Family Dining: Can’t take the kids anywhere?

Friends With Kids movie posterLast night I saw “Friends with Kids” with a couple of my “friends with kids” (“kids with dads”/ grandparents). This is the new film directed by and starring Jennifer Westfeldt with Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, and Kristin Wigg (not a comedienne is this one). In one scene the group of 6 co-ed friends is out at a fancy Manhattan restaurant, and they are complaining about the nearby party with the young misbehaving children. The banter goes something like this…”I hate those people.”… “Yeah, Who would bring toddlers to a place like this?”…”When we have kids we are keeping them at home…all the time.”

watch the trailer

Well, these “B.C” characters (Before Children) would likely support the new and controversial trend for fine dining restaurants to outlaw children under 6. Good idea? I mean, if you’re paying $50 a plate, you can probably afford a babysitter, right? Recently while washing dishes after dark (sounds like a home-maker porn film), I listened to the topic discussed by parents on a favorite NPR show, “Tell Me More”. Listen to “Can’t take the kids anywhere”. Some people argue that every kid is different.  Your 5-year-old son might be just a charming little Ralph Lauren model-child with perfect manners (and a sweater vest) who wants to go out and celebrate his acceptance into the finest, most elite parochial kindergarten program with filet mignon. OR he may be like my son, wearing his dinosaur t-shirt backwards with Christmas socks and sandals, celebrating the good news that he found 3 live worms while digging in the dirt this afternoon (evidenced by the grungy fingernails), and marking the celebration not with fine food and etiquette, but by doing an experiment with his jello and milk at Luby’s.

Just where is it appropriate to take your young children? Luby’s? Definitely. L’Ancestral? Maybe not. Is it okay for restaurants and companies to outlaw young children or should it be up to us parents to make the call and outlaw the bad behavior, instead? As far as I can tell, no Dallas restaurants have followed suit – yet. So, what do you think? MJ has been asking for a while to dine at the top of Reunion Tower, the spinning ball, here in Dallas. We have told him that he will need lots of good “table manner” practice at home and in cheaper restaurants, and that when he is older, we can do that for a special occasion – say, when he gets into law school or at least becomes an eagle scout! (I didn’t go to Reunion Tower till senior prom night, and my manners were still not fully developed!) In the mean time, I for one would definitely NOT enjoy an expensive dining experience with my children – I get uptight enough about their behavior at Applebee’s, barely noticing (or chewing) my own food! (I know, I need to relax…)

Can you take the kids anywhere these days? YES, unlike little “Blanket” Jackson, they definitely need practice being out in public – this is how they learn about the ways of society, how they fit into society, and societal etiquette. I remember as a young kid “raising the flag” at Pancho’s and learning the basics of eating out so that when I was a few years older, my little brother and I got to join Mom and Dad for their anniversary dinner at Lawry’s Prime Rib. We and our manners had arrived! But as for young children, you should NOT take them everywhere….”Society” will not appreciate it .  In case you’re wondering, here’s what “Mommy Manders” thinks…

Please, Don’t bring your children along to*:

  1. YOUR movies (when they should be at home in bed or with babysitter).
  2. YOUR mani/ pedi (On one of my first escapes as a new mom, I went to get a relaxing pedicure, looking forward to napping in the massage chair. But another mom was trying to do the same with her energetic 2-year-old running around! Of course, I knew it was not his fault, but his mom seemed totally unprepared to entertain him in this inappropriate setting, so I dug through my purse and pulled out a few tricks to try to engage him, but I resented the mom for changing the tone of my get-away.)
  3. YOUR date (or mine) at a fancy restaurant.
  4. Sit with you in first class on airplane. (But do be patient and understanding of us mommies and kids back in coach.)
  5. On your shopping spree. (I always feel sorry for children of any age who are forced to go with Mommy on her extended shopping adventures –  to the mall, to the Target dressing rooms. Their patience is quickly used up, and they rightfully get fussy, but there is Mom trying to hush or discipline them when she should have taken them to the park instead and done her shopping online or asked a friend to watch them.)

*(exception to all these rules: the sleeping, silent newborns – those were the good, ol’ days!)

Now, if you’re a mom of a child over 2, then you’ve definitely had the experience of being out with your child at an acceptable, child-freindly place when your child has not been acting restaurant-freindly. Perhaps they are both eating crumbs under the table, fighting over the red crayon, knocking over drinks, whining, crying, on and on…  and this imperfect experience can make you dread the next outing…can make you resort to mac and cheese, even nuggets and ketchup every night in the private, sound-proof confines of your own kitchen. But that gets old, the groceries run out, you run out of time and energy, and perhaps the last restaurant nightmare has faded away into the recesses of your sleepy, cloudy, multi-tasking mommy-brain, somewhere behind the lists of to-do’s and shouldn’t haves. So when you DO venture out to eat with the kids, here are some tips, gleaned from my own experience and misadventures:

1. Establish your “Restaurant Rules”. Slow down and be intentional about reminding your children of your expectations before you get out of the car, before you walk in the door. You can’t get mad at them for misbehaving if you haven’t taught them how to behave. (A good rule for all your parenting.)  Our “restaurant rules” are: good manners, inside voice, sit at the table, and eat your food (they are supposed to try a bite of everything on their plate). I usually assign the restaurant it’s own rule and say “This restaurant does not allow crying, screaming, or whining.” And I can remove an offender to a time-out in the car or on a bench if I follow the next tip…

2. Have a buddy. If you’ve got more than one small kid, have more than one helpful grown-up. If you’ve got more than one small kid, DON’T add a handicapped grandmother, as nice as the idea is. When Mimi (my grandmother) was living in Dallas, I occasionally picked her up with the kids to go out to eat. I vividly remember saying to myself one day at Jason’s Deli, “What was I thinking?” She did have a tag to get me into the coveted handicapped spot, but I needed it to come with a private butler/ babysitter. Not only was I carrying a tot and holding a 4-year-old’s hand on the sidewalk, but I was helping to escort her in with the walker. I was getting 3 people situated on cushions, in highchairs and booster seats. I was going back and forth to the salad bar for 3 people  – more crackers? more water? you want lemon? you dropped your spoon? you need more napkins? tell them the soup is too cold? (and trying to scarf down a few bites myself – definitely NOT getting my money’s worth).  Field trip to the bathroom, everyone. Mimi’s gotta go, Ellie’s got a poopy diaper, and MJ has ice cream in his hair! I only did this a couple of times before giving up on the idea. (Glad to say that Mimi and I got to enjoy a couple of quiet lunches out, just the two of us, before she died.)

3. Assign a child. I have realized that I can enjoy the whole experience more if I don’t feel responsible for correcting the behavior, being the manners police, offering the entertaining conversation and waiting games for BOTH children. So, before we go in, we make a game plan. You take the girl, I’ll take the boy. And it helps take the pressure off. If Ellie needs to take a walk, Dustin makes the call. And I get to stay at the table playing tic tac toe with Michael James. Sometimes this works better in theory than in practice, but the illusion of a “plan” helps. (Ummm – you people with 4-6 kids, I don’t know what to say – might be easier just to open your own family restaurant where anything goes!)

4. Order ASAP! At Chili’s recently, I ordered a side of broccoli as soon as we sat down, and that was our “healthy” appetizer. The waiter brought it with our waters, and when he did, I was ready with the rest of the order. (It’s usually true that a chewing mouth is a quiet mouth.) And we usually order 2 adult meals, ask for a couple of extra plates, and share with the kids. (We expect them to eat the same healthy food that we do. We still give them a choice like, would you rather have the salmon or chicken? But the kids’ menus are just for coloring.)

5. Have some tricks up your sleeve (and in your purse)…Stay tuned for my upcoming posts on table-top games and toys…

6. Be nice to the waiter and leave a big tip. If you’re like us, you will be a little high-maintenance, asking for more napkins, dropping a fork and needing another, spilling a milk, etc. And you will leave quite a mess!

7. And finally, don’t expect TOO much. Know your kids, know their moods, know their needs, know their limits, and don’t set them (and everyone else around them, including yourself) up for disaster. Choose wisely, and then don’t expect it to go perfectly.

Stay tuned for my upcoming posts on our favorite family-friendly dining spots and more…