January 11, 2010

"Casual Dining" Does Not Mean Parents Can Ignore Children

This issue is fresh in my mind tonight because of an incident I witnessed recently.  I was waiting at a casual dining restaurant with my husband for an old friend to arrive for a lunch date.  I would have liked to enjoy my husband's conversation until my friend arrived, but this was rendered impossible by the child at the table next to mine.

She looked to be 4 years-old.  And she refused to sit still.  She was not running around, not throwing things, nothing quite so blatant; she was writhing on her chair.  One moment sitting on her bottom and leaning far to the side, the next laying across the seat on her belly, then kneeling and facing all different directions.  She was constantly in motion, and somehow, it was more annoying than if she had been walking around.

And what were the adults doing about it?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Two couples, who looked to be her parents and grandparents, sat and chatted, ignoring her completely.  The grandmother made one half-hearted attempt to set her on her bottom in the chair, but nothing further was done.

The girl kept up her continuous motion for a solid twenty minutes.  Then, the inevitable happened: she fell off the chair.  Ahhh, I thought, here it is.  Now she'll get the mild scolding she deserves.

But no.  Instead her mother turned and gasped, comforting her: "Oh, sweetie, are you ok?  Aww, poor thing.  Did you hit your head?  Did you hit your head, sweetie?"  The little one, red faced with embarrassment at the fall, hopped back in her chair, hopefully having learned on her own the lesson that her parents refused to teach her.  The adults then returned to their conversation, ignoring the girl again.

After witnessing such a frustrating scene, here are my tips to parents who are taking their little ones out:

  • Adult conversation is not entertainment for a small child.  The first mistake these parents made was taking this child to a sit-down restaurant without any consideration for keeping her amused.  Is there any other circumstance when parents expect their four year-old to sit still for an hour or more with nothing to do but listen to grown-ups talk?  Bring picture books, crayons (if your child can keep her art on the paper), or a few toys (no small parts to lose under the table, please).  
  • Engage the child.  Does this mean you have to talk constantly with your little ones or put on a show to keep them happy and quiet?  Absolutely not.  Just don't go a whole meal sitting next to your child and ignoring them!  It shows respect and consideration for the child if you occasionally address a few words to them.  The best way to teach a child about respect and kindness is to show it to them.  Be a good model.  
  • Be clear about behavior expectations before you go out.  With little ones who haven't yet been out to eat much, a reminder of the rules isn't out of order.  Discuss briefly what your expectations are; keep your conversation short, sweet and up-beat, no lecturing.  And keep your expectations reasonable for your child's age and energy level.  
  • Address behavior issues immediately.  The longer a child persists in an inappropriate behavior, the greater the problem becomes:  she thinks it's ok, you get angrier and other restaurant patrons get more annoyed.  As soon as you seen your child beginning to fidget, for example, distract her with a book or game.  If she continues the inappropriate behavior, give her a warning.  If she still won't stop, excuse yourself to the car with the offending child for a time out.  By having such a set procedure in place, you teach your child that being out in public does not mean you won't enforce the rules.  
  • If necessary, take the child home.  No parent wants their evening out to be ruined by having to take their misbehaving child home, but that's exactly what must be done.  Going out to eat is a privilege, not a right, and the child must understand that.  If the child knows you'll let her get away with anything just to have a decent meal you didn't have to cook yourself, she'll walk all over you.  But if she knows you won't tolerate poor behavior when out, she'll be more likely to behave.  

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