Like a micro-cyclone had hit, overturned cups, half-eaten scones, and tattered napkins littered the tabletop. Minor damage, compared to the half a loaf’s worth of crumbs mashed and scattered on the floor. The destruction–left by a mom and her brood-was captured and posted on Facebook by Rainy Days Caffe owner, Lorraine MacDuff.
Fed up with the noise and mess, and pressured by other disgruntled clients, some restaurants are finally pushing back; demanding parents control their children or asking them to leave. Some, like The Sushi Bar in Del Ray, Virginia do not allow children at all. Others, like La Fisheria, a Houston based restaurant owned by Mexican television celebrity chef Aquiles Chavez, have decided that children under the age of eight aren’t welcome after 7:00 pm. Restaurants across the country are following suit and unless more parents start controlling their children, more restaurants will-and should-exclude children.
Some parents today have decided they deserve a pass in restaurants and refuse to interrupt their enjoyment to discipline or remove misbehaving children. They expend little, if any effort to keep children quiet and seated, and many indulge their kids’ destructive behavior, willfully leaving the wreckage behind. Lunch at many restaurants is now a veritable romper room. At Spring Valley’s Pain Quotidian, I myself recently suffered through a trio of toddlers beating the table senseless with their forks and sippy cups, howling and shrieking to their hearts’ content while their mothers sat at the same table in blissful conversation with one another, oblivious to the obvious disgust of everyone else in the restaurant whose peace was upended.
What should the unwritten law of parenting and restaurants be? Of course, it depends on the type of dining facility; Chuck E. Cheese has a different expectation than Clyde’s. In any restaurant frequented more by adults than children, I propose the two-strike rule: scream once at a decibel level and pitch that would be annoying to an average non-parent, and you’ve been warned; a second time and you leave. Before venturing out, parents should clearly explain to their children that going to a restaurant is a privilege, outline their expectations, and consistently enforce the rules of eating in public by immediately reprimanding, redirecting, and if necessary, removing their child if he or she begins to create a mess or disturbance. Being removed from a restaurant once or twice is usually enough for most children to realize what’s at stake and modify their behavior.
Properly done, parenting is the world’s most difficult job. It requires consistency, focus, and an ability to work for not just delayed rewards, but also for rewards only reaped by others, such as a peaceful meal out. Of course, I have wanted to pretend that the screeching child in row 11 on United Airlines was not mine and bury my nose more deeply into my book. Some days, I was tempted to let him fling straws around Starbucks, and others, I wanted to scurry from a restaurant leaving the mess in my wake rather than endure the painful process of forcing him to clean up after himself.
Particularly in his toddlerhood, we had many miserable meals–standing on the sidewalk reviewing proper etiquette or leaving a restaurant before a meal was even delivered–but by five he had mastered the art of dining in public and now, as a pre-teen, he is an excellent mealtime companion in any environment. Undoubtedly, it was a painful process and our dining out was curtailed considerably in the early years. However, there are considerable long-term benefits to teaching children propriety in public spaces; and while I doubted it at the time, they easily eclipse the hardship of constant vigilance. Learning proper comportment in public may seem trivial, but provides a foundation for the more complex lessons to come pre-teen, teenage, and adult years. The young child who was properly instructed in restaurant etiquette–and by extension the importance of modulating their behavior in public– will be more adept as a guest at a friend’s house, an intern in a new job, a young college student embarking on largely unsupervised living.
Additionally, there is a ripple effect to rigorous parenting. When parents enact effective discipline other parents are more likely to follow suit. Children emulate the behavior of other well-behaved children. For those that don’t, the message of good conduct will be reinforced, rather than undermined. More than once, I noticed parents fingering us as an example, both as a deterrent when ill-behavior demanded removal and as an exemplar when he was behaving well.
Overwrought parents will be and have been quick to criticize restaurants limiting their children’s access and might resist stringent guidelines on dining discipline; many pointing to the herculean nature of their task. And I sympathize, deeply. Dining out with young children is extremely challenging. On those nights when it was simply too much to wrangle my son’s behavior, without compunction, I went with take out.