Up until recently, I've prided myself on my 2 1/2-year old son's ability to go out to eat in restaurants. We take him out on a regular basis to the same places, and he does reasonably well: draws on the paper placement with crayons and/or plays with toy cars while we wait for food (we choose casual places with fast service, and we tend to eat early). He usually devours his meal and then generally needs a run around outside (one of us takes him out). It's familiar and fun.
However, we recently traveled and ate out with other people and he was quite a handful at two of the three restaurants we went to while we were away. He sobbed uncontrollably, threw food on the ground, crawled on the floor, ran away from our table (note to self: avoid restaurants without high chairs, or bring stroller to entrap him), and ended up with food all over his pants.
Maybe he's just going through a stage, but I'd like to know what I can do to discourage this behavior. I took him out of each place every time he acted inappropriately, and let him run around, but we ended up mostly eating at home during the trip. While that was fine for a visit with relatives, it just doesn't jive with our lifestyle at home (we live in a big city), and it may not work on future vacations, either.
We recently had similar problems at a meal out with friends who have an older child. Their kid is generally well behaved, and much older, so I felt my son was the instigator of all kinds of bad behavior. The waiter actually gave me a sideways glance! How can I gently teach my son to eat out with others without alienating the staff at every joint in town? Or do I just give up on the wild boy and resign myself to camping vacations and take out at home when we want to have a get together?
Sincerely, Dining With Toddler
Dear Dining With Toddler,
I am reminded of a dinner out with a colleague when my son was three and her daughter was almost two. My son was used to restaurants and generally okay in them; he sat at the table through dinner, doing some drawing, and when he got a bit fidgety I brought him back to look in the open kitchen for a bit on our way to the bathroom. Her daughter pushed her stroller around the place, threw bread at her father, and was generally a poster child for the no-kids-in-restaurants crew. The next morning at work my colleague complimented my son's behavior and said, "I'll have to get some tips from you when she's older."
I tell this story not to brag—my son has definitely had his moments of embarrassing behavior in public—but to point out the mindset all too many parents have on the subject of manners: that they are something for later or for older children. I clearly do not agree.
We learn by doing and children learn best with consistent reinforcement. And manners are manners, no matter what. Children don't know them yet, so we have to teach them. Dining With Toddler, it sounds like you're on the right track. I think your problem is that most kids have a stage during those toddler and pre-school years when they are less delightful, less reasonable, and less suited to public dining than at any other time in their lives. And you, my dear, are in that stage.
I'm sure many readers would declare that you should keep that rugrat at home until he's 18. I am not such a person. I am concerned with the creation of future well-mannered diners, so I'm a fan of bringing kids to restaurants—with, of course, a few guidelines. It sounds like you're following them, but just to review for everyone:
- Take kids to appropriate places. Can I be more specific? Nope. What place is appropriate for your kid(s) is going to depend on their manners, behavior, palate, etc. Some quite young children are fine at high-end restaurants. Most young children, however, are going to be better off at casual, family-friendly places where service is quick, crayons are included, and no one is expecting whisper-perfect quiet. Does this mean you don't always get to eat exactly where you want because your kids are "going through a stage"? It may. Parenting involves many such sacrifices. Not to worry: if you follow the items here you can hopefully minimize that stage and get back to your dining life.
- No special rules. The same rules that apply to you apply to your kids. Would you wander between the tables? Make faces at fellow diners? Throw food? Yes, yes, I know some of you will say that you want to, but would you? No. And that's because you have some manners. Kids need to follow these same rules in order to learn those same rules. Not later, as my colleague seemed to think. (One exception: drawing at the table or playing with a small, non-noise-making toy.) An exception many people make but makes me extremely sad: screens at the table. I understand the temptation, I truly do, and all of us with kids have been there where we just need to hand over the electronic babysitter and talk to our friend. As a rule or habit, though, it teaches children dreadful manners and doesn't give them the chance to learn how to participate in conversation or develop the ability to entertain themselves. You don't end up with a teenager capable of talking to grown-ups at dinner if you've just handed them your phone at every restaurant meal for thirteen years.
- Enforce the rules. If it's okay to throw the Cheerio on the floor, why not the bowl of soup? No need to yell or make a scene, but teaching kids manners involves calm (and extremely boring) repetition. Over and over again: use a fork, keep your mouth closed when chewing, say thank you, speak in an indoor voice, etc. etc.
- Take them outside. Even at boisterous family places, no one wants to hear your baby cry or your kid have a tantrum. When that happens, you take the child out of the restaurant. The change of scenery tends calms a baby down and it gives a young kid a chance to recalibrate. Some meals may need to be cut short, packed up, and toted home. The essence of etiquette is to avoid infringing on others. Think of these circumstances as an opportunity to model that for your children.
- Same rules at home. This one is optional, but I highly recommend it. I've heard of families where they have a "restaurant night" to "practice." Maybe for little kids that really haven't been out this could be good, and if it works for people, more power to them. I've always found, however, that it makes a lot of sense to just teach kids manners for meals at home, too.
I'm also going to throw this out there: more kids at the table equals more possibility for restaurant behavior meltdown (and here I'm mainly talking about kids from different families who aren't used to eating together). This usually happens because the parents are socializing. The focus of the meal then tends to be on adult interaction and most of us, when sitting with our friends, would rather hear what they're up to and cut the kids some slack. Knowing about this possible dynamic ahead of time can help mitigate it. Choosing a restaurant that is particularly geared towards families and coming armed with conversation everyone can enjoy (various road trip-type games tend to work well while waiting for food) and a reasonable timeline can help make these meals as enjoyable for everyone as possible, including the people at the next table.
How about you, readers? I know this topic can bring out some passionate opinions—any tips for Dining With Toddler?
More Manner Matters
- How to Split a Check
- Don't Cook at My Dinner Party!
- Hands off My Cake
- Hosting 101
- The Knife-and-Fork Of It
- Playing the Dating Game
- Bread and Butter Basics
- Crack Open That Bottle
- Birthday Bill Blues
- Dealing with Dietary Demands
Manner Matters runs every week and we're looking for questions. Do you have a dining-related pickle (and not the delicious kind that indicates you are in a good deli)? Email [email protected] to submit your question. All questions will be read. Unfortunately, not all can be answered.
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.