Yesterday I took my children to a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese. One of my daughter’s classmates was turning five, and they elected to forgo the whole rent-a-bouncy-house thing (which is the other great option for professional class parents) and just outsource the whole deal.
Of course, the kids all had a great time; but I spent the several hours feeling like Marlin in Finding Nemo— in a vaguely threatening environmnent, wondering where my kids had gone. But I finally figured out what bothers me about the place. Not the fact that Chuck E Cheese combines the noise level of a Metallica concert, the franticness of the Filene’s Basement wedding dress sale, and the visual stimulation of the Akihabara; nor that their pizza is terrible and overpriced.
Actually, all those things do irritate me.
But what makes me feel like there’s something actually dangerous about the place is that it’s almost impossible to know where your kids are and what they’re doing. At a playground, you might be some distance from them, but you can (at least theoretically) almost always maintain line-of-sight contact.
In the Land of the Lactose Tolerant Mouse, in contrast, children need to go maybe four feet before the encounter a corner, an obstruction, or something that takes them away from you. Maybe I’m probably overprotective, but I prefer to be able to see what my two year-old is doing. I know what kinds of games my kids like, but I still like visual confirmation. Theory is good, but I want experimental evidence.
Another problem is that there’s no single place in the restaurant where you can see what your kids are doing, and also see the door– that is, a place they shouldn’t be. There’s an employee at the front who is supposed to check to make sure that your hand stamp matches that of the kids you’re taking out. This is the kind of system that will foil child abductors who are as unmotivated as Chuck E Cheese employees, but for everyone else, it’s what Bruce Schneier calls “security theatre,” something intended as a public show of concern for safety.
But we all survived, though my ears are still ringing a bit.