There may be something about a Chuck E. Cheese's pizza emporium that makes a reasonable adult want to throw chairs-the constant flashes and beeps, the kids running wild, the sappy entertainment and bored teenagers in sweaty costumes-and the pizza's not that good, either. But a reasonable adult would suppress the impulse. Or that's the assumption, which a trend of violent outbreaks at Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants across the nation may belie.
In the last few years, incidents of assault at the children's birthday palace have-perhaps not escalated, but certainly increased, primarily in lower-income rustbelt areas like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. In Susquehanna Township, police answered 10 calls in 2007, all for one location. Other restaurants in Topeka, Flint, and Harrisburg reported incidents of mother-daughter teams getting into fights, ex-husbands slapping ex-wives, a free-for-all breaking out upon the appearance of an uninvited guest, a melee involving 80 people that continued in the parking lot after police broke it up with pepper spray. Fights erupt in bars, clubs, and parking lots all the time, but the combination of a human-size plushy mouse, a child's birthday party, and cursing, shoving parents disturbs our sense of propriety.
While no scientific study of the phenomenon has been done, talk-show hosts and callers have identified three possible factors. One is the perennial "mama bear" instinct, which propels parents into aggressive behavior if they think their child is being treated badly. Another might be the composition of these parties: large groups often made up of feuding ex-spouses and their families. Also, beer and wine are served in 70 percent of Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants, with predictable results if bad feelings are already present.
All these probably play a part, but the phenomenon may be a consequence of parenting in our self-absorbed, youth-obsessed times.
Several years ago, during a long flight to Seattle, I was seated in front of a little girl about 5 years old who began kicking the back of my seat. This became increasingly noticeable, so I turned around and said something like, "You know, when you kick like that, I can feel it. So I'd like it if you'd stop, please." With a fleeting smile at the little girl and her mother, I turned back around, thinking the problem was solved.
About five minutes later, the mom lunged over the row of seats and informed me that if I had anything to say to her child, I'd better say it to her. She may have had a point, but I'd heard the child trying to talk to her earlier, and Mama Bear couldn't seem to spare much time for a conversation. Her replies were short and dismissive, and continued that way well into the flight-until her child was "attacked," which propelled her into an overreaction.
Every teacher has stories about the mom who never shows up for school conferences or events but will respond to a fault when her daughter gets demerits for bad behavior. Every Little League umpire knows how riled a dad will get at an "unfair" call against his son, just or not. Perhaps, deep down, parents know when they're not living up to their own responsibilities and tend to overcompensate with aggressive retorts when Johnny or Sabrina edges close to trouble. Too little involvement swings back to too much-due, in part, to unassimilated guilt.
But also due to the parental tendency to over-identify with their children, so that any correction of or confrontation with Junior is seen as an attack on Mom or Dad. This is not love but failure to see the child as an integrated human being in need of correction. And parents who identify too much with their children may start to behave like them.
The advertising motto of Chuck E. Cheese's is "Where a kid can be a kid." It's not the fault of the restaurant that some grownups are feeling at liberty to be kids, but it's not an encouraging sign for the future.
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