Aug 142013

After a hectic week, Saturday is date night. The kids  bunked with the grandparents, the Blackberry is off, and it is time for an elegant, sit-down dinner with your significant other —  the first meal in a week where you actually sit down.

The ambiance of the café shatters with a familiar sound from a table across the room.  Three-year-old Zoey feels confined in her high chair and shrieks in that high-pitched whine only a toddler can produce, the one that sounds like the flying dinosaurs from the Johnny Quest theme.

Should Zoey be there on a Saturday night? Should her parents leave? Should the also-stressed-out parents who want an elegant night out — away from the kids — complain or even leave?

In Houston, Texas, La Fisheria recently banned children under age nine after 7 p.m. after complaints from couples such as the one described above caused the owner to rethink children dining at his place in the evenings.

Do you take your children out to dinner?

As an empty nester without grandchildren, I appreciate a child-free meal out.  I am certainly not thrilled when we plan an evening out only to have ear-piercing screams and prolonged whining from a nearby table. (To be fair to children, that could be anybody, young or old.)

However, and here’s the big however, I wonder how children will  learn appropriate public behavior if they are not out in public.

I often see signs in restaurants that say “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” I hope they don’t mean children.

I don’t support the bans. Kids are just that, kids, and sometimes stuff happens. Any parent knows that sometimes a tired child will act out in unprovoked ways for no reason. How does the parent respond?

While I prefer my meals quiet and without chaos, I’m willing to put up with some noise  in public places just as people put up with my child in public places.

There is a caveat in my thinking. Parents need to take responsibility for their children. If a child is screaming her head off,  isn’t there a reason?  Maybe not, but doesn’t the parent have a responsibility to take the child to a quieter place?

Twenty years later, my husband and I cringe when someone talks about the old Opryland theme park in Nashville, Tenn., the scene of our child’s greatest fit. Sometimes kids get upset and nothing will comfort them. Our child had a major mega-fit when a ride he favored ended; we left the theme park and drove home. After two hours of mother-comfort, he settled down 30 minutes before we arrived home.

The other day we had breakfast in a place that typically attracts young families. I was thinking about this exact issue — children behaving badly  in public — when I noticed a waitress approach a table with a mom, dad and four children. The waitress was ready to take the order.  The children behaved perfectly, while their father stood talking on his cell phone, making the waitress and his family wait on him. Ironic that I was seeking an example of bad behavior from a child, and the dad was being  rude to the waitress.

Anecdotal, but it goes right back to my point. Children are children, and parents can use public space as  a teachable moment. A pancake restaurant is a great place to start; I’m not so sure Morton’s Steakhouse is such a great place for a four-year-old. If parents make the choice to take Junior to a place with white linen tablecloths and a pricey menu, I  hope they have the discretion and maturity to remove the child if he is causing a huge distraction for other diners. I also hope they tip well.

Of course, for a screaming two-year-old, there isn’t such a thing as a teachable moment, and the child may need to be taken to a quiet place with plenty of comfort from mom or dad.

For a child in elementary school, going to a formal restaurant presents a great teaching tool for parents. He can learn which fork to use, how to read a menu and appropriately order different courses, how to interact with wait staff, appropriate table talk, and the right way to approach and leave a table.  We used to call these “manners.”  These experiences with dining will serve him well his entire life, no matter the situations he encounters.

There are so many other public spaces that are wonderful training grounds for children, such as the public library, church or synagogue, athletic fields, theaters, and yes, even the grocery store.  Who hasn’t been in the produce section when a child has gone ballistic? Seriously, most children behave well in public, and need a chance to learn about living in the world.

Published August 14, 2013  on The Broad Side.  Please comment there.

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