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Kids in Restaurants, Part 2: Lousy Local Conditions

by on Jul.22, 2013, under Behavior, Brat-Proofing, Child development, Environmental influences, Expectations, Learning, Parent modeling, Parenting, Public Behavior, Toddlers

Kids in Restaurants, Part 2:

Lousy Local Conditions

On Friday I lunched with a colleague at a “grown up” restaurant. The atmosphere was quiet and refined.  Seated right next to us was a family of three—mother, father, and, in-between them, their adorable 18 month old child. We wouldn’t even have  known he was there were it not for his occasional giggles. Mom and dad quietly spoke to him, played with him, included him in conversation, and redirected when things started to go south.  It was a far cry from my restaurant scene of the previous week about which I wrote.

After posting my recent blog, Kids in Restaurants, it occurred to me that in my haste, I had neglected to offer my usual inclusion of tips, in this case tips for habituating children to restaurants.

Learning restaurant behavior, like all learning, takes repeated, real life experience and logical feedback from a child’s trusted guide (parent, caregiver, etc.)  And as with all learning, there is a readiness component—developmental, emotional, and often maturational. A child’s innate temperament will play a role too. His ability to learn is almost always situational. That is, some places and times will work better than others. It also includes what I fondly call lousy local conditions.(  Lousy Local Conditions refers to those circumstances that actually sabotage a child’s ability to be his best self at the time. Therefore, for example, teaching a child how to behave in a restaurant on a day he has attended two birthday parties and skipped his nap will likely be a failed lesson. Expecting a child to amuse himself, sitting quietly in his seat, while his parents chat among themselves is also a recipe for disaster. Lousy local conditions.

To assist you on the road to teaching your child restaurant behaviors, I offer the following tips:

  • Remember, the lesson is not just about learning that there are certain environments that require certain behaviors. It is also about children learning to be aware of the needs of other people, other diners in the restaurant.
  • Make sure your expectations for your child’s behavior are reasonable and appropriate to his age and development. Do not set him up to fail.
  • When teaching restaurant behavior, it is less about your happiness and more about doing what the situation demands…
  • …Therefore, for example, you must be prepared to leave the restaurant quickly, even if your meal is interrupted or ruined.
  • Consequences for misbehavior need to be appropriate and immediate. Repeated warnings do not work and often undermine your lesson. You lose credibility when you don’t follow through with your warnings. Never threaten unless you prepared to follow through.
  • If your child is one who is in a challenging period, you may need to drive two cars.  Leaving the restaurant and going home, while Mommy and brother stay, is a powerful message. (And when you get home, be sure not to have a gay ol’ time with your rascal.)
  • If your child didn’t want to go to the restaurant in the first place, don’t take him…or don’t go! He will likley ruin it for you all.
  • It is always easier to take infants to restaurants than toddlers (especially the kind that sleep!)
  • With your older child (two and a half and up), discuss your expectations before entering the restaurant. And yes, you may need to do it every time you go to restaurant. Some parents are challenged by consistency. Children’s learning is enhanced by it.
  • Remember, toddlers and nursery school age children need to interact with their environment. They like to touch, smell, taste…everything! Sitting still in his seat, hands in his lap (!) are not a reasonable expectations for very long.
  • Children who have a hard time sitting in a chair at a restaurant likely have the same difficulty at home. What makes you think he will be any different?  Work on it at home or at a friend’s or extended family member’s house, and then try out a restaurant. Eating behavior expectations need to be the same everywhere.
  • Choose a restaurant that will be good for your child, even though you are dying to try one that may not be. A child-friendly clientele takes a lot of the pressure off you. Everyone will be happier.
  • Call ahead to make sure the restaurant actually has the food options your child will eat. Also check on high chair and booster availability. If you strike out, save that place for a child-free night.  Many restaurants allow you to call ahead and order, cutting the wait time considerably.
  • Be prepared by bringing an emergency kit (crayons and paper, a travel size toy or two, small bits of hors d’ oeuvre food.) Remember, restaurants are slow food. While you might be able to wait for your food to be served, it will challenge your child. It takes a long time to learn to wait, especially when the child is accustomed to being served as soon as he sits down at your home table. Many children, young and old, have not been helped to learn to delay gratification about many things, including food.
  • Be aware of where you are being seated. Being close to a restroom, on the outer edge, away from a traffic area, will help.
  • Leave as much of your baby paraphernalia at home as you can. (Strollers take up a whole lot of room.)
  • Pay attention to your child. As you well know, children can melt down and misbehave for your attention. To a child, negative attention is attention. Unfortunately, a family night out is not the time for exclusive adult conversation. Focus on your children.
  • Make contact with the diners around you and, if need be, let them know that you will try to make everyone’s eating experience as pleasant as possible.
  • One failure night doesn’t mean the next one will be the same. Try again at a later date.  Children learn over time and with understanding.

It is the parent’s job to teach a child all kinds of public behaviors, this includes restaurant behaviors. This is not a skill that comes with the factory equipped model of child.  I know you are up to the task.

P.S.  For the record, my own three children, triplets, enjoyed their first meal out at age 18 months at In ‘N’ Out Burger. We ate outside.

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4 Comments for this entry

  • Heather Klein

    I agree Betsy! I have twins and I didn’t start taking them to “restaurants” until THEY were ready. Many thought I was crazy but I felt why torture the kids when they don’t care about food. They are now almost 7 and love going out to eat but I never force them. Great blog!

  • Lauren

    Excellent follow up to Part 1 of this series. Thanks for the reminders of how to make eating at “grown up” restaurants.

  • Vishakh Beharry

    Just dropping in to let you know you have a brand new fan!

    Reading one post on your website made me enamored there and then.
    Really, you are amazing!

  • Betsy

    What a kind comment to have received. Thanks so much, Vishakh.

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