Dan McCauley had seen one too many kids at his cafe lying on the floor in front of the counter, careening off the glass pastry case, coming perilously close to getting their fingers pinched in the front door.
So he posted a sign: "Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices."
To him, it was a simple reminder to parents to keep an eye on their children and set some limits. But to some parents in his North Side Chicago neighborhood, the sign may as well have read, "If you have kids, you're not welcome."
That one little notice, adorned with pastel hand prints, has become a lightning rod in a larger debate over parenting and misbehaving children.
"It's not about the kids," says McCauley, the 44-year-old owner of A Taste of Heaven cafe, who has no children but claims to like them a lot. "It's about the parents who are with them. Are they supervising and guiding them?
"I'm just asking that they are considerate to people around them."
While he has created some enemies in his neighborhood, McCauley has received hundreds of calls and more than 600 letters, the overwhelming majority of them supportive. One letter-writer from Alabama typed out in bold letters: "In my opinion, you're a hero! Keep it up."
It is a sentiment that people feel increasingly comfortable expressing. Online bloggers regularly make impassioned pleas for child-free zones in public, while e-mailers have been forwarding a photograph of a sign in an unidentified business that reads, "Unattended Children Will Be Given an Espresso and a Puppy."
While it is common policy for upscale restaurants to bar children, owners of other types of businesses also are setting limits on kids.
The Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, for instance, does not allow visitors who aren't guests to have strollers; hotel officials say it is to prevent crashes with other pedestrians. The Bellagio Hotel does not take guests younger than 18 without special permission.
Some parents are fine with the limit-setting and complain that too many of their peers take their kids to places traditionally meant for adults, such as late-night movies and rock concerts.
Robin Piccini, a 42-year-old mom in Bridgewater, Mass., gets annoyed when she has hired a baby sitter for her daughter, only to end up seated at a restaurant next to unruly kids.
"I am paying the same price so that I can have a relaxing dinner, but because there are lazy parents out there, my dinner has to be stressful and tense," she says. "How fair is that?"
Still, while they agree that some parents push the boundaries too far, other weary parents feel under siege — and misunderstood.
"Don't get me wrong. As a parent, I have an arsenal that includes the deadly stare, loss of privileges and 'We're going back to the car, RIGHT NOW!'" says Angela Toda, a 38-year-old mother of two small children in College Park, Md. "But the bottom line is, there are certain moments that all kids and parents have — and sometimes your kid is going to lose it in a public place."
She says she does not usually respond well to other people's interference, "unless it is a sympathetic look."
Parents in Port Melbourne, Australia, also were upset last year when a sign appeared on the restaurant door at the Clare Castle Hotel stating that children were welcome only if they stayed in their seats. The establishment has since changed hands and dropped the policy, which new owner Michael Farrant says makes no sense in a neighborhood filled with young families.
"I like the kids running about," says Farrant, a father of three, including a 2-year-old. "I know what it's like with a little one. Sometimes, there's no controlling them."
Still other business owners are creating separate spaces for kids and families, in an attempt to accommodate as many generations as possible.
All Booked Up in Suffolk, Va., is among bookstores that have separate sections where kids can play and rest. Many ballparks have alcohol-free "family sections." And a few restaurants have added separate dining areas for parents with children.
Zulema Suarez, a professor who studies parenting, applauds attempts to strike a balance.
"There needs to be a give and take," says Suarez, an associate professor of social work at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. "Children don't need to be allowed to run wild and free, but they do need to be allowed to express themselves."
Too often, though, our cultural emphasis on freedom and individual rights gets taken to the extreme, becoming "a kind of selfish entitlement that undermines our ability to function as a civil community," says George Scarlett, a professor of child development at Tufts University in Boston.
"The rights of any one individual — whether he or she be a parent, child or stranger — do not negate the rights of others."