Raising a Kid With Restaurant Manners (and Managing Behavior Expectations, too)
Bit of an odd one for you, but I’ve long since promised myself not to spend a lifetime divining what is true from Google and to trust your advice blog instead.
It’s about going out for food. My 21/22 month old boy and going out to eat to be exact. What should I expect from him at this age in the sitting down and not needing to do (accompanied) laps of the restaurant/pub garden for most of the meal, if I’m trying to teach him to be one of those kids who you can actually take out for food without turning the place into a zoo? What can I do to help him, especially as he grows up, so that he’s able to sit and have a semi-civilized meal complete with coloring books by age 5-slash-25?
He’s pretty well-behaved, as in he eats well and he can generally play with some of the toys we bring for him (like putting pom poms in a bottle), he doesn’t screech, but once he’s done with his food he is DONE. He wants to get down, and no amount of fun distractions or asking firmly will help, only trigger actual screaming (same at home, he doesn’t want to be in the high chair or stationary at all once he’s done with food). We don’t live in the states, so family friendly restaurants are not common, and there are some times when it can’t be avoided (family birthdays etc). It’s worse as he’s the only child of an only child of the only child-bearing child so there’s no-one to compare him to or hide behind. Do we just wait it out until he’s older and grin and bear the few times we need to get indigestion at a pub lunch? Help much appreciated!
Not an odd one at all! Babies/toddlers/kids in restaurants can be pretty hot-to-divisive topic, so I’ll just lay my personal bias out there and say that we regularly take our children out to restaurants, and have since they were teeny tiny. And while we’ve certainly had a few restaurant outings go slightly south on us, for the most part we’ve had really excellent experiences and today our kids really, really love eating out at restaurants. They also fully understand though, that it’s a privilege and a treat, and they need to behave accordingly.
Restaurant behavior expectations for older kids
Our behavior expectations for them now, as older school-aged kids, are admittedly pretty high. You say please and thank you to the waitstaff, you stay in your seat, books/coloring/screens don’t come out until after we order and generally get put away when our food arrives, with the occasional exception. And yes, I will still yank someone outside for A Talk for anything disruptive or excessive whining (no, I’m sorry the Indian restaurant doesn’t serve hot dogs, order some chicken and get over it).
But all of that didn’t happen overnight, and of course I never held a two-year-old to a five-year-old’s standards. I did make sure that my two-year-old got regular exposure to eating out, and focused singularly on making it a pleasant experience for HIM. Which might mean I took most of my meal home in a doggie bag, but building on previous pleasant “restaurants are fun!” experiences was an important stepping stone to future pleasant experiences.
Restaurant behavior expectations for toddlers and younger kids
Right now, your son is too young to enjoy restaurants for most of the reasons we enjoy restaurants. Trying new/different foods tends to not exactly be a toddler’s jam, and since he already doesn’t have to cook or clean up, that convenience is kinda lost on them too. But he can learn to enjoy the social aspect, though at this age you will need to have a pretty realistic view on his attention span. So no, there isn’t a TON you can do with a toddler who wants out of his high chair and wants out NOW, other than doing whatever it takes to avoid screaming unhappiness. (And not just for his benefit; you definitely have a responsibility to your fellow diners to make sure THEIR experience is pleasant and scream-free.)
The key to a well-mannered kid in a restaurant is a kid who has regularly been taken to restaurants.
Restaurant strategies with toddlers
You can dole his food out slowly, alternate between eating and toys/entertainment, and take him out of the high chair for a walk while the adults are waiting for their food to arrive (so he’s not finishing his right when it’s time for everyone else to eat). I always had a special stash of “restaurant toys” that I swapped out every now and then, updated with new, high-interest items. (I’d buy a ton of inexpensive Matchbox cars so we’d always have a new one in a package to crack open — doubly great when I had a car-obsessed toddler and a plastic-packaging-loving baby). But I knew even the coolest toys in the world still only hold their attention for a short period and we would always end up spending part of our meal with a kid on our lap or walking around the restaurant looking at more exciting things like…the ceiling fans.
In time, he’ll learn more and more about How We Behave In Restaurants and also that Restaurants Can Be Fun
But overall, I think you should just keep doing what you’re doing, and rest easy that his attention span and ability to stay seated WILL increase with age. The key to a well-mannered kid in a restaurant is a kid who has regularly been taken to restaurants. Too many parents get too stressed out about it — what if he cries, what if he throws food? — and decide just to avoid eating out altogether. But like you said, it can’t always be avoided. Restaurants are a vital part of our social and family lives, and shouldn’t be off-limits to your child (also a vital part of your life).
So consider taking him out to eat more, but outside of the big family/social gatherings where your attention is pulled in multiple directions and you’re under more pressure to expect grown-up manners from a 22 month old. Take him out to eat with just you and your partner, so you can take turns keeping him fed and entertained while also reinforcing age-appropriate restaurant rules like using his inside voice, don’t throw food/toys, say hi to the waitstaff, etc. And then when he hits the wall of DONE, you can just leave without being embarrassed about leaving someone’s birthday. I promise, in time, he’ll learn more and more about How We Behave In Restaurants and also that Restaurants Can Be Fun. And with each positive (or even slightly) positive experience, you’ll feel more confident in your abilities to keep him wrangled and happy, and what to do when a behavior disaster does strike. (Outside for a quick cool-down? Distract with a diaper change? Pull out some secret stash of super amazing special treat food? Try ’em all out solo and see what works!)
Manage your own expectations
We’ve all been there, by the way. And as long as you’re not that parent who simply ignores their screaming child or lets him run around unaccompanied until a waiter trips and dumps a tray of cocktails everywhere, your fellow diners are going to be more understanding then you’d expect. (It’s like the baby on airplanes thing. We’re all actually rooting for you, save for a cranky asshole or two, and are willing to help out and be your temporary village.) I remember one dinner out at a fairly nice but still casual Italian restaurant where I literally spent the entire meal on edge and stressed out because I thought my toddler son was being too loud and annoying people. (We ate there all the time pre-kids but I just remembered the atmosphere being so much LOUDER. I was convinced we’d made a massive mistake and were ruining everyone’s meal.)
Near the end of the meal, the waiter brought over two glasses of wine from a nearby table and an offer of ice cream for our son, because of how well-behaved he’d been and how much they admired how we were interacting with him and blah blah good kid, good parents. It was amazing, and something we’ve done on occasion since to pay it forward, in honor of every parent trying their hardest to raise a kid who knows how to behave at a restaurant.
(And as a former server, there are way too many fully grown human beings who STILL have no idea.)