Thursday May 17 2012 1115 am
A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, a tired traveler–probably a merchant of some sort–desired his evening meal. He made camp and scrounged some bits of bread and the last of the dried fruit from the meager provisions in the saddlebags of his donkey or camel, then settled down for the night by the side of the road. The next morning, he continued on his way.
That evening, another traveler needed a meal. The following evening brought yet another traveler, and so on, until some local resident observing this parade of bedraggled, hungry nomads said, “There is opportunity here.” He and his wife began to prepare food and offer it to passing travelers in the evenings for a price. This endeavor went well for a time, and the local resident and his wife were pleased.
Then one evening, another local, a woman with four children, all under the age of six, delivered a beating to child number three, who had just fed the goat-and-date stew the woman had spent all afternoon preparing to another goat. (The Division of Child and Family Services had not yet been invented, and this form of discipline was the norm.) The child cried but was not remorseful, and the woman was left with no dinner to feed her family. So the woman rounded up her entire brood and took them to the restaurant for travelers for their evening meal.
At this point, you know what happened, for this part of the story is eternal. The children climbed the wall hangings, spit into the hair of weary travelers, stole other patrons’ olives without asking and generally exhibited behavior every single human being has witnessed at one time or another. Thus was the first restaurant dining experience ruined for adults by children, and so it has continued through the ages.
Periodically, news stories rise to the top of media streams about this restaurant or that one proposing to ban crying or unruly children. A part of me gets this–the part of me that has levitated two inches when the high-pitched voice of a child not my own suddenly broadcasts directly into my ear canal, “HI! I’M MATTY!”
But I can also tell you that I have refused to patronize a restaurant for its blanket policy against young children. Not long after moving to New Hampshire, we discovered a semi-fancy Korean-themed restaurant in the small city about twenty minutes’ drive from our house. Korean food–Korean anything–is tough to come by where we live, so this was a significant discovery in our quest to incorporate a little Korean culture into our lives. But our excitement at the restaurant in our midst turned to dismay when we read the sign posted in the restaurant window:
“Children under the age of 6 are not welcome in this establishment.”
I understood the management’s rationale in establishing its policy. But that sign turned my family away before I even had a chance to consider whether my child was capable of handling the dining experience.
The restaurant closed before “Emmie” turned six. We never tasted its food, and I’ll confess I didn’t mourn its disappearance for very long.
I can hear your thoughts now: So which is it? In the great restaurant debate, are you for kids in restaurants, or against them?
Here is my answer: Kids are people and should be welcomed in restaurants, BUT, parents, it’s up to YOU to exercise discretion and responsibility. (Although restaurants can help by investing in crayons and some coloring and/or activity sheets. One Italian restaurant I know provides pizza dough for kids to play with until the food arrives. Sheer brilliance.)
What we need here are a few ground rules:
- If your child cannot be seen in public without screaming, a restaurant is not for him. Believe me, I know how hard this is. This was my son for most of the first year of his life. We became near-hermits, and we desperately missed mixing with people. But it wouldn’t have been fair to make others suffer our son’s frequent bouts of screaming.
- If your child, like many toddlers, preschoolers and other young children, can’t sit still for more than a few minutes, needs constant entertainment, can’t keep food on her plate, etc., fine dining is not for her. Even if you don’t mind spending $20 or more for a meal that ends up mostly on the floor (and I don’t understand why you would do that, but that’s just me), please understand that the other diners are paying not just for their food, but for the experience. And that experience doesn’t include your unruly child.
- However, there is an entire industry of family restaurants in this country that would love to have your business. Here is where I part ways with people who say that kids don’t belong in restaurants. Yes, I know that some people do go out for quiet meals at the Olive Garden or Chili’s, but I think these chains make it clear that they cater to families. As long as you’re not sitting in the bar (note to hosts: please stop seating families with young children in the bar when there are other tables available), people should expect to see families with children. And those children will not act as though they’ve just come from graduation at Miss Manners’s Finishing School.
- However, part of the point of dining out at these family establishments is to teach kids how to act in public. Parents, I know: it’s the end of the week. You’re tired, you’re cranky, you’re overworked. That’s why you’re out instead of cooking. But you’ve still got to parent. It is not okay to let your kids climb over the backs of the booths into the neighboring family’s. It is not okay to let your children crawl around under the tables. It is not okay to let them shriek without end and decide you’re going to ignore it, because you don’t have the right to make that decision for everyone in the restaurant. Bring some quiet drawing activities, play conversational dinner games, take the kids outside if necessary–but do something. If none of your strategies work, don’t come back for a while, and make sure your kids know that they can’t go out to dinner again until they learn to behave better.
At some point, we all want our children to turn into human beings mature enough for any social situation. But they’re not going to get there on their own. We need to guide them, and part of that experience is teaching them how to interact in a restaurant setting.
Just be considerate of your fellow diners in the process and keep your children off the wall hangings.