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Honey, I Shunned the Kids

Published in Gourmet Live 12.07.11
Elizabeth Gunnison coaches holiday hosts on how to ban tots from the table without being labeled a Scrooge

It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday and I’m using tweezers to place sprigs of micro sorrel on a platter of peekytoe crab and rye crisp canapés. Charlie Parker’s playing in the background and I dim the lights, arranging a few candles artfully around my snug living room. I uncork a bottle of Champagne, the good stuff that was a birthday present, and pour myself a glass. The doorbell rings. I take a moment to switch out of my ratty slippers and into a pair of party-ready black slingbacks.

Then the bell rings again. And again. And again. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

BuzzBuzzBuuuuuzzzzzzzzzzzz.

What kind of a-hole rings a doorbell like that?

I race to answer it and find myself face-to-face with a child of 3 or 4, held aloft in the arms of his grinning parent.

“Sorry! He likes doorbells. Surprise! Say hello to little Ethan. He’ll just sit quietly while we eat!”

In a clatter of Bugaboos and baby joggers, little people have arrived in my life. They have come with their miniature Crocs, their sweet gap-toothed smiles, sippy cups, and iPads loaded with Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street, as guest stars at every brunch, beach weekend, barbecue, and coffee date. And now, they’re making a run at my dinner parties.

Oh, they’re cute all right, with their tubby little cheeks and their pidgin English. And I’m all too happy to spend an afternoon at the park watching dear Aiden build his first sand castle or applaud 3-year-old Emma as she practices her “ballet routine.” But the enchantment ends when cocktail hour begins. I think dinner parties should remain adults-only events, and on that matter, my friends and I seem to disagree.

Naturally, my first concerns are for the children. As with most people without offspring, my home is a death trap for small people. There are precariously stored knives, open wall sockets, Champagne flutes dangling within easy reach of little fingers, and unsecured bookcases against every wall. I have a DVR full of Breaking Bad and a Robert Mapplethorpe book on the coffee table. I like it this way. These are the luxuries of the childless.

Of course, I would be lying if I said that my motives were purely selfless. A lot of time, effort, and expense go into hosting a group for dinner, especially when you have a tendency to go overboard on such things (see: tweezers and micro sorrel). I will have carefully chosen a guest list, spent all day working on the meal, and splurged on wines that are out of my budget. Once it all comes together, all I ask in return is a few hours of grown-up conversation. Art, politics, pop culture, whatever. But not asking little Annabel what noise a cow makes.

When I serve the chestnut agnolotti that took me hours to prepare, I would like my guests to pay attention while they eat it instead of rubbernecking as little Mason reaches unsteadily for a glass decanter.

I want to drink Martinis with abandon without feeling creepy or inappropriate. I want to listen to Miles Davis and Billie Holiday over dinner, not the squeaks and squawks of Dora the Explorer and her friend Diego.

Selfish? Picky? Maybe. But it’s my party and I’ll kvetch if I want to.

So I’ll just get right down to it: Bringing a child unannounced to a dinner party is not unlike arriving with an uninvited, intoxicated guest in tow. I’ve had both children and drunks at my dinner table, and trust me, there are a lot of overlaps. They’re touching things they shouldn’t be touching, spilling food, interjecting at all the wrong moments. They put their sticky hands on people’s skirts. They hog the conversation.

And frankly—now back to my concern for the children—I have to think that young Jackson would be happier snug as a bug in bed at 10 p.m. on a Saturday, instead of listening to my friend who drinks too much swear and talk about her divorce.

I like to believe that I make a strong argument for child-free dinner parties, but in practice, it’s an issue that’s neither straightforward nor easy to resolve with guests. People get incredibly defensive when it comes to their children. Communicating even to a close friend that her precious darling Mia is persona non grata can seem too daunting to manage.

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