by the fire, which is their version of working on a laptop, but I do have a problem with kids going nuts anywhere that is appropriate for relaxing with quiet conversation or reading.
PTA meetings? Really?
@nerd cred, just so you know, I'm a Boomer, too. But at the late end of it all. ;)
Don't forget the parents bringing their children to pubs! In seattle where I live, I have seen a local eatery/pub turn kid friendly. Its not a "bar" per se, but is definetly advertised as a pub. Ya, beer, friends hanging out on Friday night watching the game....not exactly appropriate for children. Its not that they are being exposed to some kind of bar scene with drunken patrons fighting in the parking lot, but some thngs should be adult only...if only for the sake of all the other adults who try to enjoy an occasional kid free evening.