By Cheri Rae
There have been a couple of recent national-news cases of hungry toddlers acting up in restaurants, and the reactions of adults on the scene. Both kids cried, fussed and threw the kind of tantrums that only two-year-olds can throw.
In the incident at a busy diner in Maine, the owner was so unnerved at the child’s disruptive behavior during the long wait—and the parents’ failure to remove her from the scene—that she finally yelled at the out-of-control little girl. The mother later posted about the incident on Facebook, and in the Washington Post, and millions have weighed in on social media, supporting one side or the other.
In the incident at a crowded fish house in North Carolina, once the little boy melted down, his mom took him right outside to calm him down; when she returned to the crowded restaurant, he started up again, and this time the dad took the boy out to the car, leaving mom to settle the bill and usher the other kids out. But the waiter delivered the unexpected news: another diner, who had witnessed the incident—had already paid the $86 bill.
Two very different ways of responding to a universal issue: one that escalated the situation, one that calmed it down.
Oh, did this bring back a particularly cringe-worthy memory in my own parenting: It was a long-ago Christmas open house for Santa Barbara Magazine, put on by a new publisher from out of town who had proudly just purchased a beautiful historic home in El Caserio. The place was filled with nice things—and adults—and it was clear from the horrified look on our gracious host as we entered with our little darling one-year-old in our arms that she was not a welcome guest.
After a few uncomfortable minutes, my husband and I exchanged the look—like what the heck were we thinking?. We hastily said our goodbyes and got of there fast, before our parenting faux-pas got any worse.
That incident instantly raised our consciousness from clueless to careful, and we quickly established some rules about how not to be “those parents” ever again. We never wanted to struggle with a potentially squirmy kid while disapproving onlookers shook their heads. Thinking of how we felt when encountering out-of-control children in restaurants, we came up with some simple guidelines:
- Stay Away: Do not take a baby or a toddler to a nice and or expensive restaurant—stick to family places, pizza parlors, even quality fast-food joints. No one wants to hear or look at a fussy kid. Especially anyone who is spending a lot of money for a quiet time in the presence of adult company (many who are away from their own kids), and likely paying top dollar for a babysitter.
EXCEPTION TO THE RULE: If you must attend a special event due to family obligations—and cannot get out of it—then be prepared to leave that restaurant at a moment’s notice if your little one begins to act up. And do not complain about it.
Case Study: On Mother’s Day, my in-laws insisted that we attend a family brunch at a packed-full fancy French restaurant, Beau Rivage in Malibu. My darling toddler behaved adorably long enough for the family to exchange hugs and kisses, and coo over her cute little outfit and bright smile. Then she began to squirm in my lap in that way that I knew was the point of no return. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking her around and hanging out with the valet. It was fine: We walked around, I had plenty of snacks that kept her going, and she finally fell asleep in my arms—and the rest of the family and the patrons in the restaurant enjoyed their Mother’s Day celebration. And so did my daughter and I.
- Plan Ahead: Little children have an uncanny ability to meet the level of noise and chaos in a large, crowded room. Plan accordingly and time your visit to a restaurant to mostly “off” hours, certainly not during a rush time for breakfast, lunch or dinner, no matter how casual the place.
Case Study: The children who made the national news for their bad behavior may have had more tolerance for the situation if their parents had brought them there before or after the big rush hours, or even occupied and fed their tired, hungry and overwhelmed little ones with snacks from home. Be good scouts and be prepared—even if that means leaving sooner than you wanted to, packing the food in a to go container, or having mom or dad take the fussy one for a walk or a wait in the car.
- Teach your Children Well: Children need to learn how to behave in a restaurant, so they need some practice. We took our daughter to the local Red Robin (now the site of the upscale Marmalade) about once a week when she was between two- and four-years-old. As she began to understand how to behave appropriately, we expanded our horizons, and took her to better places, including Harry’s, where Alex the long-ago bartender prepared Shirley Temples garnished with extra fruit. She learned from positive reinforcement that it was fun to go out for a meal.
Case Study: When visiting my sister in the Bay Area, she insisted on treating us to dinner at the Chez Panisse Café, a more casual version upstairs from Alice Waters’ acclaimed restaurant. We deliberated over our five-year-old’s ability to cope, and based on several positive experiences with her, decided to give it a go. She was amazing! She loved the food, the funky ambience, and the way the waiters fussed over her. She even ordered her own personal pizza (wood-fired, of course) and politely inquired about how long it might take. It was one of those special moments in parenting when we felt we might have got it right!
Remember, unlike adults who like to linger over a meal and socialize with their dinner companions, little kids don’t. They want to eat—immediately—when they’re hungry, and then get up to do something else when they’re done. They might be persuaded to look at a book or play with a small toy or phone (something we didn’t have when this parenting journey began) while they’re waiting for Mom and Dad to finish, but a half-hour to them is a long time. An hour is beyond their ability to manage.
Be proactive parents: everyone in the dining room will thank you. And be patient, it takes time and effort, but it’s better than making the national news!