Eating out with kids is not necessarily a stress-free experience for most toddler parents, us included. Not only do we have to worry about selecting nutritious foods from the menu, we also have to keep an eye on misbehavior and less-than-ideal table manners. Sure, kids are kids and a certain amount of mischief is only to be expected, but it is hard as a parent to ignore the looks of pity, annoyance and sometimes even hostility from others. Suddenly, the spotlight is on us and it feels like we are the worst parents in whole world!
Last week, I reviewed a wonderful children’s book called Wiggens Learns His Manners at the Four Seasons Restaurant and also invited comments from readers about their dining-out experience with kids. I asked the following two questions –
- What is your most difficult restaurant manners problem with your toddler?
- Share a difficult dining out experience with your toddler where you had to manage a bad manners situation and how you handled it
Here are a few common manners problems people shared in response to my questions –
- Feeling bored, not able to sit still
- Throwing food on the floor, making a mess
- Running around, jumping on chairs
- Talking loudly or being rude to others
I think we can all relate to them one way or another. It also happens at home I am sure, not just when you go out to eat. From that point of view, this kind of behavior is probably normal from 2-5 year olds because they are full of energy and curiosity and constantly trying to push the limits as they learn to exercise their independence. They don’t know that their behavior can be labeled as misbehavior and that it can cause a lot of embarrassment to their parents in public!
That is why, I believe that the issue of bad manners is not a problem of the child, rather it is a problem of the parents.
Having said that, clearly we have to teach children about good manners and acceptable behavior. It will prepare them to be socially responsible and be able to get along with others. However, I fully agree with Dr. Spock who writes in his bestseller book on baby and child care:
Good manners come naturally – teaching children to say please or thank you is not really the first step. The most important thing is to have them like people and feel good about their own worth as a person. If they don’t, it will be hard to teach them even surface manners.
The important word here is naturally, they cannot be forced based on a schedule and should be treated like any other developmental milestone. There can be many ways to teach them manners and good behavior; you should adopt a style that is consistent with your personal style and attitude.
As far as behavior in a restaurant is concerned, here are a few tips you may want to consider –
Be consistent at home and outside: if you get your child in the habit of sitting down for a family meal at home, she is more likely to find the idea of a sit-down meal at a restaurant familiar and comforting. Consistency in family meals is key to not only good nutrition, quality family time and good habits, but also positive behavior when eating out. Do not have one set of rules at home and another for outside.
No rewards or punishments: promise of a reward or threat of a punishment works only for a short time. Kids will figure it out very quickly and pretty soon you will have to offer a bigger reward or a bigger punishment to get the same result. What you can do instead is consistently show your approval for behaviors you want to encourage and disapproval for behaviors you want to avoid. This approach, when combined with consistent role model behavior by you and others in the family is more likely to work in the long run.
Know the limits and enforce them no matter what: although I just talked about not using a reward or punishment, it is a good idea to set a few limits, especially when it comes to safety. Kids are unpredictable, and no matter how much you plan, it is possible that their behavior may create an unsafe situation for them or others around you. Running, jumping and throwing food or sliverware can fall in this category. Calmly explain to your child that it is not safe to do those things because someone can get hurt and that is not nice. If the softer approach does not work, be prepared to get your food-to-go and leave. In these situations, it is very important for both parents to be on the same page. There might be differences in parenting styles between the two of you, but you have to agree on a common plan when dealing with difficult parenting situations
Timing is everything: If you arrive at a restaurant when your child is too hungry or when he has just had an energy boosting snack, you are more likely to have a manners problem. Keep a healthful snack at hand just in case she is starving when you arrive. You can also minimize waiting time at the restaurant by ordering ahead, especially if it happens to be a place you frequently visit. We like to keep a few of our favorite restaurant menus in the car just for this purpose.
Be a role model: just like any parenting situation, the importance of being a role model when eating out can hardly be over emphasized. Children learn by imitating their parents and others they come in contact with. They will simply reflect your behavior because they admire you and want to gain your love and affirmation. It does not mean you have to be perfect at all times, but you do have to be consistent overall on average. Everyone can have a bad day, you don’t have to feel guilty or apologetic when you occasionally slip! In those moments, rely on your partner to do the heavy lifting.
Plan to entertain: even adults get bored and restless if they have to wait too long to get a highly anticipated meal or drink! Children have even a shorter attention span! Keeping their favorite toy or a book handy is a good idea. We like to make up stories and engage them in all kind of silly conversations a the table to keep their interest. We also keep a basket full of toys and books ready in the car just in case!
Keep your cool: parenting is an extreme sport and there are times when things don’t go your way. We also feel under pressure in public because these days everyone is quick to judge and have their own ideas about what it means to be a good parent. I say, just ignore it! You don’t have to be a perfect parent – if there is anything like that in the first place! Keep your cool and laugh it off. If your children aren’t behaving perfectly, it won’t help to yell or scream at them or try to shush them! Enjoy as much as possible, and if everyone is having a bad day, just walk away and try another day!
How have you managed a difficult parenting moment when eating out with your little ones? Leave a comment, I would love to hear from you!