Chuck E. Cheese: The name elicits wholesome images of kids frolicking about, the loud zoinks and blips of arcade games and the aroma of fresh pizza. But there is increasingly another smell in the air at the popular kids’ pizzeria: Trouble.
Recent years have seen several ugly incidents of adults behaving badly at the restaurants and experts who study social interaction in familial settings say there’s no discernible reason why.
Just recently in Brookfield Township, Wisconsin, a fight involving up to 20 people broke out inside a Chuck E. Cheese, resulting in two women being arrested, according to Milwaukee TV station WITI. The incident reportedly began after impatient parents blew their cool after waiting for a child to exchange game tickets.
That location alone had more than 80 911 calls to police in less than a two-year span, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
When reached by HLN, Brookfield Township police officials said the police report in the latest incident wouldn’t be finalized until later this week.
But police reports do little to convey the havoc of the all-out brawls that have taken place in full view of children at the kids’ establishments, many of them on full display on videos on Youtube, like the one in early July in Commack, New York. The incident made the rounds of social media, notably because a woman appeared to fight while holding a baby.
But what is it about Chuck E. Cheese that has led to so many physical altercations among adults? Is it the high-stakes games, alcohol or just prideful parents? Experts say while all those factors play a role, the overwhelming reason is very simple: Parents, many of them still relatively young themselves, are acting out.
"There may be a lot of build-up and high expectations for these parties to come off just right," Dr. David DiLillo, professor and associate chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told HLN. "When something goes wrong [like one child cutting in front of another] the pressure of the situation may erupt into violence. This may be especially true for families with limited financial resources, who have spent a lot of their hard-earned income on the party."
Also, the gamesmanship at play -- rides, contests and the like -- may overtake even some parents, said Dr. Dean Leav, a Southern California-based psychologist, with expertise in family and child issues. “The elements within the environment can stimulate aggressive, impulsive behaviors,”he said. Not to be underestimated, Leav said, is the indulgence of alcohol.
“Situations that involve a group of excited people and alcohol can often lead to acts of violence. A classic example is the fights that frequently break out during baseball games,” Leav said.
Parents fight at kids' baseball games, too
To be sure, baseball has its share of brawls and Chuck E. Cheese, in a statement to HLN, alluded to America’s favorite pastime as well to illustrate the eateries’ competitive atmosphere.
“Despite our corporate and in-store staffs’ efforts to facilitate a friendly atmosphere, unfortunately an occasional altercation occurs with a very small percentage of those who visit our restaurants. And like kids’ soccer and baseball games across our country, typically the incidents are not with the kids, but regrettably the parents.”
It wasn't always this way.
Chuck E. Cheese was founded in 1977 by Nolan Bushnell, an Atari co-founder who is considered one of the fathers of the video game industry. The restaurant is touted as one of the first to combine sitdown-style eating with arcade gaming and amusement rides.
In its more than 35 years, the company has had relatively few troubling incidents at its more than 500 restaurants. “In 2012, 99.99% of approximately 65 million guest visits at Chuck E. Cheese’s occurred without incident and resulted in smiles,” the company said.
But occasionally those smiles have turned into black eyes for families caught up in the unruliness.
Children oftentimes the biggest victims
Leav said in addition to the obvious legal troubles that result, the damage to families can be long-lasting, especially for the children.
“Many adults have poor impulse control,” he said. “They frequently fail to consider the consequences of their actions even when kids are present."
But does that fully explain the explosive incidents -- the quick tempers, the hair-pulling, the police calls -- that have caused parents to sabotage their kids' birthday parties time and time again? Leav hints at a darker reason the brawls may be occurring: Parents, for whatever reason, are different today.
Today's parenting can employ a hodge-podge of styles much different from yesteryear: Attachment parenting, a very hands-on approach to rearing; helicopter parents, who hover over their kids constantly; and even the tiger mom, a term popularized a couple years ago by Amy Chua, all apply their protective instincts in different ways, especially in highly competitive situations.
"Many of these adults are 'wired' or have the predisposition to respond in such a maladaptive way. The kids, unfortunately, learn how to be impulsive themselves by observing the adults," Leav said.
DiLillo of the University of Nebraska hints at another reason for the problems. "Birthdays often bring together adults who are less than fond of each other, as in the case of separated or divorced parents," he said.
"Add to all this noise, crowding, and alcohol consumption, which can shorten fuses and loosen inhibitions, and it becomes clear that below the festive veneer of a child's birthday party lurk all the ingredients for a brawl."