The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] What to do with ‘no kids zones’

By Korea Herald

Published : June 12, 2024 - 05:31

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“No kids zones” in South Korea have caught the attention of the foreign press lately. In Le Monde, for example, an article appeared with the title: “South Korea’s ‘no kids zones’ flourish in cafes and restaurants.” Some time ago, The Washington Post, too, reported on South Korea’s no kids zones in an article entitled, “Is it discrimination if you can’t bring your kids to a restaurant?”

According to the Le Monde article, the low birth rate in South Korea is “no coincidence” since contemporary Korean society “seems to find the mere presence of children exhausting. As proof, one need only consider the large number of establishments that refuse entry to the youngest customers.” It reports, “hundreds of establishments refusing entry to children have sprung up … which aim at ensuring calmer environments for grown-ups, but are also part of a broader effort to ostracize certain social groups.”

According to the foreign press, the issues involved in no kids zones boil down to a debate about whether such spaces are “necessary to the rights of grown-ups for a calmer environment” or a form of “discrimination against children.” The debate, however, touches upon a deeper problem, which is whether it is OK to discriminate against “certain social groups” in order to protect the welfare of other groups.

In the eyes of those who are from countries that prioritize children above all other groups, “no kids zones” must sound like outrageous nonsense. People from countries where they strictly train their kids to behave in public places would not understand “no kids zones,” either. Those who are from countries that prohibit discrimination would be offended and appalled at such a discriminatory policy as well.

In Korean society, kids are not priority No. 1.

Traditionally a patriarchal society, Korean children have always been ignoble minors at home or in society. Until the end of the 19th century or the early 20th century, it was not common for children to have toys in Korea. For these historical reasons, the sign “no kids zone” might not be particularly offensive to the Korean mind.

In such a social atmosphere, Korean mothers become overprotective and tend to hold a “my children are priority No. 1” attitude. As a result, they are not enthusiastic about training their children to behave in public places because they think it might weaken and discourage their kid’s spirit. Cafe or restaurant owners who put up the sign, “No Kids Allowed,” have their own reasons: “Children scream, spill food all over and make a fuss.”

As for “discrimination,” the Korean people seem to think that it is ubiquitous already and thus the “no kids zone” sign is not particularly offensive.

When anti-American sentiment swept the nation during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, some Korean restaurants and gas stations put up the sign: “We do not serve Americans.” When anti-Japan sentiment spread during the Moon Jae-in government, some radicals smashed Japanese cars parked on the street. However, we can neither allow nor tolerate any kind of discrimination under any circumstances.

We can also find the reasons for such discrimination somewhere else, such as the Korean people’s notion of a public place. In many other countries, a public place primarily refers to somewhere people gather and have fun together in leisure, even though public etiquette is required. Since Seoul is an extremely crowded city, however, Koreans seem to think of a public place primarily as a site where you should be cautious not to get on other people’s nerves. No kids zones might stem from that cultural attitude.

Still, discrimination against kids is neither fair nor right. In fact, many children behave admirably in public places. You cannot stereotype kids and ban all of them from public places. Since minors come with adults -- particularly their parents -- the no kids zones discriminate against the mothers and fathers, too, making an unjust double discrimination.

Recently, a restaurant in Seoul refused entry to a woman and her child. She turned out to be a National Assembly woman. Now, the Korean National Assembly is legislating a law that prohibits no kids zones in public places. When the National Assembly passes the law, these child-free areas will become history in South Korea.

Still, however, we need to ponder why the foreign press is reporting it as news, and why we might want to alter our consciousness to meet global standards. Meanwhile, we should refrain from discriminating against the marginalized in our society, such as kids, senior citizens or the disabled. At the same time, Korean mothers should teach public etiquette to their children so they behave in public places.

In some American stores or educational farms, sometimes you can see a sign, “No dogs allowed, except guide dogs.” Children are not dogs. Besides, there is always an exception, such as guide dogs. We should respect and protect kids, instead of banning them from public places.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.