By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor
Several years ago, our family of four went to our favorite Thai place for a casual dinner. We were eating our salads with yummy traditional Thai peanut dressing — well, Kent and I were. The boys were sitting there “foodless,” waiting for their entrees to arrive. They didn’t then and still don’t like anything containing leafy greens touching their plates, let alone their tongues.
About five minutes into our meal, a man in his mid-thirties walked into the restaurant alone. The waitress set a menu down on the table to the right of ours. I saw he was looking at us, so I smiled to acknowledge him. My smile wasn’t returned.
It was then that I noticed he was eyeing us with what seemed to me a mix of suspicion and aggravation. He said to the waitress, “Don’t sit me next to kids. Rug rats will ruin my dinner.”
Had I heard correctly? Had a man who had never met my children and knew nothing about them, or about all the hard work of training in respect, good manners, and thoughtfulness towards the comfort of others that Kent and I were and still are trying hard to instill in them, just call them “rug rats” out loud?
Mama Lost It a Little
There’s something you have to know about me: I’m nice.
I’m naturally inclined to like people. People like me back. I have a lot of friends. I enjoy learning about others. I have a great listening ear. I’ll come to you at 3 AM if you need help. I tell people how special they are.
I’m more loyal than a cocker spaniel.
But I have my limits. Some things drive me crazy.
I can’t stand meanness, attitudes of superiority, bullies, bigotry, prejudice, false accusations, or injustice. Not even in the tiniest of doses.
So when a man I just smiled at has the audacity to call my two children “rug rats” in a voice they clearly heard — well, let’s just say I’m the Manners Mentor. I’m not Gandhi.
I had a momentary lapse.
From two tables away I said to him, “You must be confused. My children aren’t rodents of any kind. They certainly won’t disturb your dinner.”
The man looked at me for a moment and then began to study his menu. It was obvious he couldn’t have cared less.
Guess what he did next?
After he ordered his meal, he took his cell phone out of his pocket and talked and laughed throughout his dinner! Everyone in the tiny restaurant had the joy of hearing an entire one-sided conversation.
He finished eating before we did. As he walked past me, I said, “Pardon me. How were my children? Did they ruin your meal? Were they as loud as, say, someone talking on a cell phone throughout dinner?”
He shook his head as if to shake my words off him, walked to the register, paid his bill, and left without saying a word.
Should We Ban Children from Fine-Dining Restaurants?
There’s a new trend of banning children from restaurants because they can be loud, messy, and bothersome to other diners. Most of these bans are happening at more formal eateries, but even a few casual bakeries and the like have gotten on board.
Do I think we should ban children from restaurants?
As long as at the same time we also ban: cell phone yackers, folks laughing and celebrating and loudly disturbing those around them who want a quiet dinner, non-supermodels (If we’re going to eat a meal in a swanky place, let’s make sure that our fellow diners are as beautiful as the art work on the walls. We don’t want our view muddled.), and people over 90. Their walkers, requests for doggie bags, and complaining that the restaurant is either too cold or too hot is, let’s face it, not pleasant. While we’re at it, let’s ban people who are ill, physically challenged, of different races, religions, or political parties.
I hope you’re catching my sarcasm and how the whole idea of banning children is as wrong as banning any person or group of people. It’s bigotry. And in the case of children, it’s based solely on an assumption of what they might do, not what they have done. It’s wrong. Period.
I Understand and Feel the Restaurant Owner’s Frustration
If I were to run an eating establishment, from a neighborhood coffee house to a Michelin Five Star restaurant, I wouldn’t want children, or anyone else, going from table to table, being loud, leaving a mess on the floor, or disturbing other diners to the point they refuse to return to my restaurant. If you’re going to run my customers off, I’d prefer to lose your business than theirs. And any parent who allows their children to become unruly to the point that they’re doing any of these things isn’t parenting well at that moment.
I Understand and Feel Mom’s Need to Unwind
Sure, children have meltdowns. Even the best-behaved little ones let loose sometimes. (By the way, adults aren’t immune to their own versions of meltdowns.) A mom knows her tot’s limits and personality and needs to be prepared with a diaper bag or purse full of meltdown-taming toys, healthy snacks, and amusements. And if the child won’t calm down, parents need to understand that it is the Gold Standard of interactions to: say “Check, please!”; ask for a to-go box; apologize; and get out of the restaurant ASAP.
The wants of one person (or family) for a dinner (or latte) out, no matter how badly someone needs a break, doesn’t trump the rest of the diners’ expectations to eat in something less rowdy than a police holding-tank after a frat party gone wild.
Five Tips for Gold-Standard Parenting in Restaurants
The problem isn’t with the children. The problem is with parents who aren’t living by the Gold Standard of interactions by making sure that their children aren’t interfering with the comfort of others. Here’s what you can do to expose your children to any restaurant and help win rave reviews for their great manners and your great parenting.
1. The nicer the restaurant, the earlier you should eat. That way, the restaurant isn’t nearly as crowded, and your child isn’t nearly as sleepy. Eight o’clock might be prime time for dining, but it’s also bed time or close to it for most little ones. They tend to melt down more easily and intensely the closer to bed time it gets. Also, ask for a table in the back or corner as far away from others as possible.
2. Bring toys and other amusements for your child(ren) along with some favorite snacks (Goldfish crackers, small pieces of fruit, and such) to keep them happy and occupied while the food is being prepared. This isn’t a fast-food restaurant, and the wait can seem especially long for hungry children.
3. If your child makes a mess (bread crumbs on the tablecloth, sugar packets out of the container, food on the floor), then before you leave, clean up at least enough so that no one can tell a child made a mess at the table. No, you don’t usually clean up at restaurants — that’s what they have a staff for; however, if you’re dining at a restaurant without a printed children’s menu, that’s a sign that they’re not used to cleaning up children’s messes. It’s simply a kind and gracious thing to do. (Actually, it’s kind to do no matter where you’re dining.)
4. If your child becomes unruly and doesn’t quiet down, leave. I know you don’t want your meal to end. I know you’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. I have children. I’m where you are with my youngest. I get it.
But when we signed up for motherhood, we knew it would change everything. And it does, but only for a little while. So hold on; your days of dining freedom will be here again before you know it. In two winks, your little one(s) will already be older teens who can stay home without you. (My oldest is.) And when that day comes and you look back, you’ll see it came faster than you wanted.
You’d miss a hundred special dinners for just one more chance to tuck them into bed, say your prayers together, and read them to sleep.
(You can also hire or trade off babysitting with a friend and share that romantic dinner for two now. Remember, for you, the fancy restaurant is a treat. Your little ones would probably rather be at home with their toys, bed, favorite stuffed animals, a fun sitter, and some mac and cheese.)
5. For children five or older, you can brief them on what’s expected at the nice restaurant they’re going to tonight. Make it a big deal! Get them excited! Explain and even role-play what they’ll experience, how there won’t be a children’s menu, how there won’t be any coloring pages, how this is a grown-up restaurant, and how they’ll be dressed up and practicing their grown-up manners. You’ll be surprised sometimes as to how much they will rise to the occasion.
Our little ones truly want to please us, and they long for us to notice. Compliment your children on everything you see them doing right.
For your first time or two at a fine-dining restaurant, keep it short. Have an entree and call it a night. Your child’s attention span is only going to last so long, and you want the evening to end on a good note.
Next time you go, add on a salad or some dessert. Then the next time, add appetizers. In this way you build up their endurance for good restaurant manners. Don’t start them out with a marathon 90-minute meal.
(In my book, Manners That Matter for Moms, I share eight ways to teach kind interactions without becoming the etiquette police and show you how to introduce and teach dining skills and table manners that make doing all these things fun for your children so that they are gracious and patient at any restaurant.)
What Do You Think?
Should we ban children from restaurants, or should parents raise their children properly and make sure they’re behaving in such a way that they’re not disrupting the patrons or making a mess of the place? And if the children misbehave, should the parents take them and leave, or should they have the attitude of “Get used to it. He’s a kid!” and stay? Join in polite conversation in our private Facebook group for blog subscribers only. (Search “Maralee McKee’s Family Room Fellowship” on Facebook.
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Until next week, may your days be richly blessed!