In a restaurant at 6pm, a lone diner was seated to for their evening meal. I arrived shortly after with three children, an eight-year-old and two six-year-olds who all eat out regularly. No other customers were in the restaurant at the time and as we arrived the younger two were being noisy. I asked them to be quiet and they listened well, but the diner left halfway through their main course, told the manager it was too noisy and shook their head at me through the window from the footpath as they walked away.

I posted this story on Facebook in order float the topic of dining with your children. The post gave way to a tirade of judgment about children’s behaviour in restaurants and the expectations of parents. These opinions were strong enough to have led me here to seek out the thoughts of other parents, a restaurant owner and those without children, to find out just where young children (should) sit in the world of dining out.

In the context of such a fiercely subjective story, it is safe to say that everyone has an opinion about the presence and behaviour of children – small children (from babies up to six or seven) in particular – in public dining spaces.

My experience when I was a non-parent (and worked front-of-house in restaurants) was one of judgment, often negative, and now as a parent and the co-owner of two restaurants, I am very conscious of the fact that I have two children who eat out often and must be aware of those dining around them. I might sound repetitious to them and myself, but from coming out for coffees as toddlers to an hour-long dinner as they have grown, they are still given a rundown before each meal on how to behave and what is expected of them, and to always be aware of those around them. This is how I choose to manage our family’s situation.

A one-hour meal is a reasonable request for a small child. It is more than enough of me to ask my six year old to sit still for that long, and while my almost nine-year-old is happy to sit longer, the hour is long enough for now. As the way we eat out evolves to smaller meals and share-plates where a meal can be over quickly if needed, does this make it easier to take children out?

Daniel Wilson, 34, chef and co-owner of Collingwood’s Huxtable restaurant, takes his two children (five and three years) to Huxtable and other restaurants at least once a week and has become more tolerant of children in restaurants since becoming a parent. “I am a little more [tolerant] as I have always respected parents who take their kids to eat out, as long as they enforce appropriate behaviour.”

Just what appropriate behaviour entails is also subjective, but there is the undeniable fact that running around in a public space where hot food and drinks are being carried and served is not only distracting for other diners and staff but also very dangerous. The other factor is noise. Parents should monitor the amount of noise children make to ensure it is not impinging on others’ experiences.

According to Kelly Donati, 39, PhD candidate and freelance writer, “Respect, courtesy and manners can and should be taught at home and are easily translated into a restaurant environment. Children should understand that if they are not able to conduct themselves properly, their behaviour will not be tolerated,” she explains. “That being said, there is always the case of babies who are too young to understand these things and who sometimes cry and scream. Parents should not expect that other patrons can tune out their children’s crying in the same way they can.”

A valued awareness between people regardless of age – one that is acknowledged and respected – in a shared dining space is certainly a necessity, and when children are added to the space that awareness must be taught to those children. Many parents of young children spent their pre-parental years going out to cafes and restaurants regularly and it’s reasonable to suggest they will continue to want to do this once they have children. This desire has seen the rise in popularity of child-friendly cafes, a niche market that compelled Jemma Reynolds, 30, to set up the Little Eats website to help parents find places suitably equipped for their littlies.

“There didn’t seem to be much else around that either listed or reviewed decent places to eat with babies and kids, and by decent I don’t mean Smorgy’s, Taco Bill and Hog’s Breath!” Reynolds quips. “I thought it would be a great way to combine all of my interests, do something for myself, and help other cafe-loving new mums and foodie families at the same time.”

Little Eats tries out places and rates them on their equipment and facilities in terms of user-friendliness for children and their parents. Reynolds believes these places are important but also recognises that parents’ involvement in teaching their children appropriate behaviour is crucial. “I strongly think that parents do need to set ground rules when dining out with their kids. If they are taken out and about to eat and are encouraged to do so from a young age then they will learn to go with the flow and behave when they are out at a restaurant or cafe.”

That said, she regards the behaviour of some adults to also be questionable. “Whether it is a little one running around the cafe being loud and getting in the way, or if it is an adult talking loudly about what they did last night on their mobile phone in an annoying voice, either way, both are not acceptable in a cafe environment.”

Tony Keenan, 52, CEO of Hanover House in North Melbourne agrees that good behaviour is ageless, “It’s usually much better [to see children in a cafe], than seeing a loud table of marketing executives all trying to talk over the top of each other! I am not happy if kids are using food as missiles,” he continues, “but I am equally unhappy when the music is at a level where you can’t hear each other or the couple breaking up at the next table is engaging the entire restaurant in the demise of their relationship.”

The shared dining space is something that is easily taken for granted until it’s disrupted by something we didn’t expect or don’t like. When it is a matter of poorly behaved children, most people seem to put the responsibility directly on the parents. But Lachlan Quick, 33, Manager of Media and Community Information, Victoria State Emergency Service, has broader view. “I like to think both the cafe and the parents are responsible for the child’s experience, but certainly the parents bear the weight of responsibility for the behaviour. I try not to look over at crying or misbehaving kids – clearly the parents are aware of it and are having a hard enough time without having to worry about other people around them.”

It’s a minefield of opinion but within that minefield needs to be a sanctuary of acceptance that a public dining space is just that – designed for the public – and if parents choose to take their children to them, they must also teach their children how to behave within the context of where they are. As Tony Keenan puts it, “A restaurant is a shared public space so everyone needs to be mindful of how they impact on others in that space.”