Tuesday, June 21, 2005

How do I get my kids to behave in a restaurant?

This is such a common question asked of me by parents. Usually, by parents of toddlers (ages 1-3 ish). My question in return is usually "Why do they need to behave in restaurants?"

Toddlers have a very short attention span. They love novelty, activity, explanations about the things they see. They want to touch and see everything that catches their interest, then move on. I'd say that whole process takes about 2 minutes. Toddlers like food that is easy for them to eat, that is tasty to them, and not much of it most days. I'm always amazed at the tiny amount of food toddlers can survive on! There are days they might eat two bites of toast, and the next eat two hot dogs plus three meals. You just never know.

In contrast, sitting down to a restaurant meal entails, well, sitting. Have you noticed your toddler hates to sit still? Also, they're being asked to be quiet. Have you noticed your toddler being voluntarily quiet much, except when sleeping? Add to this toddler-unfriendly expectation new food, new surroundings they aren't allowed to explore, new people they can't talk with, or who are scary... Why do you think that should be something your toddler should enjoy? Developmentally, it's just bad timing.

I went out to thai food just last night. Two booths away from myself and my mom was a family of 4, mom, dad, a two year old in a high chair and an infant. As we were seated, the toddler was and apparently, been enjoying his right to say "no" and doing so loudly. He was screaming every few seconds in response to what mom and dad were telling him to do. As I glanced over, I saw dad put his hand over the toddler's mouth to shush him and told him that if he yelled, he'd get his book taken away and he wouldn't be able to watch "blues clues". Ouch. In light of what I wrote above, can you see the issues at hand?

1)Toddler was done sitting, so was agitated and not having any fun.
2)Toddler was expressing himself, only to be shushed.
3)He was being told to eat food he didn't want - he said "no" clearly, and they still tried to make him eat it. This is such a bad idea, parents!
4)Dad was using threats to try and make him behave. Threats are the most useless, non-respectful thing you can do as a parent. Please, if you say you're going to do something, you'd better be willing to follow through and do it! Your child needs you to be predictable. Also, that method of parenting doesn't generally get any results at all out of toddlers besides defiance.

When going out to meals with toddlers, choose noisy places where food is fast, yummy and toddler accessible. Getting up and running around should be an option. Even better? Get take-out and have a picnic. When your toddler (more likely, 4 year old and older) requests going out to a restaurant, that is when it's developmentally appropriate to start teaching restaurant behavior. Even better, start at home where you can make meals more like a restuarant setting (play make-believe) and they can practice. Don't expect them to learn in one experience! Repetition is the key to successful learning.


At 2:59 PM, Blogger DM said...

THANK YOU!!! There are so many times I have seen young children in really nice restaurants and asked, why? The kids seem miserable, the parents seem miserable and quite frankly people who are paying extra to eat a good meal seem miserable.

What I appreciate most in your advice is AVOID THE SETUP! Too often it seems we are expecting things from our children that they, developmentally, cannot do! What a bummer!

Love this site!!!

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Renee Stewart said...

Hi, Schyler,

I know about a parent with a nine month old who uses time-outs when their baby gets to close to unprotected outlets or electronc equipment they don't want touched. They say "no" and when the baby does not back-off, they pick him up and put him an empty crib for a few minutes.

This doesn't seem right to me.
What is you opinion about time-out for children less than 18 months old?


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