Last night we went out to dinner at a low-key sports bar/restaurant. As we ordered, a family appeared: an extraordinarily pregnant mother, a father, grandparents and what appeared to be twins about three years old. One was wailing on the way in, and later there was whining, running around, jumping on the banquette seats, and a loud war over the crayons provided by the waitress. Their seating arrangement seemed odd to me, in terms of small-child wrangling; mom, dad and grandpa sat at one table leaving grandma and the kids in a booth. Mom’s back was to her progeny, and dad seemed to be surrounded by some manner of invisible barrier that prevented him from seeing, hearing, or jumping up to give grandma a much needed assist.
I love children. My niece and nephews believe that I am a child because I am not very grown up, and I count several people under the age of ten among my dearest friends. I have also been the mother of a young child, as the result of which I feel deep compassion for anyone whose infant decompensates in the middle of grocery shopping or whose toddler kicks and wails while boarding a plane. I have been that mother. Babies and toddlers are not yet responsible for their actions, and if a parent has made sure that no one is wet, hungry, or missing a nap they have done the best that they can. I do not cherish the idea of a peaceful, sanitized landscape in which children are banned because they bother people.
However, and this is a big however, children need to be taught manners, including restaurant manners, and three is old enough. (Actually, two is old enough to start). Sure, you can get takeout when you just need dinner in a hurry, but if you never take your child into a real, non-fast-food restaurant and talk about what’s expected, they tend to scream, cry and jump on seats if they are already so inclined. It is your job, as a parent, to teach them, even if it cuts into your dining pleasure.
I remember being expected to sit at restaurant tables for seemingly endless periods while the grownups drank coffee and talked; we learned early on to sit quietly, amuse ourselves and be civilized. Both my brother and I were, at least once, removed by a parent and taken to sit in the car because we were loud, hysterical or otherwise massively annoying. Note, here, that my parents realized the necessity of taking one for the team so that a restaurant full of innocent people could be saved.
I also remember teaching my son about restaurant dining. First, we made sure that he was well-rested, and that we had an ample supply of diapers, snacks and small diversions. If we knew he was teething, hadn’t napped or was otherwise incapable of being charming we stayed home. When he was good to go, we started lessons about staying in ones’ seat, not throwing things, and the necessity of going immediately outside if there was audible whining or complaining. As he got older we taught him to ask the waitperson politely for what he wanted to eat, and that if he made a mess of straw papers and crumbs that some nice person had to clean up after him. We also spoke often about the fact that whining, crying, screaming and other kinds of carrying on were very unkind to all of the other people who wanted to talk quietly and eat their food. The hardest times, actually, involved the lure of other children who were behaving badly. On those occasions we had to hold the line and explain that those weren’t “bad” kids, but that what they were doing was not what we chose to do, and that it was very sad that they were bothering people.
You know what? It worked. It was tough. My husband and I each missed out on some things, we picked up a lot of crumbs and wrappers, and we had to forego our own conversational whims in order to focus on the task of teaching good restaurant behavior, but it worked. By the time he was four or five Sam was regularly receiving compliments for ordering in an adult way and being polite to (sadly) astonished waitpersons. He was still a little boy, and there was no mistaking him for Lord Fauntleroy, but he was civilized and we were proud of him. I would add that I know many other children who are more than capable of behaving nicely in a restaurant, and in every case it is because someone made the effort to teach them that there are other people in the world and that it is necessary and kind to think of their welfare and happiness.
So in closing, I exhort the young parents of the world as follows: please bring your children out to restaurants so that we may all admire and be energized by their beauty and vitality. Also, please use the experience of dining in public as an opportunity to teach first lessons about self-control, consideration of others, and the swift reality of consequences for uncivilized behavior. If you bring your kids out when they are exhausted, cranky, or undisciplined, and you allow them to ruin dinner for thirty other people so that you can relax and have a burger while they scream and run wild, it is not your children who deserve the glares, whispers and head shakes. It’s you, and you can totally do better.